Knights halfback Mitchell Pearce.

Pearce reveals how he confronted his demons and emerged a better man

There were heroin addicts on life’s last chance. Alcoholics documenting every detail of their troubles.

There were victims of violence and even those scarred by the trauma of sexual abuse recounting the disturbing images of their agony.

And in that very room, inside a luxury Thai rehab clinic in 2016, sat Mitchell Pearce.

"I was spinning out," he said. "I was thinking 'what am I doing here?'"

And when he began telling his story, the people next to him were wondering the same thing.

They didn't know who he was. But it didn't take them long to locate the video to find out the embarrassing events that led to his arrival.

Pearce was in a dark place. He was ashamed. But those very people who had documented their traumatic experiences could only laugh when they realised why the NRL superstar was in their company.

Not that his behaviour on Australia Day in 2016 was funny, but because it paled into insignificance compared to the suffering and hardship that most in the room had endured.

It gave Pearce perspective. His problems were nowhere near as deep and as dark as those around him. But he needed help nonetheless.

"It was one of the best things I've ever done," Pearce told NRL.com leading into his 250th NRL game on Friday night.

"It was an unbelievable experience. I met so many cool people there. When I left Thailand I had five or six letters from different people that I had met in the month that we had formed really good bonds. Some people I talk to every now and again, and a couple I'll never ever see again.

"There were some pretty deep stories in there. A lot of people with a lot of abuse, obviously drug and alcohol abuse, but some with sexual abuse. A lot of stories you just don't talk about in everyday life. The bonds that I formed with a lot of those people, it opened my eyes."

Suddenly Pearce had a new way of thinking. The lessons he would gain during his four-week stint in rehab would be the foundations of a spiritual journey of self-discovery.

The voices, as he calls them, that once messed with his mind are no longer inside his head. No longer clouding his judgement.

"I've always been a bit chaotic in the head," Pearce said.

"It was a lot about trying to find a higher power. That's what a lot of people speak about [in rehab]. Getting out of your own head and finding a higher power. Some people's is doing yoga, some it's God.

"Everyone has something that's bigger than themselves. For me reading about spirituality and Buddhism, in particular, I found that everything slowed down for me and it’s given me peace."

Every morning Pearce wakes up and meditates.

"I meditate for 10 minutes and try and set some intentions for the day," he said.

He does the same thing every night, too. Focusing on his breathing and different body parts to relax a once scattered mind.

"It gives me peace when I tap into that type of stuff," Pearce said.

"I feel when I'm aligned with that stuff, I'm a happy person. As a footballer the more you can tap into that, it brings you a lot more calmness and composure. I think as a footy player when you're playing from your head and your ego, you're never playing your best footy.

"You play your best footy when you're in your feel and trusting yourself. 

"Meditation can open you up to that. With footy and different expectations that come with wins and losses and taking things to heart, it can all add to you playing from your head."

Pearce hasn't converted to Buddhism, but there's no doubting the role the religion has played in influencing his way of thinking and reshaping his outlook on life.

His father Wayne Pearce has been deeply into spirituality for a long time. At the end of his voicemail message, Wayne signs off by saying, "And remember life is a lesson, what have you learnt today?"

It's not the sort of message you'd usually associate with the dull and stereotypical "leave a message" recording, but it highlights the Balmain Tigers legend's different way of thinking.

"I've always been curious and wondered why things were the way they are," Mitchell said.

"I was more naive to that stuff when I was younger. I was just enjoying the moment really. I'm a lot more of a deeper thinker now. There's no doubt that experience in Thailand made me stop and do a bit of soul-searching, it opened me up to a few other ways of living. It opened my eyes to a deeper way of living." 

Leaving the Roosters for Newcastle 

It's impossible to reflect on Pearce's 249 NRL games without dealing with arguably the most gut-wrenching experience of all his well-documented hardships.

Departing his beloved Roosters as a result of the club's acquisition of Cooper Cronk, who also happened to be the architect of years of agony at State of Origin level, had the potential to send Pearce's life spiralling out of control.

Perhaps if he hadn't been through what he went through in 2016, he wouldn't have been equipped to handle it.

As hard as it was, and after giving himself a few weeks to let the pain and emotion wear off, Pearce went about moving on and trying to find the positives out of a move to the Knights.

"I'm really proud of the focus and commitment he has shown and the person he's evolved into," his father Wayne Pearce told NRL.com.

"He's shown how adaptable he is with the challenge he has taken on at Newcastle. He's gone up there and he's enjoying it, having stepped up in leadership.

"He started at the Roosters when he was a kid. And sometimes you're conditioned to still thinking you're a kid when the world around you hasn't change a lot. But he's gone from someone who was looking up to others at the Roosters to having people look up to him at the Knights."

He may not have realised that at the time of Cronk’s signature, but Pearce has now. 

"I was like a piece of furniture at the Roosters I'd been there for so long," Pearce said.

"There's more responsibility coming here. I knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge but I knew I was going to grow as a man as well. I wanted to do that. I wanted to grow up. I had to grow up.

"When you have a responsibility on you to be an example to other people, and you have to earn their respect, you have to be on every day."

Pearce is now more than just another senior player.

He's the captain in every sense. The players look up to him. The town looks up to him. It's a feeling he hasn't experienced often in a maligned career but one he is enjoying nonetheless.

"I didn't come here for needing love," he said.

"It was more for the challenge I was walking into. But everyone does enjoy being supported. There's a buzz here. It's like an English Premier League feel. Where you got to a Man United game and they are just patriotic about their team and everywhere you walk they are all fanatics. That's similar to Newcastle. You don't see any Bulldogs or Roosters jerseys in Newcastle. They are all one team, one town.

Mitchell Pearce after securing a win for the Knights.
Mitchell Pearce after securing a win for the Knights. ©Paul Barkley/NRL Photos

"At every other NRL club you're playing for your fans. But here you're playing for your people. You run into them at a cafe or down at the beach and you feel like you owe them results. That's how I feel. 

"It motivates you to want to get the place pumping. Everyone in this club – and it seems to be a long way away at the moment – but winning a comp here would be awesome. That's definitely the goal."

Knights coach Nathan Brown and football manager Darren Mooney have been leaning on Pearce for far more than just what he can offer as the halfback of a club on the rise.

During his time in the club's injury ward, he worked closely on Newcastle’s recruitment and retention plan as well with the coaching of the team.

"At the Roosters I wasn't really aware of the things that were going on in the higher power," Pearce said.

"They are pretty professionally run there and have been successful for a long time. Here they come to me for my thoughts on players who might fit well into our system. I feel part of what we're trying to build."

Watching the Blues win Origin

You couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Pearce this year. For years he had been tormented by the game's greatest players and when Queensland's golden generation finally decide to hang up their boots, Pearce was on the sidelines through injury during the State of Origin series.

Jealousy is not the word he would use describe how he felt watching the young Blues do what he had so often failed to achieve in the sky blue.

But no doubt he was envious.

"Everyone has carried that burden," Pearce said.

"We don't enjoy losing, we don't enjoy how it has been. I felt happy for the team and the state. There's no doubt you get a little envious. If I didn’t feel like that I would be disappointed in myself for losing the passion.

"I don't want to put a line through the rep footy stuff. NSW have just enjoyed a good series but I'm a winner and I want to keep succeeding. I always set my goals high. The day you stop striving to achieve higher things is the day you’re going backwards."

The pain of being blamed for many of NSW's series losses has haunted Pearce. It messed with his mind and scarred him to the point where it affected his everyday life.

But he's done with clinging on to that resentment.

Mitchell Pearce celebrates the Roosters' 2013 grand final win.
Mitchell Pearce celebrates the Roosters' 2013 grand final win.

"I've let go of trying to battle it," he said.

"You can't be bitter in life and hold on to resentment thinking 'I wish I did this or I wish I did that'.

"Sometimes I hear older players I run into holding on to things. I don’t think it's good for your happiness trying to change the past. If I had my time again it would have been good to win this game or that game, but it is what it is. It’s where I'm at right now. I have a fair few years left now and I’ll keep pushing to be the best player I can be and the best man I can be."

As tough as Pearce's journey has been, he is starting to appreciate the significance of what he has managed to do in his career since debuting as a 17-year-old with the Roosters.

"I've been living the dream my whole life," he said.

"I'm 30 next year. Everything slows down a little bit. I'm probably enjoying and more appreciative of what I'm doing now since I've moved to Newcastle. It might just be age and it might be the same if I was still at the Roosters.

"But being this age now for some reason the penny has dropped a little bit and you start to appreciate that we're living the dream and I want to make the most of it while I’m still playing."