How Chris Ross is taking up the fight against MND and giving hope to others through sharing his journey

An athlete’s supreme ruler is time: first time, last time, best time, worst time, time of your life, plenty of time, not much time left.

Chris Ross — “Rossy” to his mates — used to be a footballer with an eye on the clock.

A born captain with a lovely left foot and big smile, he raced around Europe and America before returning to Australia to hold a stopwatch for others with a fire inside.

His promising coaching career ended last year when Rossy was told he had motor neurone disease (MND), the same illness as Melbourne legend Neale Daniher.

Almost certain he would be given no overtime, that clock started ticking louder than before, and the voice that whispers to us all from time to time asked him the question of the meaning of life.

“Young man, what will you do with the time you have left?”

He was still only 31.

A man wearing a blue-and-grey beanie and a headset mike grins at the crowd during an MND fundraising event at the MCG
Neale Daniher also has MND, with his annual Big Freeze matches at the MCG raising money for research.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

A talent emerges in the Melbourne suburbs

Rossy’s speech was the first MND casualty, therefore his interviews with ABC Sport over the past year have been by email.

“It’s always funny thinking back to your childhood,” he writes.

“I have these vivid memories from early years and so many of them involve sport.”

Born in Melbourne to Scottish parents, Rossy loved his dad Crawford, mum Karen, brother Ben, and football.

He supported his father’s beloved Glasgow Rangers, but in the AFL it was the mighty Blues.

The Ross clan became members whose greatest enjoyment were trips to Princes Park.

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‘Run For Rossy’ raises money for MND research.

“We would make a full day of it, pub before the game, a kick on the ground after the game, then into the old members bar with my dad, his mates and all the Blues players for a few beverages. One time we were lucky enough to even have a kick with Adrian Hickmott on the ground.

“Even now, in the most challenging time of my life, I look forward to going to the footy each week.”

Soccer was just as special to him, and he was very good at it.

At five, he started playing with his cousin, coached by his uncle, on a sliver of turf in Mt Waverley, home of the Eastern Lions.

Rossy was so keen he competed at least two years above his age.

Talent gives you a head start in sport, but raw competitiveness is needed to rise through the ranks.

Chris Ross smiles next to a friend inside a football stadium
Football is one of Chris Ross’s main loves, so to see Rangers at this year’s Europa League final was a thrill.(Supplied)

“I had to win at everything and at all costs,” Rossy writes.

He could be a cocky so and so.

In the Under 12s, Rossy was spotted by former Welsh international Terry Hennessy, who was in Australia doing some coaching with the Derby County Academy.

“I was such a mouthy know it all and would always answer back to adults and get myself in trouble,” Rossy concedes.

“One day Terry had just had enough of me and lost it, told me not to come back again. I turned up to training the following week and either Terry had forgotten about it or just turned a blind eye. Either way it was lucky for me because in the coming weeks I would get scouted to play for a top junior team, Box Hill Inter.”

Then came championships, state representation, and a scholarship to the Victorian Institute of Sport at Collingwood Football Club’s training facilities in the heart of Melbourne.

“My dream was to become a professional soccer player because of my love for the sport and the way it made me feel when I played it,” he writes.

He was hanging out in the gym with Melbourne Victory (Kevin Muscat), Collingwood (Nathan Buckley), Melbourne Storm (Cameron Smith), and the Oarsome Foursome.

“Nathan Buckley was benching 200kg,” Rossy recalls.

“I sat in the hot tub with Harry O’Brien (now Heretier Lumumba). One time after training, I had Eddie McGuire tell me to make sure I wasn’t pissing in ‘his’ pool. (I’d be) watching an Anthony Rocca boxing session, watching James Tomkins on a rowing machine when we turned up for training, continued rowing while we trained, then still be rowing when we were leaving two to three hours later.

“This is where I truly fell in love with the performance side of sport. My dedication to preparing my body for the rigours of sport really ignited at the VIS.”

The VIS head football coach was former Middlesbrough player Ian Greener, who set up the program with Ernie Merrick in the 1990s.

Greener remembers Rossy’s class and determination.

“Left sided players always look a bit special,” he says.

“He had good basic technique, and a willingness not to give up. Whether we went 1-0 down or 2-0 down, he was a fighter.

“What impressed me at the time was his determination and character. Each year we had to nominate athletes to do a leadership program with the police. One year I recommended Chris because he showed great leadership skills. Strong character, never gave up.”

Rossy first went to Scotland and England for trials with Glasgow Rangers and English Premier League club Portsmouth.

Chris Ross sits between a man and a woman while wearing sunglasses.
Chris Ross with his grandparents in Scotland. The visit was a chance for Chris to say goodbye.(Supplied)

During this whirlwind trip he spent time with his grandparents (Gran and Grampa Ross) and stayed with his other grandparents in a flat at Govanhill, enjoying bus rides to meet his Gran Susie for coffee or going up to grandfather Frank’s bowling club and the wee bar.

He even loved hanging around in their living room, watching telly, have a feed and laughing.

He landed his first professional contract with Scottish first division club Livingston, but the big time would have to wait until he finished high school back home.

During his last years as a schoolboy, Rossy made his senior Victorian Premier League debut for Coburg City.

He was still only 16.

Living out the American dream

After Year 12, it was no more homework, no more books — Rossy headed back to Scotland.

Sadly, the Livingston manager had since got the chop.

The Aussie kid’s contract was shafted, and he ended up playing for a year at Patrick Thistle FC’s youth academy.

“It was tough, gruelling,” he recalls.

“If you know British football it’s just a different ball game and environment. By the end of my first year, I wasn’t going too well, I was homesick so I went back to Melbourne for the off-season. The idea was to always go back to continue but an opportunity came up to go play and study in America on a scholarship, so that’s what I did.”

For the next four years sweet home was Alabama, playing and studying at Auburn University at Montgomery.

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“Hindsight’s always 20-20,” he writes.

“Looking back I wished I’d had stayed in Scotland and the UK but no regrets. I loved my time in America.”

Most of his teammates were international students.

Rossy was so respected at Auburn, the college made him captain for his final two years.

Gran Susie and Frank came from Scotland to be at his graduation; he won top honours in sport science.

“This is where, in my little dorm room, I really started to drive the idea that one day I could work in sport if my own aspirations to play professionally didn’t work out,” he writes.

Rossy’s memories of Auburn are vivid as any man looking back at his late teens.

He remembers his coach, Wulf Koch, picking him up from Birmingham airport, stopping at a gas station and convincing the attendant he used to ride kangaroos to school.

And he recalls being demoted by Wulf for a big game.

“The wakeup call I needed,” he writes.

His response was scintillating form in subsequent matches.

“I remember one summer I stayed in Alabama to take a few classes to graduate quicker. Wulf and I used to work out everyday, chat about life and football. I used to have dinner with him and (his wife) Jane every now and then.

“I even crashed on their couch one night and woke up to their dogs licking my face off.”

Chris Ross smiles as he runs past a line of men smiling and cheering
A photo from Chris Ross’s (second left) time playing soccer for Auburn University, with coach Wulf Koch (centre). Wulf passed away from leukaemia.(Supplied)

There is a framed photo in the hallways of Auburn University. It is a picture of victory. Coach Koch is in it, celebrating with his winning, grinning team.

Rossy thought about it a month ago, after Wulf died of leukaemia.

“A few days ago my old coach lost his devastating battle,” Rossy wrote on Instagram.

“It hits home pretty hard when in a few years I think that’ll be me. R.I.P mate. Keep on livin’.”

That’s how he signs off all his posts.

After Rossy finished playing at Auburn for Wulf, he got an offer to play and coach in America, but he didn’t take it.

The boy, who was now a man, went to Iceland; Rossy’s resume and reputation had reached Vikingur FC, one of the oldest clubs in the country.

From Iceland to the AFL

Rossy’s career at Vikingur FC was another wonderful sporting challenge of making new friends and learning, although he struggled to find his best on the pitches of the amazing country.

“We had a very old school coach called Oli and for the longest while he didn’t seem to like me much,” he recalls.

Old Oli was eventually won over and the Australian was offered a new contract, but Scotland kept calling.

Rossy went back to the motherland, had some offers to play in division two, but knocked them all back.

University of Edinburgh accepted him into its strength and conditioning course but it was going to be too expensive, so he moved back to Australia and did the same course at Edith Cowan University in Perth.

Here he met a Hawthorn Football Club coach, who led Rossy to his first full-time strength and conditioning job at Box Hill, Hawthorn’s reserve team in the Victorian Football League (VFL).

“I think looking back on my career and journey in sport there is obviously a love there for the sports I was involved in,” he writes.

“But when you think about it on a deeper level it’s the connections and friendships you make with people that really make it an enjoyable journey. I have been lucky enough to travel the world, play with some unbelievable players, coach some elite athletes but it’s the long-lasting community and friendships you create with people and a club that has made my life meaningful.”

Still hungry for knowledge, Rossy went back to school one more time to study physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne.

A man stands wearing a team-branded cap and jacket, with a headset around his neck.
Chris Ross became high performance manager at the Frankston Dolphins before he was diagnosed with MND.(Supplied: Frankston FC)

He then picked up another position in the VFL as high performance manager at Frankston Dolphins, and anything looked possible; a long career in sport seemed the least he would achieve.

“I have taken a lot of my experiences from sport into my career in the private sector and I have always got great satisfaction from helping people and enjoyed every minute of it,” he writes.

“But there is something special about playing and working within the walls of a sporting organisation that creates a sense of brotherhood and connectedness towards striving to achieve a common goal.”

That brotherhood was there for Rossy last year when he was diagnosed with MND.

Players at Frankston arranged a ‘Run for Rossy’ event that raised more than $100,000 and was talked about on television and in Melbourne’s daily newspapers.

Carlton stars like Patrick Cripps and Eddie Betts recorded best wishes videos.

“I’m sending my love your way,” Betts said.

“Stay strong and I want you to know that we’re thinking of you.”

Living with grief and change

Chris Ross walks across a zebra crossing
Chris Ross walking across the famous Abbey Road crossing, from the cover of The Beatles album of the same name.(Supplied)

No reaction to a diagnosis that shortens a life is the same, but grief is always waiting on the other side.

Up until March last year, Chris Ross, successful physiotherapist and coach, had seemed a beacon of health posting Instagram strength tips under his business name CR Strength.

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But something was wrong.

He had spent the previous year in and out of hospital trying to figure out the cause of his slurred speech (“my tongue just felt strange”), trouble swallowing, and twitching muscles.

His MND diagnosis was confirmed in late April.

“I had found my truth,” he writes.

Initially, he withdrew to mourn his uncertain future away from his workmates and friends. His charges at the football club did not hear from him. It was as if he had vanished.

Frankston Football Club captain Josh Newman heard the awful news and wanted to comfort his friend.

“Your natural instinct is to reach out,” he says.

“Obviously it took him a bit of time to process and we were worried because no one had heard too much from him. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through.”

Three smiling men in matching T-shirts pose next to each other in a car park.
Players and staff at Frankston Dolphins organised a ‘Run for Rossy’ event to raise funds after his MND diagnosis.(ABC News: Paul Kennedy)

Rossy’s absence from the club that had adopted him was felt every day.

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“He was a huge part of the footy club and lot of us were close to him,” Newman says.

“He was popular because he cared and was passionate about us getting better. There were a few key people in the club who had that drive for us to succeed and he held everyone to high standards. I personally leaned on him a lot. We had the same outlook.”

Eventually, Rossy accepted support and began to mix publicly again.

After the fun run was held in partial COVID lockdown, he did what he has always done: kept fighting.

Another Instagram was born in the name of ‘Beat the Beast’, a nod to Neale Daniher’s name for MND.

“My name is Chris Ross and on April 27th of this year I was diagnosed with MND,” he wrote on his first post.

Chris Ross lies in a hospital bed with his thumb up
Chris Ross in the Epworth Hospital in April.(Supplied)

“I was 31 years old at the time and given 27 months to live.

“I can’t quite explain what it felt like when I heard those words ‘you have MND’ but I do remember everything just stops and literally your world just crashes. Everything I have ever done, seen, worked for, planned for, experienced in life, just flashed before my eyes and continues to do so to this day.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable talking about what’s happening to me, but there comes a time when you just have to let people love you and for me that time is now.

“The amount of love and support I have felt from all over the world has just been heartbreaking to me but it’s giving me a reason to get up each day.

For the past nine months, Rossy has chronicled what it is like to live with MND, including his ‘Friday Freeze’ (dips in Port Phillip Bay), gym workouts, medical updates and explanations, and loving photos with his friends and dog Fergus (‘my best bud’).

His honesty was at first astounding, each update a warm and careful reflection of an otherwise unthinkable ordeal.

He wants us all to read what it is really like so we can help find a cure.

Along the way, he has offered his thoughts on life and death.

“Go spend some more time with your loved ones,” he advised.

Chris Ross points to the Swiss flag and a sign that says 2970m on top of some railings.
Chris Ross at the top of Jungfrau in Switzerland, ticking off one of the items from his ‘f**k it’ list.(Supplied)

“Give them a hug and tell them you love them because nothing is forever in this life. Your life can change in an instant for no apparent reason and at the end of the day family and friends are all that matter.”

On the first anniversary of his diagnosis, he wrote about gratitude.

“I watch travel videos of all the places I won’t get to, watch all my loved ones get married, have kids, buy houses — all things I will never get to do. It honestly breaks my heart, but there is always a silver lining,” he wrote.

“That’s the thing about life, it’s fragile, precious and unpredictable and each day is a gift, not a given right. People go through their entire life through a cloud of pressure and judgement on what their life should be and miss out on enjoying the daily treasures life brings.

“Through every failure, disappointment, obstacle, set back — there is always an opportunity. I’ve been given a period of time to enjoy life, create more memories with my loved ones and find myself again. For that I will forever be grateful.”

Rossy has included for his followers a List for The Living.

“1. Tell your family and friends you love them every chance you get …”

His friends, family and broader network always read every word.

“The amount of people he’s been able to connect with has been huge,” Newman says.

“I always look at his posts, it’s a great reminder to be grateful for what we do have.”

More recently, Rossy came with up with his “f**k it list”, a number of things to wants to do before he dies.

“You hear a lot about bucket lists and I’m not waiting to kick some bucket,” he wrote.

“I’m going out with a bang. I’ve started a list of all the amazing things I want to do, wish I could do, will do and won’t get to do before I die because f**k it that’s what life’s about, there’s no better time like right now.”

Right now, Rossy is with his mother, brother, and mate Jack, finishing a trip through Europe.

Chris Ross sits in a business class airplane seat and gives the thumbs up
Chris Ross in business class on one of his trips overseas, to tick of his ‘f**k it’ list.(Supplied)

They’re flown business class (number 50 on the f**k it list), gone to a Europa League final, taken a friend somewhere magical (Edinburgh Castle), bought a ‘space cake’ in Amsterdam, went to another EPL game, visited Stonehenge, walked across Abbey Road, ascended Jungfraujoch, and watched Scotland play.

His most recent posts have been the hardest to fathom.

Scotland had lured him back.

Rossy visited his grandparents.

“Knowing your time is edging nearer and nearer to the end doesn’t make it any easier,” he wrote on Instagram.

“In fact, it probably made it harder. I am glad to have seen them all again, no doubt but it does leave a big hole in my heart. It’s never easy saying a real goodbye, but I’ll be thinking of them when the days get tougher and all the great memories I have from being with them.”

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