'Help him or he'll end up six feet under': Roberts' amazing transformation

James Roberts made a vow to his little brother, Kirk.

That one day, before Kirk's battle with muscular dystrophy would inevitably take his life, he would do one thing for him.

"I promised him he would see me play for NSW," Roberts says choking back tears.

It's a promise that only six months ago looked like he'd never fulfil, such was the severity of his battle with depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

"I was so worried," the mother of his two children, Anna Jovanovic, recalls.

"I rang Wayne Bennett and told him 'he needs help'. I told him 'I need you to help me help him because otherwise you're not going to have a footballer'.

"I told him 'you're not going to have James Roberts at all because if he keeps going like this he is going to end up six feet under'. He's come a long way and I'm so proud of him.

"But there was a time James hated himself. He hated the world. He just didn't care. He didn't care where he ended up or what happened to him."

Two years, two kids and two visits to a Thai rehabilitation clinic later, Roberts is a completely different person.

He's also an Origin player. But according to his coach and mentor, that's the least significant of his accomplishments.

"This is not his greatest achievement," Bennett said of Roberts' selection.

"Not by a long shot. His greatest challenge was not to be rotting away in a jail somewhere. Or worse, terminating his own life. He was fighting a lot of demons.

James Roberts with his father, brother and son, all named Kirk.
James Roberts with his father, brother and son, all named Kirk. ©James Roberts's family collection

"I've coached a lot of blokes but there's probably not a player I've been more proud of to get an Origin jersey. This guy is pretty special in my eyes."

Through the alcohol abuse, the anger issues, the drug addiction, the mood swings and everything that came with it, those closest to him never lost faith.

They always saw the flicker of light in the darkness that has been the tale of James Roberts's life.

It's a life he's not proud of. But this? This is different.

"Through my lowest points in my life and my career, I've been very ashamed of who I was," Roberts admits.

"I think this is the first time in my life that I've let myself be proud of myself. It's a special moment for me. I got quite emotional and shed a few tears when I found out I made it.

"If I could go back and do things different, I would. But I can't. What I can do is make good now. I don't want my family to go through what I've put them through before. That kills me."

His notion of a family is far different to the one he experienced growing up.

James Roberts after the Blues trained at Woolloomoolo PCYC last week.
James Roberts after the Blues trained at Woolloomoolo PCYC last week. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

He moved out of home when he was just nine years old. Often homeless. He didn't live with his mother again until he was 20 during his time at the Penrith Panthers. And his father, Kirk Grothkopp, has been in and out of his life.

"I saw things a kid should never see," he says staring into the ground.

He's also had to watch on helplessly as the eldest of his three brothers, Kirk, who he used to play with in the backyard, deteriorated to the point where he now spends most of his time in a motorised wheelchair.

The same brother who, at the age of five, began suffering symptoms of a crippling disease that the doctors said could end his life prematurely.

"Do you know how heartbreaking that was?" Roberts asks.

NSW centre James Roberts.
NSW centre James Roberts. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Bennett has seen the special bond the pair share. He's also seen how Roberts's actions and decisions have taken away from the very thing he was trying to achieve.

"He can help his brother now, but he couldn't do that three years ago," Bennett said.

"James, earlier in his life and the direction he was heading in, it wasn't helping his brother. He wasn't ever going to do what he wanted to do for him. But somewhere that changed. He was always born to play Origin. But this is more than just about playing Origin.

"It's about his brother. It's about his family. I've seen all his disappointments. The last two years he was inconsolable when the Origin team came out and he wasn't in it. He questioned himself. He let himself go to a bad place. That's because of the promise. He just wanted people to be proud of him."

Roberts took Kirk to the 2015 Dally M medal when he was named the NRL's centre of the year. A night that will live with him for the rest of his life.

"I still remember that night and how much it meant to him," Roberts said.

"When they called my name, I got up and I whispered in his ear 'this is for you, bud'. I adore my brothers – all of them. But Kirk has a special place in my heart. He's had his obstacles in life, but no matter what has been thrown at him, he's the most positive person I know and one of the strongest I've ever seen. He's always got a smile on his face. He's hardly ever angry. I couldn't imagine myself in his position. He gives me strength and hope.

James Roberts (from left) as a schoolboy footy player, with his partner Anna, in Blues camp and with son Kirk.
James Roberts (from left) as a schoolboy footy player, with his partner Anna, in Blues camp and with son Kirk. ©James Roberts's family collection

"I'm getting pretty emotional talking about it. He's changed my life. He's given me the motivation for everything I do. I know he would be pretty proud of me right now. That makes me emotional. To be the type of role model I am, for my littler brothers to see me doing good like this. It makes me really proud. I always wanted to be someone they could look up to."

There's a realisation among the family that there will come a day his brother will no longer be around. But his memory will never fade.

"When he found out we were having a boy he wanted to name him Kirk," Roberts's partner, Anna Jovanovic said of their first child.

"He wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, his brother would live on through his son. That's how much his brother means to him. He will always have a piece of him. And the special thing is, our son does look like him."

Jovanovic, who just gave birth to their second child two weeks ago, won't be in Melbourne. She will be at home looking after their little ones.

But Roberts has paid for his brother Kirk and their mother Zianna to be at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when he makes his State of Origin debut in front of 85,000 fans.

"James knows time is really precious," Jovanovic said.

"Every chance he gets he spends time with him because he doesn't know when it's going to be the last. That's why he wants him there.

"He doesn't care about anybody else. He just wants to make sure his brother is there. That's why he was so emotional when he found out. He did what he promised he would. I can't begin to tell you how proud of him I am."

James Roberts during his stint with Penrith in 2013.
James Roberts during his stint with Penrith in 2013. ©NRL Photos

The demons that plague him

It was November last year and Roberts was nowhere to be seen. No-one knew where he was. He wasn't answering calls.

Thankfully, someone spotted him wandering aimlessly through the streets of the Gold Coast in the early hours of the morning and phoned Bennett.

"He was so disorientated he didn't even know where he was," Jovanovic said.

"Two days later he was on a midnight flight to Thailand."

He was asked to pack his bags in search of help, but the Broncos didn't go into it all with their eyes shut.

"We knew we weren't getting a choirboy," Bennett said.

"But we didn't want a choir boy. Choir boys don't play like James Roberts."

He'd been in trouble before. But this time Roberts was in deep.

"Sleeping tablets were a problem for me," Roberts revealed.

James Roberts has been in career-best form for the Broncos in 2018.
James Roberts has been in career-best form for the Broncos in 2018. ©NRL Photos

"I was addicted to them. I used to do it to cover some of my pain. I'm past that point now in my life. They were just all bad decisions from me that I will never do again. I had a lot of depression and bad anxiety as well, dealing with a lot of experiences from a childhood that really affected me and traumatised me from a young age. I saw all different kinds of things. That all caught up with me when I got older.

"I had a lot of anger through my teenage years and adult years. I didn't know how to control it, which led me to alcohol and whatever else. It was a snowball effect after that."

That snowball resulted in his partner leaving him and moving back to Sydney with their son.

"James just wasn't coping at all," Jovanovic said.

"He just didn't care. He didn't care about himself so why would he care about anyone else? He would say to me 'you will never understand what goes on in my head'. He had all these demons."

The day after his night out on the Gold Coast at the end of last year, he met with Bennett. This was no longer about a footballer's second chance. It was about a man's last.

"I don't think I'd be playing footy if I didn't go," Roberts admits.

"I don't know where I'd be. I was that lost. I didn't know any more. I had no clue what I was going to do. Footy is my lifeline man. I just had to snap out of it and do what I love and was most talented at. That's rugby league. It changes people's lives and gives them second chances. It's given me that.

"I've been in some dark places. I'm just happy I'm here today and able to say I got through them. At one stage I was going to quit footy. I didn't want to do anything any more. I didn't know what I was going to do. But I've seen the light and turned my life around slowly. I'm grateful to be here."

James Roberts with his brother Kirk at the Dally M Awards.
James Roberts with his brother Kirk at the Dally M Awards. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The trigger

Roberts knows there are many who have endured far worse childhoods than him. He's been in and out of trouble his whole life, and had been sacked from South Sydney and Penrith.

It seemed like he finally got his life on track at the Gold Coast Titans, but it's there, when allowing himself to trust those around him, he began to crumble.

"He's been let down so many times when he has trusted," Bennett said.

"He can't trust. He has just been hurt so many times. It's sad because he is the most honest person I've ever dealt with. No matter what he's done, he's always been honest with me. He's got a great moral courage."

His partner watched on helplessly as his life began to spiral out of control once again as a result of the actions of a few when renegotiating his deal with the Titans.

James Roberts and Latrell Mitchell.
James Roberts and Latrell Mitchell. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"He trusted them," Jovanovic said.

"Titans staff members at the time to forge his signature on his contract, he felt really betrayed. That was a big thing. He has trust issues, and he allowed himself to trust. It put a really big hole in his heart, because he really enjoyed playing with the Titans. He had been so honest with them.

"He then had to find a new club, start a relationship with a new coach, new teammates. His whole life was just flipped upside down. I was pregnant at the time and James was really vulnerable. So to cope with it all, he turned to things he should never have turned to. He fell into a deep depression. James isn't a talker. He never talked about how he felt. He would just get angry and lash out."

The real James Roberts

"He's all passion and loyalty," Bennett said.

Roberts is reluctant to admit he's an emotional person. That's how he dealt with the cards that he had been dealt throughout a childhood where he never felt worthy of affection from those around him.

"I am a very emotional guy," Roberts concedes.

"I love my family to death. That's what makes me tick. Growing up in some of the circumstances that I went through, I had to try and block out that emotion and try and hide it. I thought I had to put on this tough front. But I've learnt as I've got a bit older and bit more mature to be myself. I'm very happy and content with the type of person I am at the moment. I'm just a totally different person. I have a totally different mind frame.

But he's a different person. He's the one taking the drunks home now, that's how good he's got.

Wayne Bennett

"But I'm still a work in progress. I'm always going to have problems in my life. It's just a matter of dealing with them the right way. I have certain tools and methods I use when I feel like I'm feeling those kind of pressures. They are the stuff I learnt in Thailand and just by growing as a person. I've learnt to avoid certain things and talk about my problems with people I trust. It helps a lot."

Roberts has learnt to identify the problems before they arise. Like when he went to his cousin and former teammate Tyrone Roberts' wedding in Newcastle.

One of his other cousins asked him what he had learnt in rehab, to which James replied: 'you're a trigger'.

Traditionally, Origin camps are renowned as one big bonding session. Plenty of friendships have been formed drinking into the early hours of the morning.

While no one pushed harder for Roberts to play for NSW than Bennett, he was still worried about him in such an environment.

"He couldn't have handled being in there two years ago," Bennett said.

"I actually spoke to Brad about it. They all need some help. They can say they can walk away after a couple, and yes, he's improved so much, but sometimes they still need help to walk away. That's where the Broncos players have been so great with him. But he's a different person. He's the one taking the drunks home now, that's how good he's got. But it's more important how far he comes in six years than six months.

"I've seen a change in him … it's his kids. It's something he can hang on to. He created them. There's this pride there. He knows that if he doesn't do the right thing, deep in himself he knows they will pay the same consequences he paid in life.

"I've even noticed that in his footy. He's such a good team man now. He was an individual playing in a team sport. He had no idea what it meant to be part of a team."

James Roberts got his career back on track with the Titans in 2015.
James Roberts got his career back on track with the Titans in 2015. ©NRL Photos

Roberts knows it, too.

"I want to give my kids what I didn't have," he said.

"I want to give my kids a headstart on life, whether it's being financially stable or just having a house over their head. I want to give them that family I always dreamed of."

It's just another example in the evolution and development of James Roberts.

"I love James. We've been through a lot but I do this because I love him," Jovanovic said.

"I think he realises it's not all about him any more. He's got money in the bank whereas before he could never save because of his decisions. He's playing good football and he's starting to feel happy in his own skin.

"I think having kids has given him hope. It's beautiful that he's actually turned his life around for the better. I'm so proud of him. It's been a mission to get here, but this is the start of his real journey."

 

* Readers seeking support and information about mental health issues can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.