Cowboys legend Johnathan Thurston.

JT proves the ultimate pro to the very end

The video vision will forever show the fairytale finish for Immortal-in-waiting, Johnathan Thurston.

His teammates all running out in trademark headgear to a packed Cbus Super Stadium crowd, many of whom had travelled thousands of kilometres to pay tribute to "JT".

The family gathered sideline to see him out, with his great mate in longtime Australian and Queensland skipper Cameron Smith by their side.

The Cowboys' come-from-behind win on the Gold Coast. The copybook tackle on opposing skipper Ryan James, 25kg heavier.

The magic touches, the humility in post-match speeches.

Yet it is the competitiveness, the discipline, the routine – right to the end – that just five people witnessed that just as much defines the success of Johnathan Thurston.

Paul Bowman, foundation player of 1995 and now the Cowboys head of performance, was alongside Thurston at his first training session in Townsville in November 2004.

As he was in his last session nearly 14 years later.

Last Friday morning. As teammates harried to get out of the stadium and to the airport for the flight to Brisbane, Thurston would not take a shortcut even when this was the one time he had a right to.

Bowman was one of five staff members on the field as Thurston went through his routine of "extras" one last time.

He passed to the veteran playmaker from 50 metres, then 40, 30, 20 and then 10m on the left-hand side of the field. Four passes each time to Thurston who would kick. They began from long-range into the in-goal, to shorter, to bombs, to grubber kicks.

Then they did it all over again from the right side. One last time.

Because, if Thurston was to have a fairytale last game, it wasn't going to happen just because it should.

"There were five staff there waiting for him while everyone else had left the ground 10 minutes earlier but he wasn't going to take a shortcut, even though he was probably entitled to for his last game," said Bowman.

"He's like that after every session. That's why he is so great … great to his very last game.              

"Time was tight to get inside, do our recovery and get to the airport on time but he would never sacrifice what he needs to do in his preparation to get it right for the team."

Cowboys assistant coach Josh Hannay was in the centres with Bowman for Thurston's first game in a North Queensland jersey in 2005. It was at Suncorp Stadium, round one, before a crowd of 43,438 and the Broncos won 29-16.

The previous season the Cowboys had made the finals for the first time and had beaten Brisbane for the first time – 10-0 in a semi-final. Yet they were a more formidable side the day Thurston walked into the place.

Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Bowen.
Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Bowen. ©NRL Photos

At first, it was Thurston's innate sixth-sense combination with fullback Matthew Bowen that added a new dynamic to the side. Thurston's ability to close out the crunch plays, his competitiveness and his thirst for training hard were also evident from day one.

Yet Hannay also tells of JT's influence that the cameras don't capture, which will remain his legacy.

"It was obvious he was a special talent but he also had an obvious energy about him," Hannay recalls.

"He was just a carefree young kid then but he always had that competitive nature that whatever we were doing, whether it was training or playing the game, he just wanted to win.

"And for a club like us who hadn't won a lot up to that point, that competitive nature to want to win everything he was in probably meant as much to us as his ability did.

"We lacked that killer instinct, as a club and as a group, to back ourselves and beat every opponent we played. For a long time we felt we just wanted to hang in as long as we could against some of the big-name teams but he really helped changed that.

"You look at today and it hasn't diminished at all. He is still the most competitive guy I have seen or had anything to do with … it blows your mind how hard he works on his game.

"It was there on day one and was there in his final act tonight."

Thurston bowed out as arguably the most popular player rugby league has seen.

There were queues 900m long half-an-hour before gates opened on Saturday. There were Cowboys shirts being worn around the Gold Coast from the day before with more than 2000 tickets issued to the Cowboys to deal with demand from their members.

Almost the entire club staff were on hand, with 25 tickets also issued for Thurston's family.

Tickets were purchased from Innisfail, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Cairns, Maryborough, Sunshine Coast, west of Toowoomba and mid-coast NSW.

Johnathan Thurston and daughter Frankie after the 2015 grand final.
Johnathan Thurston and daughter Frankie after the 2015 grand final. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Thurston is proud of his standing as a role model, as much off the field as on. It comes from his humble upbringing in Brisbane and his modest entry to the NRL environment.

It was appropriate Smith was present for the last hurrah.

Smith was a teammate of Thurston's on the big stage for the first time way back in 2001, in a State of Origin curtain-raiser for a Queensland under 19s side that also included Brent Tate, Dallas Johnson and Aaron Payne who would all become Cowboy teammate of Thurston.

Smith and Johnson had already been signed by the Storm and were playing in their feeder team Norths Brisbane. Tate would play three NRL games for the Broncos that season and by the next was a Test player.

Tate, Smith and Johnson played for the Junior Kangaroos later that year with Matt Bowen, Braith Anasta and Corey Parker while the 77kg Thurston – who scored two tries kicked four goals in the 28-14 Maroons' victory but was unwanted by any NRL club - headed back to Toowoomba to work as a butcher’s assistant and play for the All Whites.

The following weekend, Bulldogs recruitment manager Mark Hughes, on the tip of Ricky Stuart who watched the under-19s clash, ventured to the Darling Downs to meet with Thurston. He was signed to play in the Jersey Flegg side (under-18s) coached by Stuart.

It was a month before Thurston was picked on the bench and he asked to go back home to his mother. But by the end of the season he was the starting five-eighth and man of the match in the Bulldogs’ grand final victory over Cronulla. The journey of the scrawny streak of talent had begun.

After four years with the Bulldogs, the Cowboys brains trust decided they had to have a game-controlling five-eighth if they were going to emerge as a real premiership contender.

They spoke to Thurston's manager Sam Ayoub and offered $220,000 a season to nail JT's signature, an enormous amount for an unproven first-grader (he was in Canterbury's reserve grade at the time) and it took some convincing of the club's bosses News Limited to approve the deal.

Instantly Thurston made a difference up north, an influence that never abated until his last moments in a Cowboys jersey on the Gold Coast.

And it won't go away in retirement. Because Thurston, as much as anyone of his era, knows the positive influence he can continue to have.

His is a career conducted like we all need to remember.