Ed Williamson is a fascinating guy. A tough, Northern back row forward, he came through at Newcastle Falcons, where he played over 80 games for the club, moving on to Leeds, London Welsh and Rotherham before upping and moving to France, playing for Libourne and St Medard in Fédérale 1.
I came across Ed during my time involved with the Falcons A League team, in the RFU Championship and then in France where his teams were rivals of Rouen.
His new career as an artist is fascinating and a real left turn from professional rugby. He’s a great example of what is possible with some genuine passion and motivation when you change career after sport and I’ve been following his work for a while, even picking up a canvas of a rather handsome gorilla who watches over me when I write things.
Learn about him below and make sure to check out his website and social media. You might see something you like!
How did you end your career?
There were a number of factors. I had moved over to France and the team I was playing and coaching for went bust. It was a bit of kicker because I’d put a lot of time in and effort into building up the skills in the team and developing the players; I was on the cusp of getting my own team to run.
The problems that led to them going bust had been kept away from us until it was pretty obvious what was happening. After they folded I half heartedly signed a one year contract for another local team playing in the same league but I blew my knee out in the first game. That sort of sealed it for me; once it happened I knew I was done.
Were you happy to end your career when you did? Why?
Although I hadn’t planned it, I was happy to be done when it happened. Mentally I didn’t have the drive anymore. France can be a strange place to play rugby for an Englishman; the mentality here is very different and it had started to aggravate me a little, affecting my motivation to deal with the niggly injuries which naturally happen more frequently as you get older.
I had overlapped my painting with rugby for the previous 7 years so when I stopped, everything was already in place to paint full time. It was an easy decision for us to make. Also, dragging my family somewhere new again was not something I wanted to do.
How did you prepare for retirement while you were playing?
I think there are two ways to prepare for retirement. The first is more practical. What skills have you got? What career do you want to pursue? I am lucky in that I was smart enough to marry a very intelligent and driven woman so when I retired and said to her that I wanted to make a go of being an artist, she said, ‘Okay, let’s make that happen.’
She built up and manages the whole business side which means I can just concentrate on painting. I realise how lucky I was to move from one passion, rugby, to another, painting. A lot of my friends have not been so fortunate. I am also incredibly lucky to have a wife who believed in my abilities and who could navigate all the business stuff that I have no clue about.
The second is the mental side of preparing for retirement. This hasn’t been too much a problem for me because as I said, I moved from one job that I loved to another, but I didn’t watch rugby for a long time after I first retired. Had I been in England I think it would have been harder because in England, it was such a massive part of my life. Playing in the Premiership consumes your entire life but here in France, I was training and playing less so when it was gone, it didn’t leave such a big hole.
It has really helped that I get to work so closely with my wife too; we really are best mates and we make each other laugh all the time. That makes it hard to feel down for too long about having to hang up my boots.
Are you still involved in rugby in any capacity?
Not so much. I help the local club every now and again with their defence. I have also been getting more involved with coaching younger kids because my two boys play which is great fun.
To be honest though, I think that if we lived in the UK I would probably get involved with coaching a bit more. Rugby in France is a lot different insofar as aside from the language, their mentality towards training is often frustrating. What’s nice for me is that as it’s not paying the bills, I don’t have to put up with it!
Do you compete in another way now?
In terms of sport, apart from the growing challenge of trying to beat my kids at rugby in the back garden, not really. I lift weights a lot still, that’s a big part of me and my wife’s life.
I’ve been planning to get back into some boxing and jiu-jitsu which I used to do towards the end of my time at Newcastle, but I’ve just had to have my neck reconstructed. The operation has made a massive difference to me so I know that I’ll revisit the fighting again eventually.
What did you do immediately for work?
Painting, that’s why stopping was an easy decision. I was already making money from it by the time I called it a day.
How did it go?
Good. It’s a bit up and down but that’s the way it goes with art. You can have a month where you sell a million things then the next you sell nothing.
What are you doing now?
Painting, full time. We normally have a few exhibitions to prepare for every few months as well as commissioned work so there’s not a day that passes without some form of painting.
My wife is a hero. She runs everything on the business side, organises the events and galleries etc, she runs the website, does the accounts and produces and edits the videos for the YouTube channel. Which by the way, she’s done whilst writing a PhD in competition law and looking after 3 actual kids and one large kid.
I literally just paint. It’s a great job.
Is this something you see yourself doing long term?
Yes. 100%. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish in the art world and it’ll take time.
What does it provide for you apart from money?
It provides me with a rare and beautiful situation that lets me be with my family a tonne more than a lot of people are. That’s not to knock anyone with a job which needs them to be out of the house a lot. Far from it. They have my utmost respect as I know that for me, that would be incredibly difficult.
My studio is in my house and one of my wife’s desks is in my studio so we’re together. If I need to work on the kids’ days off then there’s a space in the studio for them to paint and run around too. Dreamland.
What support did you receive with your transition?
Family support was incredible. I could’ve said to my wife I was going to try and join the circus and she would’ve supported me. Also, the support of everyone who has liked my Facebook page or followed me on Instagram, and especially those who have bought my work up to that point.
If I couldn’t sell any of my paintings then I’d be f***ed. I owe them all a massive debt of gratitude.
Would you say that you have transitioned?
Yep. I don’t even really think about rugby much anymore, I only really watch it when we are in the UK, even if I always keep an eye out for how Newcastle Falcons are getting on.
Did you experience any mental health issues as a result of retiring?
Well, my final retirement was actually my second go at it. I was forced to retire when I smashed my hand up playing for Newcastle and when surgery couldn’t fix it or stop the pain, they told me I’d never play again and that I might have to have a finger cut off.
My wife made me get a second opinion from a guy who specializes in sports hand injuries, Mike Hayton. He said, ‘We could cut your finger off, or we could just fix it and get you back playing.’ After 11 months of agony and being told I had to retire, it was a lot to take in.
During that ‘retirement’ I definitely suffered mentally. Part of that was due to the constant pain, but part of it was because every other part of my body felt amazing. To be retired over a hand injury was difficult to accept. My wife definitely took the brunt of that but she never gave in, was always positive and helped to keep me from falling too deep into it.
My actual retirement was a lot easier. I felt ready for it. Every game I played after my hand was fixed was a bit of a gift really so when it finally came time to retire properly, I was ok with it.
I do look back at my time as a younger player when I first signed for Newcastle and regret that my mentality was not more professional. I think that had I made better choices then, my career would have been better and I wouldn’t have suffered some of the injuries that I did.
When I have a down day, which are pretty rare, that’s what I get stuck on.
What has sport given you?
It gave me a confidence that I didn’t really have as a kid. My dad died when I was 11 so I didn’t always have a male influence in my life, although my uncle really stepped in when he could (until he died).
Rugby gave me that male influence, and my first rugby coach at school, Mr Pepper, is someone I still keep in contact with and have a lot of respect for. It gave me a real drive as well. My failings as a rugby player are now what motivate me to succeed as an artist.
Rugby also gave me nearly all of my closest friends. It has also given me the opportunity to live in France, which for my family has been amazing. All 3 of our kids are bilingual and although we will come back to England at some point, we love France a lot.
What’s your best memory from your career?
Scoring a try and winning man of the match against Bristol in 2008 in a game that saved Newcastle from relegation was probably the highlight. Getting punched by both Neil Back and Martin Johnson in my Premiership debut was pretty cool too.
Having my boys watch me and run on pitches after games was always really special. After one home game at Falcons, my son who must have been 2 or 3 at the time, ran onto the pitch, grabbed a ball and ran towards the try line, I gave him a gentle ankle tap and stopped him just before he scored, the crowd booed me and cheered him which he loved. That was very special as well.
If you had one piece of advice for retiring athletes, what would it be?
Try and focus on being grateful for the career that you have had (that most guys never get) instead of focusing on what you have lost. Take the best bits and enjoy them, take the bad bits and learn from them.
Check out Ed’s Art at: