Almanac Rugby League: “Whatever happened to…’That Guy’?”

Remember that kid who was the best player in your footy team from the Under 8s on? For me, it was a kid named Jason.


Jason was always that little bit bigger and stronger than the rest of us. He should have been playing in the Under 10s, he was more their size and speed. As we progressed up to the Under 13s, he scooped the pool every year as the best and fairest for the team. He was our five-eighth, captain and leader who took us to many Grand Final wins.


Jason wasn’t only popular with his teammates, he was the most popular kid in school. As we progressed from the small pond of primary school into high school, both his football prowess and his social standing grew even more among the wider peer group.


For the last few years he’d been in the District merit squad doing the extra training which it demanded. He was then selected by the Panthers for their upcoming Harold Matthews squad.  We’re only playing Under 14s this year while the Harold Matt’s is representative Under 15s.


I remember him coming into school wearing the snazzy new tracksuit jacket that none of the rest of us had. It was an immediate magnet to all the girls in the school and a 14-year-old boy’s dream!


He only played a handful of games that year which was to be expected but, from all reports, he did alright when he was given a run. The junior rep season finishes in June and so he then came back to us in the local club competition. We had been struggling without him for the first few months and desperately needed him if we were to make the semis to defend our title.


But there was something a little bit different about the guy who came back to us from the representative scene. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. Nobody dared say a bad word about Jason and those that did were accused of being jealous of his success. I may have been envious but I wasn’t jealous. I knew I was only a local club footballer who wasn’t going to go far in the game.


Suddenly Jason wasn’t running full pelt at the opposition defensive line anymore. Sure, he’d gotten bigger as he grew, but so did the other kids we’d been playing against every year for the past six or seven years. Blokes whose tackles he was able to burst through previously were now standing up to him with better technique and strength they didn’t have before.


Instead of being a ball runner, Jason pops up little passes and then snaps at his teammates for “not backing him up”. Nobody has ever needed to back him up before because he’d never needed to pass the ball before. Instead of being the first up in the line to make a tackle, he was now about the third man in, first off the tackle and running to the B or C defender spot. On reflection, he was piking out of the hardest impact challenges.


You knew when the Harold Matthews squad selectors were at the game, too. Jason would be deep in discussion with these guys before and after the game on Saturday morning. He’d run that little bit harder whenever they were around.


But when we really needed to get a win, when we really needed our leader to step up and get us into the finals for the last fortnight of the regular season, he suddenly announced he was injured. He had a sore knee, didn’t play, and we failed to make the final for the first time since we started in the Under 8s.


The following year he was a starter in the Harold Matthews team. I never went to see him play but, from all reports, they were a good team and were unlucky to get knocked out in the semis.  We never saw him back at the local junior club because his off-season, the first half of the season proper, was totally devoted to the Harold Matt’s campaign.


He could have played the rest of the junior Under 15 season with us but, instead, he was ‘recovering from injury’. It didn’t stop him playing for the school in the State-wide knockout competition, however.


We all know that friendships change as we get older but Jason was leaving us behind. When things weren’t going right it was us, his teammates, who had let him down and, anyway, he had new mates in the upper level of the game.


These guys also got to wear those snazzy tracksuits to their respective schools. Not only did they play higher quality games inside the NRL stadiums, they also partied together and the rumours of their off-field conquests were the stuff of legends.


But life is unpredictable. Some would call it Karma. As young footballers get older and move on from the Under 15 Harold Matthews, not all make the Under 17 SG Ball standard. Then, after they move on from the SG Ball age group, not all of those blokes make it to the Under 19 Jersey Flegg level. This happens because the NRL club starts to bring in talented juniors identified by their scouts out in rural New South Wales and Queensland.


Back in the days I’m talking about, there was still the Under 21 President’s Cup which replaced the old Third Grade competition. Players in that company then aimed to be selected in Second Grade and hoped to then score a contract to be part of the First Grade squad.


Each year, a squad of 24 Under 21 footballers could expect to be “graded” by the club. The only problem is that, on average, only about three players retire each year with, maybe, another five being released by the club. So that leaves only eight spots available in the Senior ranks. That leaves a lot of disappointed young men with shattered dreams of making the big time. This happened at every club each and every year.


Jason dropped out of school at the end of Year 10 to take up an apprenticeship of some sort but he didn’t last long in that. He didn’t like going to TAFE and it just ‘didn’t pay enough’. He’d be a regular at the nightclubs around town. Always seriously intoxicated, and not just with alcohol.


There was a night he was asked to leave the venue by the bouncers. He didn’t want to go and so they tried to grab him and lead him out. A fight broke out and about ten bouncers were onto him. They say that he was left on the median strip of the road outside as the security team set a guard dog on him to gain control of the situation.


The NSWRL soon became the Australian Rugby League with expansion teams in New Zealand, Queensland and Western Australia. Opportunities abounded for a lot of ‘fringe players. It was also a chance for ‘troubled’ guys to get a fresh start with a clean slate in a new city, State or country.


Jason was lucky to get another chance. That whole generation of players was lucky. Some of the guys who had a similar path to Jason made the most of their opportunities. Others didn’t. They fell into the same traps as before, maybe just in a different location this time.


Jason didn’t last long in his new home. Rumours abounded about the shenanigans he got up to. As good as his footballing ability was, it wasn’t enough to compensate for the drama associated with his behavioural problems.


Where is he now? I have no idea. The modern miracle of 21st century communications has connected us with long lost acquaintances through Facebook, but Jason isn’t one of them.


Some old mates say he’s up in Darwin, others say he’s spent time working for various ‘security’ jobs around a number of Asian countries. His parents moved out of the area so there was no home for him to come back to in his old home town.


This kid was naturally tougher, stronger and quicker than the rest of us. He discovered he could still perform better than the rest of us even though he was out at all hours the night before, consuming whatever substances were thrown his way.


But as you keep going up the ladder, you come up against opponents who are also bigger, faster and tougher than the average. Opportunities become fewer and fewer.


This is true in all professional sports.  In the United States, only 4% of high school athletes make it to College sports. Only 1.6% of College players make it to the professional leagues. Baseball is the highest where 2% of pros come from the NCAA.


Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler are the most obvious examples of footballers whose skills were such that their indiscretions were forgiven, no matter the severity. But they were blessed with abilities which changed the way the game was played. As good a player as Jason was, he was no Joey or Freddie. His sins couldn’t be covered. He was left to wither on the vine.


For every Joey Johns there are another 50 Jasons out there. I’m sure we’ve all known a Jason at some time in our lives. Whatever happened to them?


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About Wayne Ball

Tragic fan of the Australian and NSW cricket teams (for those of you outside NSW, there is a difference, despite what David Hookes said). Not a fan of T20. Penrith Panthers are the only club of decency and all which is good in Rugby League, the Waratah's were once the national team of Rugby Union, the first non Victorian team in the VFL/AFL is the Sydney Swans, and they all enjoy my passionate support. Sings for Wanderers. Internationally, I have been to see the Oakland Athletics and Green Bay Packers play. One day, I'll see Norwich City play for the FA Cup at Wembley.


  1. A sobering tale, Wayne. We’ve all known one or two of these over the years. It’s a reflection on both the drive and utter commitment needed by the individual to ‘make it’ at the highest level and the ruthless efficiency of ‘the system’ that spits out those who can’t/won’t/don’t make those sacrifices.

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