It’s not uncommon to write a story about a rugby league player who needs an extra paragraph to rattle off their junior achievements. Captain of this. Medal winner in that. Australia or New Zealand under-everything.
This story will not need those hundred extra words. And that’s not to say Gold Coast winger/centre Anthony Don isn’t exceptionally talented, because if you watch him play, you can tell he is – but the lack of a pathway as a youngster had him believing his NRL hopes would remain just that.
“As a kid, everyone always has the dream of playing NRL,” Don tells Big League. “I had the dream. But when I didn’t make the 20s at the time I thought it wasn’t going to happen, so I went to uni, got my degree and went back to Grafton. I pretty much gave up when I went to uni. I just assumed first grade wasn’t going to happen.
“But now it has.”
Let’s back up a little. In an age when it’s not uncommon to find the ‘next best talent’ at the age of 17 and have them make their ‘shock’ NRL debut a few months later, Don broke the mould to play his first game for the Titans this season at the ripe old age of 25.
A Grafton native, he played junior footy locally before deciding that a higher education, not rugby league, was the path he should take.
So he moved to Newcastle for four years to study education – but unlike footy-focused kids who never really have the opportunity to live a ‘normal’ life, Don thinks his time spent walking university halls and not running around with footballs changed his life for the better.
“It was probably the four best years of my life,” he says. “Just enjoying the uni lifestyle and moving in with all my mates. I didn’t have the sacrifices that an NRL player has so I could do whatever I wanted on the weekends and go away whenever I felt like it. I was kind of fortunate that I got those years out before I had to make the sacrifices that I do now.
“I played with the [Australian Universities] team for two years and we had a couple of trips – one to South Africa and then to France and England. The trips like that, they were awesome. I’ll never forget those.”
Don moved back to Grafton after uni and joined his mates at the Grafton Ghosts. Already in his early 20s, he put his head down and focused on playing well for his home town. They won the premiership that season, and he contributed 40 tries and 71 goals.
His stellar season reinvigorated his passion for footy and he moved up to the Burleigh Bears in the Queensland Cup in 2011 (pictured, below), going on to win the club’s Player of the Year.
Through all this he learnt some valuable life lessons.
“It’s kind of more that they head-hunt you and there are a bit more dirty tactics that go on in country footy,” he laughs. “If you’re one of the better players of the team you get targeted by a few of the older front-rowers going in for a cheap shot, or once you’re held in a tackle someone might do something a bit dirty to you. There are some old tough nuts in the competition.
“It wasn’t really to try and get noticed by the Titans when I moved up. I played pretty well for the Ghosts that year so I thought I’d move and go to the next level up in the Queensland Cup. My brother lives on the Gold Coast so I just went up to Burleigh.”
John Cartwright couldn’t ignore the flyer and he earned himself a pre-season training contract with the Titans following his first year at the Bears. He dropped back to reserve grade last season, but managed to wrangle himself a two-year contract with the club before 2013 rolled in. Though he didn’t get a look-in right away, injuries to outside backs meant Don reached the final destination of the long and winding pathway to his debut – the Round 6 clash with Parramatta.
“My family from Sydney were looking for a holiday anyway, so I was lucky that they were all up here for the weekend that I debuted,” he says. “Getting the first try was a moment I won’t forget. Then we came back to win from 16 points behind… it capped off a really special day for me.”
It’s taken a lot to get here, but the different journey has given Don a very realistic attitude towards his football career.
“You’re always trying to cement a spot but whether that’s going to happen, I don’t really think about it. I’ve just got to play my best with the opportunity that I’ve been given and see what happens.”