Payne in running for Young Australian of Year
When Bulldogs forward Corey Payne received a phone call telling him that he was in the running to be named NSW young Australian of the Year, he thought it was a prank from one of his teammates.
The 28-year-old had been recognised numerous times for his work with the University of Sydney and the not-for-profit Future Direction Network organisation he had put together, but this was something else, it seemed like a gee-up.
It was no joke.
On Monday, not only had Payne been nominated, he had won the prestigious award.
"I got a phone call about four or five weeks ago," Payne told NRL.com.
"A lady called me and she had a bit of a husky voice and I thought it was one of the boys playing a prank on me.
"She said 'you have been named one of the finalists for the young Australian of the year', and I asked who had nominated me and she said it was an anonymous email from NSW.
"It turned out to be a legitimate phone call and I was really taken aback by it."
For Payne who has been awarded a Churchill Fellowship, a University of Sydney Alumni Medal, the NRL-RLPA Education and Welfare Award and twice named in the NRL-RLPA's Academic Team of the Year, the NSW Young Australian of the Year award symbolised the highest honour he had ever received.
"I'm really surprised and humbled to be the recipient of the award and my parents were really excited as well," Payne said.
"Thinking about it last night and chatting to some of my friends, it is probably the highest accolade or honour someone in the state could get under 30-years-of-age. To be in that calibre is quite humbling, because it is quite prestigious and really fantastic.
"It is an amazing achievement on a personal level."
Payne's work in the community has put him on an esteemed shortlist to be named the Young Australian of the Year. He is joined by some very accomplished finalists including Olympic Gold Medallist Sally Pearson and singer Jessica Mauboy.
The honour will be announced on Australia Day outside Parliament House on January 25.
Payne is hoping to attend, if Bulldogs coach Des Hasler will give him a leave pass.
"I'm quite excited to get to Canberra and meet the Prime Minister and the other nominees," Payne said.
"Olympic Champion Sally Pearson, Jessica Mauboy and a few of the other individuals have done fantastic things, not only here but abroad. I feel very honoured to be among them.
"Hopefully Des gives me the day off."
The award comes off the back of a stellar NRL season for Payne, who played in every game of the Bulldogs 2012 campaign that culminated in a grand final appearance, while also making his representative debut with the victorious City-Origin side in Mudgee.
The balance between study and a full-time NRL career has always been something that Payne has had to manage.
Time management became more important when he set-up the not-for-profit Future Direction Network, an organisation aimed at informing, educating and inspiring south-west Sydney youth about the importance of attending university.
Studies have shown that only 2 per cent of students from the region attend university and those who do are usually the first person in their family to undertake further education. It was this realisation combined with his own experiences that prompted Payne into action.
"In 2008 I started giving school talks, really I was just trying to use my profile as a footy player to help connect the idea that university study should be seriously considered after the HSC," Payne explains.
"I would tell them my story and the challenges I had faced in juggling university study with playing footy... but ultimately it was all about encouraging them to get involved.
"A couple of my friends realised we could do a lot more than just give an occasional talk and we got together and formed the Future Direction Network.
"We are about a quarter of the way to raising a scholarship fund in collaboration with AVCAL, the Australian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, so far we have been able to raise $150,000 for a trust fund to provide scholarships to disadvantaged kids.
"They'll be matched with mentors and they will be helped and encouraged all the way through university. Ultimately they will become the new role-models in their community, showing the next generation of schools and students what is possible."
Rather than breaking the mould, Payne reinforces an emerging trend in rugby league. Just like they do on the field, forwards are leading the way off the field as well.
It used to be joked that players would get kicked-out of the front-rowers union for showing intelligence, but NRL senior welfare and education manager Paul Hepptonstall said records show forwards are taking on further education at almost double the rate of backs.
"Rugby League is a great example of what can be achieved if young people are given the encouragement and support of role models like Corey," Mr Hepptonstall said.
"The number of Rugby League players attending university has tripled over the last four years.
"It is an amazing statistic that 60 per cent of them are the first in their family to attempt higher education."
The next goals for Payne are rather simple, win the NRL Grand Final and take his program international.
Anything is possible.