Perspective can be so easily lost when it comes to the rigours, demands and the dynamic environment of professional sport, rugby league included. Pressure to win every week is massive, and sometimes the difference between winning and losing can feel like the chasm between life and death. Every now and then though, we are sent a stark reminder of what really matters – not just in rugby league, but in life.
The story of Johnny Mannah, the 23-year-old who played just 24 games for the Sharks and didn’t get to make his debut for the Eels, is one of those reminders. Johnny died three months ago after losing his battle with cancer. Brother Tim, club captain of the Parramatta Eels, provides a compelling example of how good can be generated from something so tragic. His willingness to talk about Johnny’s battle and his death, primarily to help others, is inspiring.
Who didn’t have tingles up their spine and a tear in their eye when the Eels lined up alongside the Sharks last weekend to play for the Johnny Mannah Cup? It was an incredibly moving scene, and it encapsulated the best of rugby league – sport is just sport, and yes it’s professional and yes it’s important – but there on the field were the players sending the strongest possible message that there are things far more important. The NRL community has this incredible capacity to help heal. Players may be heroes to their fans – but they are also just people like all of us. Horrible things happen to them – they are not immune to tragedy – but what is unique is the way this incredible sport sheds its corporate and competitive packaging and unites around them and their families. And it’s not just the warriors on the field who are beneficiaries of this…
The rugby league community and Channel 9 lost someone very special last year. Nicole Fitzsimons was killed in a bike accident while in Thailand holidaying with her boyfriend Jamie Keith. She worked on The Footy Show with me – and I am confident Nic was the biggest St George Illawarra fan in Australia. Her love and passion for our great game is what first drew me to her as a friend. It was only equalled by her passion and love of life.
Nicole’s beautiful family continue to mourn her death, and struggle without their angel every day. But they find comfort in going to watch the Dragons play – even more so when they win, and haven’t they done that nicely over the past couple of weeks! The NRL community instantly reached out to support the Fitzsimons family. Recently I sent a text to coaches, players, and clubs asking for raffle prizes for a fundraiser in Nic’s honour… from Des Hasler (who donated a Dogs jersey) to Josh Reynolds (his game shoes), to Aaron Woods (a jersey) to Luke Lewis (a jersey) – words cannot express nor numbers measure the magnitude of the donations we have received. Dragons coach Steve Price, Dan Hunt, and the Morris twins were among many players attending Nic’s memorial – where else but at Kogarah Oval…
Nicole wrote a piece about what rugby league meant to her and her family – her little sister Kate found it on her laptop after she passed away – and I want to share part of it with you…
“The love of rugby league is held by all in my family. My brother, my sister and myself have no choice but to be Dragons fans. We have been to just about every game since being placed on this earth and I mean every game – Townsville, Brisbane, Melbourne, Auckland – you name it, we’ve been there. We can be in the midst of the worst family domestic. We will be silent on the way to the game, silent walking through the gates and silent when we reach our seats but the moment the boys run onto the field – what domestic? Win or lose our moods come together as one. It is why I love the game of rugby league so much – it brings our family together.
“People say it is just a game – but within sport there is inspiration, strength, willpower, success and failure. It is a passion and a way of life and I love that our lives are scheduled around where each Dragons game is on the weekend; I love that dinners are occupied by conversations about the latest news in the game. But most of all I love that the game brings my family together – no matter what.”
Vale Johnny Mannah, vale Nic Fitzsimons; you are sorely missed.