Cody Walker: South Sydney's selfless star
For Rabbitohs playmaker Cody Walker, there are few things he enjoys more than being out on the football field.
Whether it was running around with his cousins on a Monday afternoon growing up in the NSW north-coast town of Casino or taking to the field on the weekend for junior club the Casino Cougars (his childhood hero being Preston Campbell), rugby league has always brought him great joy.
Now the stage is a lot bigger, playing in front of thousands every week as a key member of the South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL side.
But there's something else that drives Walker these days. A proud Indigenous man from the Yuin and Bundjalung tribes, the 27-year-old is one of the more selfless NRL players you're likely to encounter, passionate about making a difference. From the hours spent with Souths Cares to an off-season trip back to Casino with teammates Greg Inglis and Adam Reynolds to run a series of skills sessions and motivational talks to more than 1000 students, he gives his all in the community much like he does in every game he plays.
"He's genuine about wanting to help Indigenous people in the country areas. Some people say it but they don't mean it; he does."
Shane Richardson on Cody Walker.
When Walker returned NRL.com's call to chat for this story ahead of Indigenous Round, he was at training with the Redfern All Blacks under-6s – the side his son plays for – helping volunteer coaches.
He doesn't do it for the plaudits and he certainly doesn't do it for the publicity. The reason Cody Walker spends so much time in the community is simple.
"I just want to see young Aboriginal kids have a positive life," Walker told NRL.com. "It's just something close to my heart that I really love to do, put smiles on kids' faces. If that's helping out at training or taking kids certain places, saying hello to certain people, I'm happy to do it."
Perhaps it was Walker's long road to the NRL that gave him a sense of perspective. His first move was to the Titans, playing 36 games for their NYC side and scoring 25 tries across 2009-10. He then shifted south to play with the Windsor Wolves the following year – "It was the middle of winter out at Windsor, it was hard to get motivated" – before a stint with Easts Tigers in the Queensland Cup resulted in a Melbourne Storm contract.
While injuries denied him a first grade appearance with Craig Bellamy's side, further time in reserve grade culminated in a two-year deal with the Rabbioths from 2015 and an NRL debut in Round 1, 2016, at 26 years of age.
After a chat with Easts Tigers CEO and close friend Des Morris, Rabbitohs general manager of football Shane Richardson was left with no doubt that South Sydney were not only acquiring a handy footballer but also a quality individual when they signed Walker. But not even Richardson could have imagined the impact Walker – named Rookie of the Year at the club and by the RLPA in 2016 – would have both on the field and away from it.
"I was well-prepared for Cody when he got here and what his capabilities were on and off the field," Richardson told NRL.com. "To be fair to him he's exceeded those initial recommendations, both playing and his character.
"Perseverance, it's a really big thing. Stickability, the ability to stick at something and getting over adversity. He's had a lot of adversity in his career with injuries and a whole range of things, he deserves the accolades he's getting at the moment.
"He's genuine about wanting to help Indigenous people in the country areas. Some people say it but they don't mean it; he does. He feels he wants to give back to the community, the community he came from in the Casino area. Rugby league's been very good to him and his family, he feels responsibility from it."
For the first time this weekend all 16 NRL clubs will play in jerseys to celebrate Indigenous Round, something Walker said he's "very proud" to be a part of. The Rabbitohs' Indigenous players are represented by their totems on the side's jersey, with each totem linked back to the rabbit to symbolise their unity and links to the club.
There will be an even greater connection to this year's jersey for the five-eighth, with his uncle Joe Walker's design selected to adorn the Souths strip.
"He was very proud, very excited," Walker said of his uncle's reaction.
"We had about five or six to pick from. We didn't know who designed the jerseys and luckily we all picked the one which my uncle designed. It was pretty special in the end.
"I just can't wait to get out there and wear it. Last year we had the totem and our hand print on the jersey, this year we have the totem but it's designed by my uncle.
"I can't wait to get out to every game for South Sydney but this one is special to my heart this week."
With Indigenous players making up 12 per cent of the NRL competition, 21 per cent of the two current State of Origin sides and 24 per cent of the Australian Kangaroos squad, there's no denying the impact they have had on the game from grassroots to the elite level.
For Walker, this weekend is a time for us all to recognise just what Indigenous people have brought to rugby league.
"It's about celebrating what our great culture is, and what wonderful Indigenous people have done in the game," Walker said of Indigenous Round.
"We've got a pretty good representation of Aboriginal people in the NRL, I just think it's great. We're a sharing culture so we want to share what our culture is, we want everyone to be a part of it."
Signed through to the end of 2018, Walker will no doubt continue to make the most of his time with the Rabbitohs. But away from the field, what's next?
"My goal now playing NRL is I want to help young kids from country areas make the transition to the big cities, and offer a support network they can relate to," Walker said.
"Growing up in a small country area I had this massive goal to play NRL. Luckily I had my family's support, my mum and dad and my three older brothers as a support network. A lot of these young Aboriginal kids don't have that, and it's not their fault.
"With Aboriginal people family is the most important thing. My biggest issue when I moved away was homesickness, I didn't have any family members around or anyone I really knew. I found it very tough to make that transition to the Gold Coast. What I want to do is try and make that transition a little easier for kids from country areas."
A shining example of what perseverance and dedication can result in, the next generation of Indigenous NRL players will be in safe hands when Walker's plans come to fruition.