Young Parramatta Eels recruit Jaeman Salmon joined the club last season still wearing a neck brace having taken part in a schoolboys carnival not realising he had a broken neck that put his life in jeopardy.
The highly rated De La Salle Caringbah junior represented NSW in under-16s and under-18s Origin, and the NSW Combined Catholic Colleges at under-15s and under-18s level.
The latter schoolboy carnival – at which he was trying to press his claims for Australian Schoolboys selection – was where the near-tragedy struck.
"It happened last year in a game playing in the Australian Championship trials for the Australian Schoolboys team," Salmon recalled to NRL.com.
"I went low to score a try and a player coming across, his knee sort of went into my neck accidentally. I got up and my neck was real sore."
Salmon went to hospital that night but was told the problem was muscular. Believing the stiffness was simply a pain-management issue, he played another game the next day because it was a week-long tournament.
"But my neck was screwed," he said.
"That night I was getting massive headaches ... My dad took me out of the team camp and took me to hospital and I got proper X-rays and they came back and I had two complete fractures in my C1 vertebra.
"I got rushed to hospital on spinal precaution. They were saying I was very lucky."
So another injury while he was on the field the day after breaking his vertebra could've had nasty results?
"I could have been dead, that's what they were saying."
Match: Sea Eagles v Eels
Round 2 -
Venue: Lottoland, Sydney
Aside from being potentially life-threatening, the untimely injury put Salmon out of Australian Schoolboys contention and also threatened to derail the contract negotiations he was undergoing with Parramatta coach Brad Arthur and recruitment manage Peter Sharp at the time – but the club stuck solid.
"I was in negotiations with them about signing when that happened," Salmon continued.
"They were still interested even though that happened then I signed with them. It's all about coming back from injuries because everyone gets injured but it's how you come back from them. They know if you're a good player or not."
Now eight months on from the injury, Salmon is on the verge of easing back into contact training and hopes to be available for selection by about round five. The 19-year-old anticipates starting the season off playing under-20s but is targeting some games with the big boys through Intrust Super Premiership side Wentworthville as the season progresses.
An NRL debut remains a long way off but at 6'1" and 92 kilograms and the ability to play fullback, centre or second row outside his preferred five-eighth role, a possible taste of top-grade footy off the bench later in the season isn't impossible.
"I've spent most of the pre-season in rehab but I'm coming back well now. I've started doing contact. I'm slowly getting on board, I should be back playing by round five," Salmon said.
My neck was screwed. That night I was getting massive headaches.Jaeman Salmon
"First grade is obviously a goal of mine down the track. [The move to Parramatta] wasn't really about playing first grade, it was about developing to play first grade. No club has ever said 'you're going to play first grade', they said 'hopefully you play first grade, we don't know when but we'll help you develop'.
"Brad basically said to me, 'when you're ready we'll find you a way in'. I personally don't think I'm ready yet. This is my first pre-season [in first grade].
"I've got a lot to learn still, more size to put on. This is a big development year for me. Hopefully I'll start in 20s, play a bit of second grade [for Wentworthville] and give it a go (making NRL) next year. Brad's said 'when you're ready you'll play' – when that is is up to them."
Asked for his best position, Salmon continued: "I'm more of a running five-eighth or fullback. I'm a bit of a utility. I could be coming off the bench, playing anywhere, it doesn't bother me.
"They said they'd start me back in the 20s to ease me into things. I want to play for Wenty this year. Maybe push for a game at the end of the year in first grade but that's down the track."