Student returns to American football team as coach after spinal cord injury

Archie Wills-Johnson played for the Bristol Barracuda.

Archie Wills-Johnson
Archie Wills-Johnson

A student who was forced to stop playing American football after suffering a spinal cord injury on the field has returned to his team as a coach.

Archie Wills-Johnson, who studies at the University of Bristol, had a section of the cartilage in his neck removed and replaced with titanium following the serious injury in December 2022.

He had taken up American football when he became a biology student in 2021 and was playing a match against Southampton as a linebacker for his team the Bristol Barracuda at the time.

During the match, Mr Wills-Johnson felt a “big electric shock” down his right arm, which turned out to be a herniated disc.

The student, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, previously played up to 20 hours of contact sport a week but was left recovering from the operation, experiencing chronic pain.

He worked with NHS physios, as well as support services at the University of Bristol, and has now returned to the Bristol Barracuda as a coach.

“I still have symptoms now and doctors aren’t sure if I’ll ever fully heal,” said Mr Wills-Johnson.

“I’m still not sure what caused it. I had some low level nerve pain in my shoulder before the electric shock feeling so it was probably wear and tear followed by a sudden hit, but it’s hard to pinpoint it exactly.”

His role at the club now involves helping members of the 60-strong squad with techniques, as well as video analysis and behind-the-scenes management.

Mr Wills-Johnson has been elected vice-president of Bristol Barracuda and recently won an award from the University of Bristol for his resilience.

Celeste Waller-Carr, award manager for Bristol Plus Awards, said: “We were really inspired by Archie and his determination to keep giving back to the club he loves.”