Pain of life lessons behind Packer's self-improvement
St George Illawarra prop Russell Packer had plenty of time to think while he was in jail.
Time to think about his young family. Time to think about what could still be a long and fulfilling life for himself with that family once he was a free man again.
Time to contemplate the fact that rugby league had been taken away from him for a couple of years. Time to realise that one day, purely through the effects of father time, professional rugby league (at least in a playing sense) would eventually be taken away from him forever, as it is for every player.
The now-26-year-old had time to realise that he could still set a positive example for his kids – five-year-old Madison and three-year-old Harley. He wanted the best for them and he realised that included the best possible education to set them on a path towards successful lives of their own.
Speaking to NRL.com at Rugby League Central minutes after being named in the Rugby League Players Association academic team of the year, Packer was explaining what drove him to enrol in a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Accounting and Finance at the University of Wollongong.
The softly-spoken Kiwi had to lift his voice above the din of assorted guests and dignitaries who were on hand for the presentation but the environment was a far cry from the long lonely silences of Parklea Prison and Oberon Correctional facility back in 2014.
"After everything I've been through, I had seven years in the NRL [beforehand] and didn't really have much qualifications even though I had a lot of opportunities and a lot of resources there for us which I didn't take advantage of in the past," Packer said.
"My mentality is to take advantage of everything that we have so we don't finish our rugby league careers back at square one, and it's more of a transition into another job instead of the end of football.
"Another reason is to be a good example for my kids after going through some difficult times. Education is very important. I'd love for my kids to go to university as well and pursue some tertiary education so they can have good jobs and be good people."
Packer's one-year stint in jail as a result of a drunken assault in the Sydney CDB in 2013, gave him "a lot of time to think".
"It makes you think about what you want to do in the future; football wasn't there for a couple of years," he said.
"It did open up this opportunity for me so to juggle it with back playing NRL has been really good with the help of those programs. It's something I'm going to continue to do."
Those resources Packer refers to include education grants provided by the RLPA to assist in players' education pursuits, among other assistance available to players, which has seen 800 of 1,000 current NRL and NYC players being involved in some sort of further education or workplace training and one in five players enrolled in a university degree as of the start of the 2016 season.
"Hopefully I'll graduate sooner rather than later but I'm just kicking off. It's a long-term thing and I think most of the people that are here just chip away at things and you see the benefits come," Packer said.
"My friend Jeremy Latimore just graduated this year with a bachelor of business from the University of Wollongong. You see the boys that graduate and it gives you a bit of a kick to keep going if you think it gets a little bit tough."
As Packer speaks to NRL.com his son Harley is being a typical three-year-old, yelling and tugging on now-unplugged PA-cables and generally trying to run amok, highlighting the challenge of raising a young family while being a professional football player as well as trying to complete a degree.
"Like anything in life you've got to balance your time and find time for it and that's how I do it," Packer said.
"Obviously I've got my family and rugby league commitments but it's something that's quite valuable in the scheme of things so I find time for it."