Wayne Bennett’s incredible reaction to seeing Alex McKinnon get paralysed in a tackle – and his inability to forgive the player at the centre of the horrific accident – have been revealed in a new tell-all book about the supercoach.
The Knights player was left a quadriplegic in March 2014 when a tackle involving Melbourne Storm players Jordan McLean and brothers Kenny and Jesse Bromwich resulted in him suffering fractures to his C4 and C5 vertebrae.
McKinnon, who was just 22 at the time, later sued McLean and the NRL.
Bennett was Knights coach at the time and in the hours that followed he went through one of the most awful and intense experiences of his long career.
It culminated with him in tears in the back of the team bus, cradled by the huge embracing arms of Newcastle forward Willie Mason.
Now, almost 10 years later, the episode has been revealed in heartbreaking detail in journalist Andrew Webster’s book on Bennett, The Wolf You Feed.
Master coach Wayne Bennett, now 73 (pictured) was in tears after Alex McKinnon was left a quadriplegic in a tackle gone horribly wrong and sought solace in the arms of Willie Mason
Jordan McLean (pictured with the ball) played a part in the shocking accident – and Bennett has admitted he can’t forgive him
The heartbreaking events of one of the worst nights in footy history are revealed in a new book about Bennett, The Wolf You Feed
Also revealed is the fact that Bennett has still not forgiven one of the three men in that tackle: Jordan McLean.
McLean went low in the hit and appeared to lift McKinnon’s leg while he was fending off the Bromwich brothers, who had a good hold of him up high.
The combined weight of the tacklers saw them collapse on top of the Knights forward, who toppled forwards onto his neck.
McKinnon was rushed to Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital and placed in an induced coma – and Bennett emerged in tears after going to see him, saying: ‘When I came out, I was heartbroken.’
‘When the other players noticed that Bennett was crying, it triggered tears in them too,’ Webster wrote.
‘”Wayne’s the Don, the Godfather, the King,”‘ Mason says. “If he’s rattled, we’re rattled.”‘
Bennett was rattled alright, but he was only prepared to give his players a brief look at his emotional underbelly.
‘It’s the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me outside of my own family,’ Bennett said. ‘But I had to pull myself together because those players needed me.’
Alex McKinnon in happier times when he was still married to his high-school sweetheart, Teigan Power. They split up in January 2022
Nowadays Power is co-parenting while separated from McKinnon
Lying still and scared in his hospital bed that night, McKinnon had no idea how much his injury had affected the master coach.
It was only years later that he heard about Bennett’s moment of vulnerability in the arms of Mason – and he wasn’t surprised.
‘After I got injured, we started to chat as friends,’ McKinnon said in the book.
‘He wasn’t my coach anymore and he wouldn’t be again. He protects his vulnerability. He knows how powerful it is.
‘He puts on masks for what needs to be done.’
The pair’s relationship may have evolved since the tragedy but Bennett has remained steadfast in his decision not to let go of his feelings about McLean’s role in the accident.
‘Deep down, in my heart, I still haven’t forgiven the player,’ the current Dolphins coach said.
However, Bennett obviously feels different about the the Bromwich brothers, who are both playing for him at Redcliffe.
McKinnon has forgiven McLean after admitting to feeling ‘hate’ over the incident.
‘It is definitely something that has gone through my mind that I would like to sit down with him and have a different conversation,’ he said in 2017.
McKinnon is pictured with his Newcastle teammates as he’s honoured at the Knights’ home ground a few months after the life-changing injury
There were three men in tackle the day McKinnon became paralysed – Bennett has not forgiven Jordan McLean for his role but clearly has forgiven Jesse Bromwich (pictured with the coach this year) and his brother Kenny, who both play for him on the Dolphins team
McKinnon had to face another heartbreaking episode when his marriage to high school sweetheart Teigan Power ended in January 2022 after 12 years together.
After they parted ways, both parties confirmed the split was amicable and that they remained committed to co-parenting their children, twins Audrey and Violet, and eldest daughter Harriet.
Nearly a year on from the break-up and they are still ‘very close’, according to McKinnon.
Bennett has also gone through a marriage breakdown since that awful night in 2014, leaving his wife of 42 years, Trish, when he met Dale Cage.
Webster’s book also touches on this softer, private yet still controversial side of the great coach’s life.
Cage – who was routinely labelled a ‘buxom blonde’, ‘secret blonde’, ‘vivacious blonde’ and ‘Benny’s blonde bombshell’ in early media coverage of the pair’s relationship – said she faced a torrent of abuse.
Bennett is pictured with his partner Dale Cage earlier this year
‘I was called a homewrecker,’ Cage says in the book. ‘I copped a lot of abuse online at the time, and it’s still happening.’
Bennett’s daughter, Beth – who is married to former league star and now head of Queensland Rugby League, Ben Ikin – has sided with her mother over the split.
Cage, who is 22 years Bennett’s junior, told Webster that her partner is a man with ‘very old-school values’ and not the arrogant figure sometimes portrayed in the media.
‘We can spend days together and not do anything or see anything, and not get sick of each other,’ she said.
‘Then when we’re apart, he’ll call me three or four times a day. From the time we’ve been together, he’s called me every morning and every night.’