Luke O'Dwyer has made a successful transition post-football, thanks partly to the inspiration of eldest son Jax. Courtesy Titans Media Credit: Courtesy Titans Media Copyright: Courtesy Titans Media
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention.
When former Eel and Titan Luke O'Dwyer was looking for ways to wear out his rambunctious 18-month-old son Jax at the same time he was contemplating life after footy 12 months ago, the seed for Little Leagies was planted.
O'Dwyer had taken Jax to introductory soccer classes aimed at pre-school children and wondered why rugby league didn't offer a similar pathway for those not yet old enough and with sufficient motor skills to join junior rugby league.
He got good mates Ashley Harrison and fellow 2013 retiree Scott Prince involved, the three worked with Jane Lowder in the NRL's Career Transition Program and as of last Saturday Jax and approximately 30 other Gold Coast boys and girls were getting their first taste of rugby league.
"Hopefully one day in a few years' time a superstar says that they started in our program," says O'Dwyer, who is also employed in a business development executive role with the Titans after 10 years in the NRL. "It's more about participants and spectators as well. We want to get young girls involved and boys who will be supporters of rugby league and touch football until they're old enough to play professionally or be spectators at NRL venues."
Thankfully for those in the twilight of their careers, the success story of Little Leagies is one that is becoming more and more common. In fact, in the first two years of its introduction in 2011 and 2012, every single player who retired from the game at the highest level and participated in the Career Transition program was employed in their chosen field within three months of hanging up the boots.
It's a far cry from the days of even a decade ago when players were left to fend for themselves in the real world when they were no longer capable of fending off opposition defenders. In the modern world of professional sport where you are taught to take it one week at a time, it has only become a recent phenomenon that players have begun to consider what might happen if that next game never comes.
You only have to ponder the hard luck stories of players having to retire early from the game due to injury – Simon Dwyer from the Wests Tigers a recent case in point – to realise that in many respects planning for life after footy is fundamentally more important than planning for next week's game.
Rugby league is very good at looking after its own in times of need but what about the players who simply stop playing yet still have bills to pay?
"If players haven't prepared, haven't done any courses or made any strong connections or paved the way for themselves then towards the end of their career, maybe on the last year of their contract, it can be quite stressful," says Lowder, founder of Max Coaching and winner of the 2013 Australian Career Practitioner of the Year partly for her work with the NRL.
"Worrying about how they are going to support their family, pay their mortgage... I really feel for those guys and we do what we can with them and for them.
"Others are quite excited about the prospects they have set up for themselves and while they love their footy and they're going to give it their all, they're also excited about the opportunities that lie ahead."
I recently spoke with an NRL player preparing for his seventh season in the top grade conscious of the need to have a big season in order to earn a new contract. He and his partner are expecting their second child soon and he is all too aware of the need to continue to provide for the family he holds so dear.
It's an additional pressure that perhaps fans rarely consider but one that Lowder is helping to minimise.
"I love to help players set themselves up, to really make that smooth move," says Lowder. "When they know what they want to step into after rugby league, while they're still playing, it can contribute to lower stress.
"I've seen some players who are very stressed about the future and so to help them map out what they want to do and see them become very comfortable and confident in that, the stress levels go down. That's really rewarding.
"In all of us, not just athletes, we all need to wake up with a sense of purpose every day. For the guys to get to the end of their career and know that what's coming next is laid out and they've planned for it, they do get to step from a very purposeful existence when they have their goals around footy to now having goals for the next phase of their professional life."
Nathan Fien retired at the end of last season with 276 NRL games on his resume and with the development of his business interests with FIFO Capital is one of Lowder's poster boys for a successful post-football transition.
And while O'Dwyer, Prince and Harrison may be endeavouring to inspire the next generation of rugby league stars with Little Leagies, the example they and others like them are setting may prove just as valuable to the current generation of NRL stars pondering the eternal question, What's next?