Jesse Williams, the only Australian to have won an NFL Super Bowl ring, has praised North Queensland Cowboys superstar Johnathan Thurston as an inspirational role model for young athletes.
Williams, who was a guest speaker at last weekend’s 2018 NRL rookie camp, told the 140 players in attendance about the ideals he believed were crucial to success - being a professional, staying true to yourself and being aware of the gap between how players perceived themselves and the views that others hold.
The 27-year-old, who was drafted by Seattle Seahawks in the 2013 but retired after two knee operations and kidney surgery due to papillary type-2 cancer, told NRL.com that Thurston lived by similar values and was a great example for others to follow.
“He is a great guy, a great leader, a great representative for what he stands for and a great role model for Indigenous youth coming up,” Williams said of Thurston, who was recently awarded the 2017 Australian Human Rights Medal and has been nominated for 2018 Australian of the Year.
“I think it is good that young players have someone to idolise who has taken the steps to do what he set out to do. He is very true to himself, and I am sure if you spoke to him a lot of it would be driven by the process of taking it one day at a time and staying true to yourself.”
Williams, whose family is from the Torres Strait Islands, was the first Australian of Indigenous heritage to secure an American football scholarship and played in back-to-back national championship-winning teams for the University of Alabama.
At the time, Williams was regarded as one of the best prospects in American football, but he required great dedication and commitment to even play for the famous Crimson Tide after working three jobs in Brisbane so he could afford to attend Arizona Western College in 2010.
“I arrived with US$250 in cash, the name of the defensive co-ordinator from school written on my passport and a few clothes,” he told the NRL rookies.
“If you asked me my greatest achievement I think it would be going from a nobody … not because I got to stand up on stage in front of millions of people or was on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice but because of the hard work I put in which gave me the opportunity to do that.
“I worked every second of the day, studied two degrees and started every game for the team which won two national championships in two years. From there I was stepping into where you guys are now.”
Williams also said he had never smoked or drunk alcohol.
“I saw what it did to other athletes,” he said. “A lot of those small choices really make a difference and you guys are at a time in your lives now when the decisions you make in the next one, two or three years will shape the man you will be.
“You are representing yourself, the NRL and your family so it is about staying true to yourself and your goals. You have to learn from other people’s mistakes. I know lots of players past and present and I think ‘how are you still alive’. I would never be in some of the places or the situations they were.
“Just because you see people in front of you, whether it is rugby league players, union or AFL, doing this, acting this way, treating women this way, acting this way, doesn’t mean you have to.”
Williams, who is set to open a training facility in Brisbane for athletes from all sports, said the NRL rookie camp was similar to the NFL Rookie Symposium he had attended after being drafted by the Seahawks.
“What the NRL is doing is a good start to really give these young kids the tools to help them not just in football, but hopefully in life,” he said.
“I still go back to a lot of the messages from other players, past coaches and other friends I have made through NFL. Resiliency, overcoming adversity and staying true to yourself are important to me.
“A lot of it is just about making the most of your opportunities. We can’t force them to learn but we can only expose them to what we think are the right things for them and their future in sport and life outside the sport.”