DAMIAN: THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION

DAMIAN Clayton's commitment to rugby league knows no bounds and his unswerving devotion to the game and its promotion has won him one of the highest accolades in the land.

The young RAF sergeant from Brighouse has been awarded an MBE for his services to sport in the armed forces, particularly in pioneering rugby league in the Royal Air Force where he has been responsible for setting up its own team.

It is an award totally unexpected by this Brighouse-born lad who began his rugby playing with Brighouse Rangers and still enjoys a game with his home town team when duties at RAF Leeming permit.

He has worked tirelessly in urging the Government to introduce the 13-a-side rugby league game into the forces and his determination, along with his passion for the game, finally paid off in 1996.

It involved handling a mountain of administration, greatly helped by his equally rugby-mad wife, Lorraine, consultations and meetings with various bodies, including the RAF Sports Board and RUFL and, the most terrifying part of all, when he had to stand up in the Commons and speak into a battery of microphones.

"That has to be one of the most intimidating experiences," said Damian, who will be presented with his MBE at Buckingham Palace in a few week's time.

"It was nerve-racking, but once I got talking the rugby took over and I was fine," he said.

He persuaded the all-party group of MPs for rugby that there was demand for rugby league in the armed forces and the league code became officially recognised.

"Once we could show that the interest existed, the hierarchy sat up and listened," said Damian, who is 32.

It was a major milestone because it allowed the RAF and other armed services to aspire to playing with the best in rugby league world-wide.

Ten years ago, the RAF didn't play rugby league. Now it has 12 teams, thanks to Damian who led his side in the Kellog's Nutri Grain Rugby League Challenge Cup preliminary rounds this season before losing to Conference club Leigh East.

"The fact that we got so far is an achievement itself," said Damian.

A former pupil of Hipperholme Grammar School, where he also played ruby, Damian has spent a great deal of time in pursuing his mission - joined by his Army opposite, Martin Coyd.

"But Lorraine has been a huge support and I couldn't have done it without her," he said.

The couple, who have a son, Connor, aged eight, now live in Holmfield, Halifax, with Damian commuting to RAF Leeming where he expects to remain for several years.

It follows various tours of duty in Germany, Holland and the Gulf when he was involved in Operation Desert Fox and he has recently returned from a four-month tour of the Falkland Islands.

"It is nice to be back in the area, but we have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the RAF," said Damian, who was promoted to corporal in 1993 and then sergeant in 1997.

He admits he joined up almost by chance when he "popped into a careers office in Bradford" - and has never looked back since, succeeding in a career in transport management.

"I think we have been very fortunate in the armed forces but it is what you make of it. We have got stuck into the RAF way of life and reaped the benefits," he said.

Since receiving notification of his MBE, Damian has been inundated with letters and calls of congratulations from top personnel in the RAF other armed services and from the rugby league sporting fraternity, not to mention his family and friends here in Brighouse.

And Brighouse Rangers and local referee Jeff Greenwood have added their congratulations, along with BBC TV Sports television commentator, Ray French, who worked with Sgt Clayton on the NAAFI inter-style competition.

"It's not quite sunk in yet. It's just a tremendous honour," said Damian.

His mum, Janet Griffiths, was one of the first people to get to know about his MBE.

"I told her I was taking her to Buckingham Palace and she just burst into tears," he said.

After the excitement of receiving his MBE medal, Damian, who is secretary and captain of the RAF Rugby League team, will be settling down to his job at RAF Leeming and encouraging soccer-mad son, Connor, who is a member of the Leeds United Halifax Academy Under Eights, to do his best.