Penrith centre Brent Naden is reaping the rewards for never giving up on or off the field and his efforts are inspiring others.
Naden earned praise from teammates for his long-range pursuit of Gold Coast halfback Jamal Fogarty in last Sunday's 22-14 win that ensured the Panthers remain at the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder.
"He has really got some speed," winger Josh Mansour said of Naden, who clocked 33.4kph in the chase, according to Telstra Tracker data. "He made a really good effort and almost tackled him out."
It was typical of the work ethic that has enabled Naden to fight his way back into the Penrith team after being overlooked for selection by coach Ivan Cleary in the first three rounds after the competition resumed on May 28.
A schoolboy star who was recruited by the Panthers at 16 years of age from the western NSW town of Wellington, Naden captained the club's under 20s team that won the NYC grand final in 2015.
However, he didn't fit into Anthony Griffin's plans when he took over as coach the following year.
After stints with Canberra and Newcastle, Naden was set to quit the game and return to Wellington until Penrith offered him a second chance and the 24-year-old made his NRL debut midway through last season.
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Naden admitted he still misses home and the Wellington Cowboys, the club where he began his junior career and with whom his family is heavily involved.
Brother Brock, who was also at the Panthers, returned to the Cowboys last season, while sister Britt also plays for the Group 11 club.
"The Cowboys helped me a lot as a junior so if I wasn't playing for them I don't think I would have got picked up anywhere so I owe a lot to them," he said.
"Now with all the COVID stuff it is hard to get back, which sucks but before that I tried to get back as much as I can to watch them play. I have still got mates who play there. They won the comp last year so they are pretty strong.
"It is more than a footy club, it is like a family. Once you are a Cowboy you are always a Cowboy and we just look out for each other."
A proud Wiradjuri man, Naden is the only Indigenous player in the Penrith team for Sunday's match against Manly and will wear a pair of boots hand-painted by his uncle.
Naden's grandfather taught him about Indigenous culture when he was growing up and he was excited about playing this weekend.
"It means so much," he said. "I play for Wellington every game but Indigenous Round is going to be something a bit more special. Myself, Daine Laurie, Brayden McGrady and Glenn McGrady have our totems on the back [of the jersey] so I will be playing for them as well, so it is pretty special."
Panthers Indigenous welfare manager Glen Liddiard said Naden was an inspiration for young players from Wellington and other country areas, with Billy Burns (Parkes) and Charlie Staines (Forbes) having followed similar journeys.
"They know he is just like them and if they put the hard work in they could make it like he has," Liddiard said. "He has got a lot of people out there he helps and he gives a lot of faith to a lot of young boys.
"It hasn't come easy but he has stuck at it and he is reaping the rewards now. Not everyone makes it at 20 and Brent is one of them. Even though he captained that under-20s team he needed a bit more maturing. Now he doesn't look out of place in first grade and he is looking to go further.
"I think Nado was one of those blokes who needed a bit of time to mature and realise what he wanted, then grab his opportunity at a later age."