Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 01:29 UK

Football tough guy Danny Mills in wheelchair challenge

By Neil Bowdler
Health Reporter, BBC News


Danny Mills talks about how spina bifida claimed his son's life

Defender Danny Mills is better known for crunching tackles than his charity work.

But the loss of his son, and an early end to his playing days, have driven the former Leeds, Manchester City and England star in an entirely new direction.

We meet at Wembley - ironic really, given Mills never played here for England. Indeed all of his 19 caps were won away from English football's iconic home.

But Danny is not here for football, but for a board meeting of a disabled supporters charity. This is his new life.

Wembley Way

He arrives in a wheelchair, hauling himself up Wembley Way. It's all part of his preparations for this month's Brighton Marathon, which he will try to complete on wheels to raise money for research into spina bifida.

Danny Mills and David Beckham celebrate after victory over Argentina in a 2002 World Cup group match
Danny Mills and David Beckham celebrate after victory over Argentina in a 2002 World Cup group match

He has good cause. In 2002, he lost his son Archie to the condition. Danny and his wife were told the diagnosis during the pregnancy.

"When we were first told, we didn't really know what spina bifida was," he says. "But then we were told it was so severe, there would be no chance of survival."

The most harrowing aspect of it all was that his wife Lisa still had to go through with the pregnancy.

"It was very very difficult knowing that there was going to be no good outcome at the end of it.

"Archie was carefully monitored right up until Lisa gave birth, but unfortunately the heartbeat stopped just a few minutes before he was born."

New focus

Since Archie's death, he says time has not been the great healer of popular belief. But he has learned to deal with the loss; to manage it.

Charity work, and his latest wheelchair challenge, has helped him to give a purpose to what happened - and to forge a life after football.

"Once football ended for me - I had two years out with injury trying to rehab and get back into it - I thought 'where do you go next?'"

"The wheelchair race has given me a focus to train everyday, to keep fit and to keep working hard, and give a real purpose to my life at the moment".

Spina bifida means 'split spine'
It arises when one or more of the 33 vertebrae doesn't form properly in early pregnancy
It can lead to death or paralysis of the lower body
Folic acid taken before conception and during early pregnancy can reduce the risk of spina bifida

Mills is also quick to brush aside the suggestion that, as an able-bodied athlete, he should not be competing in a wheelchair.

He says it is about using his name to give a voice to the grievances of the disabled, and about him trying to better understand "the day-to-day rigours of disabled life".

"Am I not allowed to support poverty [charities] because I'm not poor? I'm not trying to say I'm disabled. I'm raising awareness."

High profile names can help raise awareness of a disease or condition, and bring it under the spotlight. This video series talks to those in the public eye about their personal reasons for speaking out.

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