Dear Nathan (the Rossdog),
This week, I wanted to sit down and write you a letter to congratulate you as you prepare to play your 50th NRL game for the Newcastle Knights against the Brisbane Broncos on Saturday.
Not everyone will know how much this milestone means to you, but I do. I know it was your dream to play just one Telstra Premiership game, so to now have had the opportunity to play 50 games and all for the club that offered your first real chance is something special.
Nathan, many people look at rugby league players and think they are living the dream. And it’s true, you are lucky. You have been given the opportunity to wear a red and blue jersey for a club which is the focal point in your community and also to play rugby league in the best competition in the world. But you have never taken that jersey for granted and while playing footy might be your dream, I know it has not always been an easy journey for you.
You made your first-grade debut for the Knights against St George Illawarra in round 21 of 2015 at age 26. It’s rare we see a 26-year-old debutant, but for you, it was the realisation of a goal you had been working towards your whole life.
As a youngster you played junior rugby league with the Burleigh Bears and the Coogee Randwick Wombats. Your career has taken you as far as Toulouse where you met your good friend Eloni Vunakece, to Lakes United, the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs and finally to the Knights where you played several years in the Intrust Super Premiership. People finally started taking notice in 2014 when you were named ISP fullback of the year after scoring 17 tries in 16 games.
The Knights re-signed you at the end of that year on a two-year contract. And the rest is history.
I know your road to your debut was not easy. There were sacrifices. There were setbacks. There were injuries. And there were coaches telling you that you were too small (you certainly proved those particular coaches wrong).
Not only were there challenges on the field, but there were challenges off it too. While playing in the ISP you juggled a job as a health and safety inspector and were primary caregiver for your son, Ziah. I know how important it was for you to be a positive role model for your son and in particular, to encourage him to chase his dreams, to do what he loved and not worry about the money. So you walked the walk and talked the talk, by making some sacrifices of your own while your chased your NRL dream.
Since making your debut you haven’t looked back. I have watched you become a cult hero among footy fans. It’s not just because you are athletic, a genuine larrikin and an impressive finisher who can do backflips on request, but it’s also because you always have time for your fans and are always grateful for their support of not just you, but the Knights squad in what have been some challenging years. No request is too much and no fan ever leaves an interaction with you disappointed.
You are not only respected among the NRL fan base, but also among your teammates and coaches who have included you in their leadership group this year. You should be remarkably proud of this.
There have been challenges, including injuries, some very lonely time in rehab and also living up to your own expectations. You are still trying to find your place in a squad which includes nine new team members. I am confident you will find your place soon and jag that first try of the season you have been craving.
But Nathan, for me, what you have done on the field is secondary to what you have done off it. It has been a pleasure to watch you develop as a player on the field and to watch you grow as a man off it too.
Your son Ziah has grown into an inquisitive little boy and according to you, has become ‘just a lovely kid’. I remember in the early years whenever you scored a try you would make the letter ‘Z’ with your fingers for him.
You and then partner Nikea, also recently welcomed a little girl, Willow, into your family last year. Big Willie is a unit – your words, not mine and is fiercely loved and protected by you, Nikea and Ziah. This week you told me these kids make your life worth living and they fill your heart with joy. I know as they grow up they will be proud of their dad and the not just the mark he left on the field.
More recently, you and Nikea also got engaged and I know how excited you are about making your family, a ‘proper little family’ very soon.
Nathan, you are a one-of-a-kind player. I’ve been so lucky to call you a friend and to play a very small part in what has been a remarkable journey. I’m exceptionally proud of you and can’t wait to cheer you on this weekend in your 50th game.
You have always said ‘rugby league has a funny way of giving back’. And for your dedicated self, rugby league has also nurtured and rewarded you too and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Thank you for being a man who is not just an exceptional role model for the Knights and the wider NRL community, but also for his family too.
Congratulations and enjoy the celebrations – they are very well deserved.
With love and best wishes,