Nightingale's selfless commitment to Dragons coming to an end
"Team first" has been the mantra for St George Illawarra players this season but it is one Jason Nightingale has abided by since joining the club as skinny kid in 2006.
In the 12 years since, Nightingale has played 265 NRL matches, 33 Tests for New Zealand, scored two tries in the Dragons' 2010 grand final triumph and won every individual award the club has to offer.
Considered one of the game's best wingers of the past decade, the 31-year-old has also played fullback and in the back row – a role which recently meant he had to make 41 tackles against Melbourne and has resulted in Nightingale suffering a nagging neck injury.
"I have got two bulging discs in my neck that I didn't know about until yesterday," he said. "It's from trying to tackle people and getting into awkward positions ... ducking at the wrong times and things like that."
After initially deciding that this season would be his last, Nightingale was enjoying the environment at the Dragons so much with James Graham, Jeremy Latimore and Ben Hunt joining the club that he had second thoughts and contemplated a new one-year deal.
Again, Nightingale put the team ahead of himself and announced his retirement at the end of the season.
"It would have been selfish of me to keep going and I wanted to make sure I went out when I wanted to go out and not the way it may have played out if I had played on," he said. "The club were great in offering me a contract for next year and they left the ball in my court."
St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust estimated he had negotiated eight previous contracts with Nightingale, a Renown United junior who pulled on the famous Red V jersey for the first time as a 15-year-old.
Nightingale said he had never considered leaving and was pleased to have been able to remain a one-club player, whereas the likes of Brett Morris, who he came into grade with and played alongside for much of his career, will next season move to Sydney Roosters after four years with Canterbury.
"I told Brett a few days ago that I was retiring and he would have had ambitions to stay at the Dragons forever too so I do appreciate that," Nightingale said.
The pair began their careers together, along with Morris's twin Josh, and Nightingale recalled the influence St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor had on them as the club's performance manager.
"Josh and Brett Morris were the same age as me and Josh was a bit bigger so Brett and me were trying to get as big as we could," said Nightingale, who weighed little more than 70kg at the time. "You'd eat as much as you could and try to put on weight.
"I was eating heaps and Mary had me benching big. I was benching 145kg, now I probably do 120kg. Those pre-seasons are where all the work goes in and it is funny that Mary was part of that growth."
McGregor said he had seen Nightingale develop into a great role model and club man for the Dragons.
"One thing Jason does every time he goes to training is apply himself to be the best he can be," McGregor said. "That is a big thing for young men in a football team and when they see what Jason has done in the game and apply themselves the same they are going to give themselves a chance.
"He is a team first person and that is an important thing. It is what we are creating at the club and Jason does that. The journey Jason takes next will be a successful one because he is a successful man and a strong person of good character."
Describing himself as "awkward and ungainly", Nightingale said he would have been a "terrible individual athlete".
Yet he bows out as one of just six players along with Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Bob Fulton, Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer to have played more than 250 premiership matches, 30 Tests and scored 100 tries.
Not surprisingly, Nightingale doesn't regard any of the spectacular put downs among his most memorable tries.
"I think the tries I remember the most are not where I have run the furthest or anything like that but are based on the occasion - obviously, the grand final tries or the tries you score at the end to win games," he said.
Nightingale is hoping his career won't end until the grand final, believing he can collect a second premiership with the Dragons and equal Ben Hornby as the most capped St George Illawarra player in what would be his 273rd NRL appearance.
Beyond that, Nightingale will take up a role as an ambassador with the Dragons and has already established Elite Athlete Business School, while he is looking forward to spending more time with wife Bianka, their daughter Chloe and a soon-to-be born son.
"Team first has always been something I have tried to live and motivated me through not wanting to let my teammates, myself and my family down," Nightingale said. "I think it is probably a point for me to shift that to family first."