The day Thaiday told Bennett he was ready to walk

The end is near. Four days away, perhaps.

But it's 11 years and two months longer than Sam Thaiday was once willing to give.

In what could well be his final interview as an NRL player, Thaiday has reflected on his 300-plus games and the day he approached Wayne Bennett looking for the exit doors.

"I was ready to go," Thaiday said.

"I was fairly close. It made me question my own career as a footy player. I had some tough conversations with Wayne around that time whether I wanted to be here or even playing footy any more."

It was 2007 and one of his best mates, Joey Clarke, had taken his own life.

Not long after Clarke's passing, the Broncos were heading to New Zealand for a clash with the Warriors.

For Thaiday, it was too much.

"My mate Joey was from New Zealand," he said. "I told Wayne 'I can't go over there'."

Bennett could see the agony in his then young forward, leaving him behind to try and deal with the shock that was threatening to see him lost from the sport.

"We play such a tough game and we're taught to be such hard men but a lot of the time we're not manly enough to have a tough conversation with each other," Thaiday said.

"The first emotion a lot of men show is aggression. If we started showing a little bit of sympathy or the ability to listen to someone's story without judging them, we could help a lot of people with the problems they have."

"Wayne's ability to know when to kick me up the butt and know when to cuddle me was fantastic. He's taught not just myself, but a lot of players, how to be a man. We've got a lot of rugby league players these days who don't have a father figure in their lives and Wayne has been fantastic at being that."

In one of the greatest classes of retirees in recent memory, Thaiday's impending retirement has somewhat been overshadowed.

A retirement that was announced in July - in typical Sam Thaiday fashion - but began in January.

When those three little steps, from his bedroom to his living room, became too difficult to conquer of a morning.

"At the start of the pre-season this year I knew it was time to go," he said.

Broncos forward Sam Thaiday is chaired off Suncorp Stadium after the win over Manly.
Broncos forward Sam Thaiday is chaired off Suncorp Stadium after the win over Manly. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"I was getting more and more modified with the training I was doing. It was harder and harder to wake up at 6am to get to training. I have three little steps from my bedroom up to the main part of the house.

"It was hard to get up those steps every Monday morning. We were training six days a week. Sundays were our only day off.

"I spent most of Sunday icing something. Stretching for half an hour in the morning. That was quality time my kids were missing out on. I could lace up the boots and play football forever. You ask any rugby league player and they can do that. It's the training that's the hard part. The requirements to be a professional."

It's a career that has had far more highs then lows. But as is often the case, the forgettable becomes unforgettable.

Like the 2015 grand final.

"You're starting to believe that you're there," Thaiday said.

Retiring Bronco Sam Thaiday.
Retiring Bronco Sam Thaiday. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

"Six more tackles and you're on that stage holding that trophy up. We were seconds away from winning another trophy," Thaiday said.

But then Kyle Feldt and Johnathan Thurston intervened.

"I almost wanted him to just kick it so we didn't have to go into overtime," Thaiday said of Thurston's failed conversion attempt to win the match in regular time.

"At that point I was like 'I almost wanted it to be over'."

I have three little steps from my bedroom up to the main part of the house. It was hard to get up those steps every Monday morning.

Sam Thaiday

From start to finish, Thaiday has been true to himself. A larrikin – learning from the likes of Kevin Walters and Allan Langer.

"I've definitely rubbed people up the wrong way before," he fires back. 

He's poked and prodded at Bennett for years, testing his patience with untimely pranks in serious meetings.

"I've definitely tiptoed the line a few times with Wayne," he said.

But perhaps it was no-nonsense prop Shane Webcke he riled the most. When a light contact training run turned into a bashing session.

"Sometimes I don't think he understood me," Thaiday said. "He started going a little harder and harder and harder and it turned into a full-on game.

"There were some full-on shots, running it straight. No fisticuffs. I'll leave that to Joel Clinton and Shane Webcke."

Throughout his 16-year career at the Broncos, Thaiday often battled homesickness. Townsville was home. It was where his family all were.

"There were a few times I was home sick and would have loved to pack the bags and gone back to Townsville. But I'm glad I stuck it out," he said.

"There were some long, long phone calls back home. A fair few tears. I was pretty close to going home. I remember our Christmas breaks, it was tough coming back from Townsville."

There have been times in recent years when Thaiday's place at the club has come under question. That perhaps he wasn't part of Bennett's plans.

"Someone once told me you make family where you are," he said.

"I was missing my family back home but I had to use my mateship with the boys here to flip it and say 'they're not just my mates, they're my family now'. I always wanted to finish here and it was always going to finish here. There was never going to be any other option.

"The Cowboys knocked on the door a couple of times throughout my career. It would have been fantastic to go home and be up there with and around my family. But Brisbane is home for me now. This is where I'll raise my kids and they'll be Broncos fans."

The one thing Thaiday has noticed as he's progressed from prodigy to veteran is how quick people forget. How quick you are to pass the use-by date in some people's eyes.

Thaiday recently picked Mal Meninga as the coach of the greatest 13 players he's had the pleasure of taking the field with.

But Meninga's decision to overlook, and not inform Thaiday of his axing from the Australian team last year, fractured that once strong relationship.

"You put your blood sweat and tears into all those jerseys you wear. Sometimes it's just good to get a pat on the back and a well done Sam. It wasn't just me.

"There were a handful of us that were there during that successful period and we kind of did get brushed aside a little bit. Yeah, we weren't the players dropping the field goals or kicking the sideline kicks to win games but we were there in the middle doing the hard yards setting up for those plays.

"It burnt. There will always be a scar there that will remind me of what happened. It's something I can't forget. I've had a conversation with Mal now and we'll continue to build that relationship going forward. I played in the mid-season Test. Part of a successful winning team and I thought the favour would be repaid with a selection. To not even receive a phone call was pretty damn heartbreaking."

On Sunday it could all be over. He'll bow out against the Dragons on home soil, or live to fight another day against the loser of the Melbourne-South Sydney qualifying final.

"Someone did ask me the other day you must be sick of signing autographs," he said.

"One day people aren't going to ask me for autographs. There's going to be another great player who will have all that attention and I'll be pushed aside. I'm going to soak it up for as long as I can.

"As much as I love to be remembered by the numbers I racked up in the 300 games and the Origins and the Australian games. At the end of the day you just want to be known as a good bloke. They are probably things you want to be judged on the most, the things away from footy."

 

  • Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 131114;
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; 
  • MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.