Paul Davies still remembers the "huge twang" of his neck breaking.

He was newly married and looking forward to a long career in the army when everything changed with one collapsed rugby scrum. In a single moment, the future he had mapped out became impossible.

Since that day in October 1983, Paul has grown from a self-professed "horrible person" to a loving father and respected wheelchair rugby player and manager, receiving an MBE for his services to the sport.

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The 59-year-old from Bargoed has spoken to WalesOnline about the bleakness of his early years of semi-paralysis and how a plate-throwing tantrum helped him find hope again.

Paul — whose inspiring life story is told in new autobiography The Long Road Back — had always dreamed of being in the army. He left school at 16 for military academy. At 18 he was serving in Troubles-era Northern Ireland.

He describes his six months in Belfast as "constant rioting, petrol bombing and shooting". Twice he was narrowly missed by bullets, but he finished his 1981 tour unscathed. It would not be a gun but the game he loved which would leave him with a life-changing injury.

"From an early age I'd played rugby for my school," said Paul. "When I joined the army I did boxing and rugby. Sport was a huge part of my life."

Paul met the love of his life Lorraine — the daughter of a fellow serviceman — while posted in Germany. They married in 1982 and lived in army quarters in Warminster, where Paul's role was to help train regiments.

Paul and Lorraine Davies
Paul and Lorraine Davies on their wedding day

He was playing rugby for his regiment in Warminster when disaster struck. Normally a flanker, he was moved to prop for this game. When a scrum collapsed, he dislocated his spine, crushing his spinal cord and breaking his neck.

"I was just there at the wrong time. The scrum slipped because the ground was wet. The opposition prop landed on top of me. I was at the bottom of the pile.

"It was like a guitar string going off, like a huge twang. I had a weird sensation of my body floating up above me just for a brief moment. I lay on the floor face down and couldn't move. I remember everything. Nobody moved me and the soldiers kept talking to me to keep me awake.

"An ambulance came and took me to Salisbury General Hospital. I didn't feel any pain at all, probably because I was already paralysed. I didn't have a clue how bad it was. I just knew I couldn't move anything below my head."

Paul, who was barely in his 20s, remembers asking a surgeon if he would walk again and being told he would not.

"Although I was awake it was like a parallel universe. They put me under anaesthetic and pulled the spinal cord back in.

"They wanted me nearer my family for support, so a few hours after the accident they transported me to Cardiff Royal Infirmary. They were going to helicopter me but it was too unstable for my neck so they took me in a normal ambulance and stopped traffic on the Severn Bridge.

"They attached a neck brace with weights to hold my head into place. That did hurt because they drilled holes into my skull and attached heavy weights to keep the neck straight.

Paul was bedbound until his neck stabilised. After the first month, he was transferred to Cardiff's Rookwood spinal hospital. It was six months before his neck brace was removed. He regained mobility in his arms and could push himself in a wheelchair, but remained paralysed from the chest down.

"Lorraine was used to me having bumps and scrapes as a soldier, so when two guys knocked on the door to tell her about the accident, she assumed I would come home the day after," Paul added.

"It was an unknown time. I was more worried for my wife and what would happen in the future. We hadn't been married a year and we were in army quarters, so we didn't have anything of our own. I was thinking of our security. She was more concerned with keeping my spirits up.

Paul Davies MBE
Retired wheelchair rugby star Paul Davies MBE

"I went from being a fit active soldier and living the dream to lying on the bed unable to move at all. Rookwood was like being in a cocoon. You're safe with doctors around you. Until you leave the hospital and start living in the real world you don't realise what's happening."

Paul and Lorraine did not have so much as a plate or cup to their name. They moved into his parents' home in Bargoed, where Paul lost sight of the man he wanted to be.

"I didn't realise it but I was a horrible person," he said. "I would throw my food, go off in tantrums and strops. I hadn't learned to be patient.

"I couldn't do things and people couldn't do them for me as fast as I wanted them to. It could be any little thing. I'd be frustrated at my wife cutting my food up for me, or if someone couldn't turn the telly over quick enough, I would explode into a rage.

"My mother is a typical Valleys woman who didn't take any rubbish from me. It was her who brought me out of it. We went on a family holiday in 1985 to the Isle of Wight. It was my first holiday after the accident."

Paul started to have one of his "strops", throwing crockery in the chalet — and to his surprise his mother joined in.

"She stood toe to toe with me saying, 'Carry on, I've got all day.' She was giving me cups to throw, giving me the ammo and I was throwing it. It carried on for half an hour and I ended up laughing. I think it was just the stupidity of it — why am I doing this, you know?

"I realised it was petty and that I could still make something out of this life. We weren't bothered about the repair bill. It was just a revelation, like jumping a hurdle."

Paul went to College Ystrad Mynach for an office management course and passed top of his class. But the lack of disabled access in the '80s prevented him finding a job.

He and Lorraine became parents to Matthew, now 33, and Aaron, 27. Paul had come out of his depression and settled into family life but something was missing.

"Those were my wilderness years," he said. "It was frustrating, so I had to look for things to do to keep my mind and body up."

Then a chance meeting in 1989 changed everything. Lorraine was working at the Carrefour supermarket in Caerphilly — now an Asda — and bumped into Keith Jones, a customer in a wheelchair.

"She chased after him because he had a lightweight titanium wheelchair and she wondered where he'd got it. The chair the Government had given me was an old heavy metal thing, like pushing a tank."

Keith told Lorraine he would be holding a wheelchair rugby demonstration in Cardiff's Sophia Gardens. Paul went along and was "hooked straight away".

"Wheelchair rugby is on a basketball court, with chairs ramming into each other," he said. "It's fast and furious and very addictive.

"Keith formed a team in Cardiff called the Pirates. Guys with more movement would be the backs while guys like me who had quite a high-level injury would be the equivalent of a prop. I've always called it chess with violence. It's very tactical.

"The first thing that interested me was that I could actually take part in a sport and keep my mind and body fit, have a sense of purpose."

Paul went on to play for Wales and Great Britain around seven times each before retirement. He managed Britain's rugby team at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, finishing sixth, and received an MBE in 2011.

He was also instrumental in setting up Lottery funding which meant Britain's national team could stop self-funding for their wheelchair rugby equipment.

"Before that we had to travel all over Europe and either get sponsorship or fund ourselves," he said. "These purpose-built wheelchairs could cost £3,000 and then they would get damaged. I was proud of the Lottery funding because I'd spent hours going back and forth to London for meetings to help hammer out a deal.

Paul Davies
Paul Davies was paralysed by a rugby injury

"Lorraine got involved in wheelchair rugby too. She became a well-respected referee and reffed in Europe. She'd come almost everywhere with me."

Paul finally got the chance to use his office management skills in the mid-'00s, when a friend from the army started a business giving security training to ex-soldiers — and asked Paul to run the office. He did the job for five years.

"It showed how attitudes had changed," he said. "Back when I first had my accident, I was having a drink with some fellow soldiers in Wrexham. They asked me to go to the club with them, so I went to the door and the bouncer said, 'You can't come in, you're a fire hazard.'

"That wouldn't happen nowadays. My friends wouldn't put up with it at the time, they got really angry, but I didn't know anything different then.

"Now I'm a magistrate in Merthyr Tydfil and they bend over backwards to make sure I can do my job at the court. I'm treated as an equal."

Paul remains a keen rugby union fan and still watches his local team Bargoed RFC, but there are times when he feels uncomfortable.

"Sometimes when the scrum collapses I still have a bit of a moment, but nowadays it's a lot safer than in my day. I don't think my accident would have happened if I was playing today. I'd gone up to prop for that game — that would never happen now, thank the Lord. Because of injuries like mine, the rules have changed so you must be a specialist prop."

Paul decided to write the book after his son Aaron suggested to him it was a story he should tell.

He added: "I hope it might inspire other people who have gone through similar things."

The Long Road Back is available on Amazon Kindle and in paperback via Amazon here.

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