The courage, commitment and inspirational strength of character shown by local heroes Rob Burrow and Kevin Sinfield in the most difficult of circumstances is set to be recognised with Leeds’s highest civic honour.
Leeds City Council is proud to announce that Rob and Kevin have been chosen to receive the freedom of Leeds.
They have long held a special place in the affections of the city thanks to their all-conquering exploits on the rugby field with Leeds Rhinos – but, more recently, the pair have also touched hearts right around the world following Rob’s diagnosis in 2019 with motor neurone disease (MND).
Rob’s response to his diagnosis was typically positive and selfless, with the last three years seeing him championing the raising of funds and awareness for all those affected by the disease.
Kevin, meanwhile, has followed his old friend’s lead by embarking on a series of gruelling endurance challenges that have raised millions of pounds for MND-related causes.
And that unshakeable bond – together with the manner in which it reflects the very best of Leeds – will be celebrated in suitably prestigious style by the council next month when Rob and Kevin are made honorary freemen of the city.
The awards will be presented to the pair in a ceremony at Leeds Civic Hall on January 11, with their names soon to be added to an engraved ‘roll of honour’ that can be found in the building’s banqueting suite.
Being granted the freedom of the city will put Rob and Kevin in illustrious company, with Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Alan Bennett and members of the great Leeds United side of the 1960s and 1970s among its previous recipients.
Responding to the council’s tribute, Rob said: “I would like to thank Leeds City Council for this honour. Having spent my entire adult life as part of the Leeds Rhinos family, it meant so much to me during my career to be able to bring joy to the people of Leeds with our success on the field.
“When you look down the distinguished list of previous recipients of this honour, it makes this acknowledgement from the city even more outstanding and I am deeply humbled to receive it, especially alongside Kevin, a man who continues to set the example for all of us to follow.”
Speaking about the award, Kevin said: “I am deeply honoured to be receiving this accolade. I have always said that whilst Oldham is my home town, Leeds is my home city and it was my privilege to represent the city as a Leeds Rhinos player during my career.
“Whilst it was a joy to bring sporting success to our city on the field, the way the people of Leeds in particular have shown their love and support for my friend Rob Burrow and his family since his MND diagnosis says everything about what a wonderful city Leeds is and I accept this award on behalf of all those people who have done so much for our community.”
Councillor James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “I am absolutely delighted that the council is honouring Rob and Kevin with the freedom of the city. We already knew they were winners through the success they had as team-mates at Leeds Rhinos, but the events of recent years have really shown that here we have two very special people indeed.
“The way Rob has responded to his illness has been humbling to see, while Kevin’s determination to support not only his friend but all those affected by MND has been hugely inspirational. They are true Leeds heroes, and it is our privilege to be able to give their incredible story the recognition it deserves.”
The Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Robert W Gettings MBE JP, said: “The granting of the freedom of Leeds is a comparatively rare occurrence, with this important honour recognising figures who have made an extraordinary contribution to life in the city or the wider world.
“Rob and Kevin have certainly done that, with their achievements, originally as rugby players and more recently as friends and tireless fundraisers, marking them out as people to be admired and applauded. I feel very proud that these two wonderful characters will be given our highest civic honour during my time as Lord Mayor.”
Councillor Andrew Carter, leader of Leeds City Council’s Conservative group, said: “Rob and Kevin’s achievements have been remarkable – they are an example to us all and offer compelling testament to the way in which we can help others meet even the toughest of challenges, and, of course, both were exceptional rugby league footballers who gave many of us hours of delight on the pitch.
“Honouring them with the freedom of the city will be a fitting tribute and one that I’m sure will be widely welcomed, given how deeply people in Leeds and beyond admire the comradeship and steadfastness they have demonstrated over the last few years.”
Councillor Stewart Golton, leader of Leeds City Council’s Liberal Democrat group, said: “When we honour Rob and Kevin it is not just to recognise their joint achievement in the face of adversity.
“It is also a celebration of the power of committed friendship that so many in this city depend upon when facing their own life challenges. At a time when so many need a helping hand, their joint endeavour to step up and make a huge difference for the sake of others is inspirational.”
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington said: “Kevin and Rob thoroughly deserve this accolade, the highest civic award the city can bestow on anyone. It is fitting that they should receive it together. On the field, they were part of a golden generation at Leeds Rhinos that brought unprecedented success to the city along with national and global acclaim.
“However, even more impactful has been their work away from the rugby field. The inspiration that Rob has offered since his MND diagnosis for so many with life limiting illness has been incredible and in turn that has allowed Kevin to inspire others to raise funds and awareness in the fight against this cruel disease. As a club, we are immensely proud of both Rob and Kevin.”
Rob made nearly 500 appearances for the Rhinos between 2001 and 2017, winning eight Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenge trophies.
Kevin’s similarly trophy-laden Rhinos career ran from 1997 through to 2015, with him serving as the side’s captain for much of that time.
His most recent charity challenge saw him raising more than £2m by completing seven ultra marathons over the course of seven days last month.
Rob and Kevin were committed ambassadors for club and city during their playing days, giving enthusiastic backing to the community-based work of the Leeds Rhinos Foundation and initiatives such as the council’s Child Friendly Leeds programme.
News of the freedom award comes as people continue to sign up for 2023’s inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon, which is being organised by not-for-profit events company Jane Tomlinson’s Run For All with support from the council. Taking place on May 14, the marathon will help raise funds for the MND Association as well as a Leeds Hospitals Charity appeal to build a Rob Burrow Centre for Motor Neurone Disease.