Matt Srama and Ryan James are two of 24 Gold Coast Titans players enrolled in tertiary study in 2014. Credit: Tony Webeck
Luke Covell thought he'd done the right thing.
He thought that after eight years in the NRL with the Wests Tigers and Cronulla – where he earned representative honours with both Country Origin and New Zealand – and study that saw him obtain certificates in both real estate and personal training, that life after footy would be just fine.
Only for Covell, and many other NRL stars just like him, moving from full-time footballer to member of the workforce was a period of his life that placed both a financial and emotional strain on he and his family.
"It was finding something that I was passionate about and could see myself doing every day of the week and waking up for," Covell told NRL.com. "I wasn't someone who earned a lot of money out of football; I've still got a mortgage and I've got kids and all that so I needed something that could pay the bills and was long term.
"I thought I'd be sweet. I'd done some study, I thought I'd get a job [when I retired]. I got my real estate certificate, I got my personal training certificate and when I got out I started getting involved in them and I just did not like it one bit.
"I tried a job, it was a computer desk job, working behind a computer all day and I only lasted 12 month doing that and I was really struggling.
"My wife and kids had already moved up [to Banora Point on New South Wales north coast] because she'd found a job. This is where I grew up and mum and dad were up here so we lived with them while we looked for a house and it was a really tough time for myself and my family."
Covell is now within reach of finishing a plumbing apprenticeship that he began more than a decade ago before rugby league consumed his life and is helping the next generation of stars to manage their post-football careers from the very start.
As an NRL apprentice mentor Covell meets regularly with young footballers in the Gold Coast region engaged in traineeships and apprenticeships and offers support to finish their trades while also managing their prospective football careers.
It's just one part of a game-wide focus on education of its players that not only enforces a "No work, no study, no play" edict in the National Youth Competition but also assists players in the latter stages of their careers with a successful transition to the workforce upon retirement.
The Gold Coast Titans and Griffith University are the latest to have formed an association as part of the Graduates of League program and currently 24 Titans are engaged in study ranging from Ryan James studying Business, William Zillman's Real Estate and Property Services major to Kevin Gordon's study of philosophy.
A record 75 NRL players are enrolled in tertiary education in 2014 with a further 145 under-20s players also engaged in university study with the Graduates of League program growing from an association between St George Illawarra and Wollongong University in 2012 to incorporate 16 tertiary institutions in 2014.
Career-ending injuries to Jharal Yow Yeh, Simon Dwyer and Alex McKinnon in recent times have highlighted how short a rugby league career can be and encouraged players such as James to invest in their future from a young age.
"I got the pleasure to room with [McKinnon] in the Country team last year and he was well into his secondary studies so he's looked after himself and the NRL are looking after him now," James said.
"I got a lot of my university study done when I had my knee pretty much dislocated and broken so I got to take my mind off footy while I was injured so it did help me a lot.
"You're down and thinking about footy and whether you're going to play again but I was fortunate to have university to keep me away from footy and keep my mind elsewhere and study really helped me get through that.
"I don't know what they're [studying] but Luke Bailey and Luke Douglas are doing some sort of diploma. You see them every Thursday arvo on the computers – 'Bails' typing with one finger on the keyboard. But he's getting it done so it's good to see people like that showing the way for the younger people."
It may have come a year or two too late for Covell but he is thrilled to be on the front-line of ensuring that future players need not go through the anguish he experienced when the time came to hang up the boots.
"Every time I see them and meet them for the first time you see yourself in them straight away," he said of the youngsters he and fellow former NRL star Brad Meyers mentor. "They think footy is everything and they don't have to worry about work but once you start telling them some statistics or I start telling them a story about myself they switch on pretty quickly.
"It's very difficult so the more support that's around from past players and the NRL the more chance we are of not letting blokes slip through the system and not have tough times if they finish their career."