How Preston inspired James to make huge off-field impact
One of the many impressive aspects in the make-up of Ryan James, the Gold Coast Titans' Ken Stephen Medal nominee, is there is no pretension.
Much of that has to do with his pedigree – his upbringing.
His mother Terri-Lee can still be seen every Saturday at Bilambil Jets juniors working away despite sons Ryan and Tim having long outgrown their junior days.
Terri-Lee and husband Kevin, the club patron, are life members.
They taught their boys strong values and, certainly, gratitude.
When Ryan came into the Titans' top side in 2010 as a 19-year-old, he came across a fellow indigenous role model who became a natural mentor for him – 2008 Ken Stephen Medal winner Preston Campbell.
As James says about his mate: "For such a little bloke he has made a big impact on the community."
So it was no surprise that Ryan James, a Starlight Foundation ambassador, was back at his primary school – Bilambil State School – this week with signed jerseys and other Titans gear trying to help them raise the $6000 needed to send their best football team for many years to go to the open schools titles in Sydney.
Or that, when his mum had the idea of the Bilambil Jets striking a special jersey to celebrate Indigenous Round this year, he committed to provide any shortfall of money raised. Two sponsors came aboard and James paid the rest and two teams were outfitted. The Jets were the only Group 18 club to follow such an initiative.
Or that he has averaged 100 hours a season conducting community work for the Titans, which takes him to close to 900 hours during his career – well beyond anyone else. Not because he is asked to, because it is what is important to him.
"It is good to give back, especially to where you have come from," James says.
"Bilambil is not a big town and only a couple of players from the area have made first grade, so to help them out and hopefully be some sort of inspiration to the kids there; it's great.
"I'll always remember when I was young and Parramatta Eels came to Bilambil, I think the link was that Nathan Cayless married someone from Bilambil. It was one of the best things in the world when they came out.
"So if I can bring some joy to kids who are just like I was there, it gives me a lot of joy too.
"Mum has volunteered at the Jets for about 30 years, she loves the club, and Dad does too, and I always appreciated what they do.
"Playing professional footy is a pretty easy job really. We are in a privileged position – you play footy for a living.
"I never lose sight of that, and if I can use my profile to help others, I'm privileged to be able to do that."
Campbell has left a defining impact on James.
Months into James's NRL career he went with Campbell, as part of the activities of the Titans' welfare arm, to the remote communities of Mornington Island and Doomadgee to help with positive living project.
"When we went out to Mornington and Doomadgee and a lot of remote communities and I saw how the kids react like they did to Presto and the impact he had, was inspirational," he said.
"He made a bit of a change out there, which is a powerful thing to do.
"He's done so much in the game – won a Dally M Medal, won a premiership and was so instrumental as a foundation Titans player – but is someone who thinks of everyone else before himself.
"He is such a small bloke who had such a big impact on the community.
"He is a once-in-a-lifetime player who just gets respect for being himself, like Johnathan Thurston too. Presto laid the path for a lot of players who have followed [in community engagement]."
James's connection with the Starlight Foundation came from an experience which is typical of the Titans skipper.
It was in 2015 when the family of wheelchair-bound 13-year-old Harrison Wheatley came to the perimeter fence after a match asking if James could look up at Harrison, who couldn't get to him, and wave.
James did more than that. He jumped the fence, went to Harrison, gave him his boots he'd just worn, and posed for a photo with him.
Someone else witnessed the event, posted a photo on social media and it went viral. When James found Harrison had had a cervical spine disorder since he was a toddler but was going to walk Brisbane's City2South fun run (with assistance), he sprang into action.
He had been considering cutting his long locks for his upcoming wedding, so it was arranged to seek sponsors and all funds went to Harrison's fund-raising for the Starlight Foundation.
Soon after, the connection between James and the Starlight Foundation developed further and now he is proud of his ambassador role.
"When you have children of your own and you do things for the Starlight Foundation and see kids who are pretty sick, you are extremely thankful that your own kids are healthy and realise how lucky you are," said the father of two.
He is also part of the Titans' RAP working group, recently flew to Rockhampton on a day off to help launch the 'Artie Academy', a program for indigenous students named after Arthur Beetson, and is often the Titans' first port of call when valuable community representation is required.
In a nutshell, he appreciates what he has, receives abundant praise through the club for the respect and rapport he generates when he represents the Titans ... and it's natural.
Perhaps the most basic and appropriate testimonial comes from the Bilambil Jets, who posted on their website when Ryan last year reached the 100-game NRL milestone.
"Ryan you are an inspiration and brilliant role model to many of our kids in the community and beyond our community.
"The work you have done with different charities is unbelievable.
"You are a great ambassador and all-round great bloke. We are very proud of you."
That's why he is a worthy candidate of becoming the Titans' third Ken Stephen Medal winner behind Preston Campbell and Luke Douglas (2016).