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Peter Mitchell's Premier League career was cruelly cut short when he was paralysed in a car crash. Now the Northern Ireland man is starring in Corrie.

Tragedy to triumph: Londonderry actor tells us his journey from there to where he is now in his life

By Stephanie Bell

Published 12/05/2015

True winner: Peter Mitchell
True winner: Peter Mitchell
Street sensation: Peter in Corrie as Sam with Katie McGlynn (Sinead Tinker) and Sam Aston who plays Chesney Brown
Peter and Brenda

Londonderry actor Peter Mitchell's life reads like an exaggerated plot in one of the top television soaps he has appeared in. A young soccer star, he had the world at his feet in his teens, playing Premier League football with Leeds United, becoming friends with Robbie Keane and Rio Ferdinand, earning lots of money and living the dream.

Then in July 2002, aged just 18, tragedy struck. A car accident in Leeds smashed his back in two places leaving him paralysed and robbing him of his football career.

But just as one door closed another unexpectedly opened and Peter has once again found himself on the path to stardom, this time as an actor and TV personality.

With no drama training or acting experience behind him, no one has been more surprised than Peter himself at how his new career has taken off and finding himself in a guest role on Coronation Street recently as the character Sinead's new friend Dan was just another of many surreal moments in his life.

Newly married to Brenda and living in Derry, the 31-year-old has also just finished filming his own documentary on disability for the BBC - yet another dream which he feels privileged to be given the chance to fulfil.

Speaking during his first real break home in his native city after many months of filming in England, he says he is happier now than he ever believed he could be.

"I feel extremely blessed," he says. "When I had my accident without doubt it was the toughest time in my life.

"I couldn't understand why it had happened as I always trained and worked hard to get that opportunity to play in the Premier League and for it to be taken away so cruelly was something I just couldn't process, it was too much for me.

 "Then I met my wife Brenda and life started making sense again. Then the acting chance came along and it's just been incredible. Every job I get I fall in love with it and I just loved doing Coronation Street, it is an institution in itself and we all grew up with it and to be part of it was just unbelievable."

Following the devastating car crash, Peter admitted he thought his love life was over.

"I definitely thought girls wouldn't be interested anymore. I was in a relationship at the time of the accident and I thought 'there's no way she's going to stay with me, because I'm in a wheelchair'. But she stayed with me for two years and we are still friends.

"I was 20 and pleasantly surprised that I still had female attention. It's not as big an obstacle as I thought."

After Peter and his ex-girlfriend split up, he met Londonderry woman Brenda Casey, a retail assistant, at the Metro bar in the city in 2009 and the pair began dating.

He describes Brenda (32) as "amazing" and, after popping the question, the pair were married in St Eugene's Cathedral in October 2013.

"I met Brenda just a couple of days before I started filming with Cast Offs. We've had to spend a fair bit of time apart, because I am in England so much filming, but she is a terrific support to me.

"I took her over to Leeds to show her what my life was like there before the accident and she was blown away by it.

"We went to America for our honeymoon and I'm now getting the first break in filming for months and we are taking ourselves off back to Las Vegas for two weeks of quality time together and a complete break, which we are both really looking forward to."

Peter's story is remarkable, with fate throwing the very best and the very worst at him. Its many unexpected twists started in his childhood. He grew up in Limavady in a family of talented footballers. His maternal grandad Jim Mitchell played for Northern Ireland Youth, Derry City and Linfield and had the chance to go to England to play with Blackburn Rovers.

Peter says he was kicking a ball before he could walk. "Football was in my blood. Any photos there are of me as a child, I've always got a football in them.

"I played for Newtown Youth in Limavady and in the summer League for Limavady Youth. I was playing for Institute in Derry when I got scouted. When I was 14 I went to Wolverhampton Wanderers for six months. Going across the water was always my aim and to be going there at 14 as a young boy from Limavady was just crazy.

"I was a wee grafter. I always trained harder than everyone else.

"I was with Leeds for three years before my accident. I still miss football every day."

Peter recalls the day his life suddenly changed on July 21, 2002, aged just 18.

He remembers it as a beautiful sunny day and along with four Irish lads, he had gone for a drive to the local shop.

They were on their way back when the car hit the side of the road at 60mph and catapulted over a hedge into a golf course, somersaulting and landing on its roof.

While his friends smashed the windows and crawled out, Peter instantly feared the worst, as he found himself struggling to breathe and couldn't move.

"I was stuck in the back seat. I remember when the car was in mid-air, it was like the longest few seconds of my life," he says.

"It did quite a few rolls and when we stopped everyone else crawled out the windows, but I couldn't move. I knew straight away I was in trouble.

"My body ended up where my legs had been and I was stuck in between the front and back seats. I wrecked myself, I broke my back in two places, I fractured my chest bone, my collar bone, my ribs and my wrist.

"I couldn't breathe and I remember thinking 'If I cough, I'm dead'. I don't know if I blacked out after that or what happened."

Peter was quickly transferred by air ambulance from hospital in Leeds to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and then to Musgrave Park Hospital for rehabilitation. Because he was so fit he was able to go home after just 10 weeks.

He put on a brave face for the sake of his devastated family - parents Karen and Peter and younger brother Ciaran - even though he really struggled to accept that his dreams had been shattered.

"I knew my football career was over, but I thought I would have a chance of walking again," he says.

"I asked the specialist in Musgrave and that's when I realised I was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. It put me back to square one again. It was extremely tough to deal with, it's just out of your hands, and it's heartbreaking.

"I didn't show my true feelings to my family because they found it hard enough to deal with.

"In Leeds, I was living the dream. We were spoilt rotten as young lads. We didn't need to spend a penny, we got free meals, free accommodation and free clothes from the likes of Nike and it was absolutely brilliant.

"I'm still in touch with the club and I brought my wife there recently to see it all and she was blown away by it."

It was while he was in hospital that Peter had a visit from a member of the Knights Disabled Basketball Team.

It was a chance conversation which was to have a profound effect on helping him to come to terms with his paralysis and which unexpectedly led to his new career as an actor.

Giving his body a year to heal, he then joined the Belfast club which he is still a member of today.

"It blew me away. I loved it," he says. "Football was my first love and now basketball is my second. It was also a chance to get out again and meet people who have been through what I have been through and it was great to be part of a team sport again."

In 2009, Channel 4 contacted the Knights' club secretary to see if they had anyone suitable to appear in a new mock documentary called Cast Offs - based on six disabled characters washed up on an island.

The description of the character matched Peter to a tee and everyone in the club agreed he should go for the audition.

He got the part, was quickly signed up by a London agent and then went on to appear in Doctors and Hollyoaks.

Although Cast Offs was fictional, Peter played himself through his character, Dan.

He says: "I just thought I had nothing to lose and when I got the job I thought 'wow, I'm going to be on TV, this is crazy'. I also believed it would be one job and that would be it. Then I got a call from a London agent who wanted to sign me up and that seemed even crazier.

"After that I did Hollyoaks for nine months and then Doctors and it hasn't stopped in the past five years.

"I haven't been to acting classes or drama school and going to auditions is a daunting experience, having a camera pointed in your face and having to perform.

"For me to be doing this now is a million miles from where I thought I would be.

"It is fairytale stuff. The chance last year to do eight episodes of Coronation Street was just amazing. I loved it. I just tried to absorb and learn as much as I could from the other actors.

"The cast was all lovely, I couldn't speak highly enough of them."

Of the many unexpected and wonderful things that have happened in his life in the past five years, he is most proud of a documentary he has just finished filming for the BBC.

It is a deeply personal programme in which he shares his own journey as well as travelling across the UK to meet other young disabled people and find out how they have coped.

"I had this idea to go out and meet people who were injured like myself and see how they coped and how their lives have changed," he says.

"I was asked by the BBC if I had any ideas on doing a documentary and when I explained what I had in mind they agreed to do it and I couldn't believe it.

"I've loved it. It's been very emotional. I've met some people going through the hardest days of their lives.

"It's hard-hitting. I shared my own story and I thought I have to be honest and not put on a strong face for the camera and just tell it as it is and if I get emotional, then that's fine.

"It's me being myself and when I saw the first cut I actually found it difficult to watch. I'm very proud of it. It made me realise that I am extremely lucky as a lot of people I met didn't get the opportunities I have had."

Peter says the documentary was able to provide disabled people with a platform to highlight the challenges they face.

"I have my family and the football club behind me but many young people out there who have become disabled through breaking their backs don't have that support and can't go back to their jobs and there is not enough help for them," he says.

"What happened to me could happen to anyone.

"I was living the dream and it ended. Now I feel fortunate because I am 100% independent, but as I found out making the documentary, it is not like that for everyone.

"What happened to me tore me apart at the time but my friends and family didn't change toward me. Yes, they knew I was in a wheelchair but I was still Peter. My disability doesn't define me, my personality is bigger than my disability."

  • Peter's documentary is due to be screened on BBC3 in July

They’re knights to remember

  • Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club will celebrate its 25th anniversary next month by bringing some of the top teams from around the UK together for a major tournament in Antrim Forum
  • The club has invited teams from the British Wheelchair Basketball (BWB) Premier League - the highest competition in the UK - to take part in the tournament to showcase the very best of wheelchair basketball skill and excitement
  • Teams like Oldham Owls and Sheffield Steelers, the two most decorated teams in Britain, will battle it out with Knights, Essex Outlaws and London Titans in what promises to be an exciting weekend from June 19 to 21
  • Knights is a registered charity which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people with disabilities and their families through the sport of wheelchair basketball in Northern Ireland
  • It is the most successful club in Ireland and one of the longest running wheelchair basketball clubs in Europe, enjoying success at club level as well as having players in the Great Britain and Ireland national teams
  • The best of the club's emerging talent will be on display with U15 and U19 games being played over the anniversary weekend
  • The club will also be conducting an outreach programme with schools in the Antrim area
  • It's a chance for the Knights to show what benefits the sport can bring to disabled people and their families, giving schools the opportunity to try the sport as well as talk to disabled athletes to gain an understanding of life with a disability
  • Wheelchair basketball is a very fast and exciting sport which keeps the spectator engaged. It is also known as the most inclusive sport in the world, with different disabilities, able bodied, male and female all playing on the same team
  • New players are always welcome and can make contact through Facebook Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club, Twitter @NIKnightsWBC or by calling Jason Kennedy on 078 0143 6248

Belfast Telegraph

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