When Fulham Deaf FC (FDFC) player Jacob Willis makes his debut for the Great Britain Deaf team this weekend against France, it will be a special moment.
Just over 18 months ago, Jacob developed severe Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) - a disease where the body’s immune system attacks itself when it thinks there is a virus present, although there may be none. GBS is fatal in three to five per cent of cases as it affects the peripheral nervous system, causing paralysis in the legs and arms which can develop into the face and chest; only 80 per cent make a full recovery.
The Fulham Deaf striker was diagnosed with the condition on Christmas Day 2011 – at one very low point, Jacob was completely paralysed from the neck down and could only move his left hand – and has been on a long road of recovery to get himself back to normal ever since.
Initially struggling to communicate, eat, or drink, and suffering a collapsed lung, Jacob was remarkably able to recover quickly and was out of hospital after a month and placed in a residential rehabilitation facility. Although his progress in physiotherapy was slow at first, the brave Whites striker battled back to his feet and began to dream of playing again.
Having been warned that, as his nerve pathways started to heal, the healing process would be painful, Jacob focused on football and his Fulham teammates to help him.
The side won their first match without him 6-0 and dedicated the win to Jacob, with mother Abbie revealing “they sent a photo of the team holding J's shirt before and after the match, which lifted him a little.”
After a hugely frustrating and intensive rehabilitation period, physiotherapists at St. Peter’s Hospital Chertsey were able to help Jacob back to health. The speed of his recovery was incredible as Jacob made his return to the Club within the space of a year and played a key role as the side became the 2013 British Deaf Champions.
Indeed, in the 5-0 win over St John's Arsenal in the British Deaf Cup Final in early May, Jacob scored twice: the first seeing him use his pace to beat the St John’s goalkeeper to a deep ball to give Fulham a three-goal lead; his second after rifling home a first time shot at the near post after being played through by Mark Sinclair.
Jacob said: “Being told I would be in hospital for at least a year was a horrible shock and left me depressed... Looking back to exactly a year ago, I was still on crutches trying to learn to walk unaided. My aim at that time was to be back playing football by January. I managed to somehow surpass that and was back playing in August, in time for the beginning of the season. Although I was back playing football, I was slow and had no strength.
“At times it was frustrating not being able to play at the personal level I was accustomed to. It took me the whole season to get back to what I was like before. Now the fact I’ve been selected for the GB Squad to play against France is a massive bonus. At the time of being completely paralysed I would have given anything to be able to walk again, let alone being picked for GB for the first time. I couldn’t be happier right now after an amazing year of recovery.”
Fulham Deaf FC and Team GB Head Coach Chris McGinn added: “Watching Jacob regain his strength, confidence and spirit has been fantastic this year, and to be there when he makes his full debut for us at Great Britain will be special too. Footballers need an inner desire, a determination to be successful, and Jacob has shown that 100 per cent to overcome the issues he has had to deal with.”
Jacob will be joined in the Team GB side this weekend by Fulham teammates Jack Harding, Jonathan Evens, Ben Lampert, Daniel Hogan and debutant Daniel Waller.
Good luck to all the boys this weekend and especially to the one player for whom just playing football again will mean the world.