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'Grateful' Okunbor out to regain trust after making NRL return

Grateful for being able to make an NRL return which he doubted would happen earlier this year, Jayden Okunbor is determined to regain trust and repair his reputation.

Okunbor and former Bulldogs teammate Corey Harawira-Naera were deregistered in April following a pre-season scandal involving inappropriate behaviour after a high school coaching clinic, but won an appeal in July to have their contracts reinstated.

The towering winger scored a try in his comeback on Friday night, a loss to Manly at ANZ Stadium.

Okunbor worked as a landscaper with Harawira-Naera while he was stood down and said the experience went "a long way in humbling me ... It scared me I guess".

"There were some dark days where I sort of said I'm not coming back [to the NRL], but when the opportunity came and the club said they wanted me back I just sort of jumped at it," Okunbor said.

The 23-year-old posted a public apology on Instagram two months ago, saying he doesn't "condone my behaviour nor do I believe that it is a true reflection of the person I am" and he wanted "nothing more" than to earn the respect of fans.

Bunker awards try to Okunbor

Okunbor was initially so distraught he couldn't bring himself to watch more than 10 minutes of Canterbury's games on TV at the start of the season and mostly stayed in his bedroom.

He lauded family, friends and teammates for their support.

"They've just been awesome for me. They got me through all the dark days. One of the boys in the team, James Roumanos, he was there from day one," Okunbor said.

"We've been close and his family sort of took me in there for a little bit, just inviting me over for dinners and that, looking after me, and I can't thank them enough.

"Just Mum, Dad [helped me]. My brother's overseas but he was ringing me every day just to get me through things."

Okunbor had feared he would be shunned by the Bulldogs.

My big thing is if Mum would be embarrassed by it, don't do it.

Jayden Okunbor

"The boys … as soon as it all happened, they all reached out to me and said that they've got my back, they'd do anything they can to get me back in the team," he said.

"I'm forever grateful for that. It was massive. When it all happened I didn't think they'd want to talk to me, but I think it shows the character of the club and the boys."

Upon returning to training after his time out, Okunbor made a point to apologise to the squad without being prompted.

"I was pretty close to breaking down in front of everyone," he said.

"There was just a lot of people that I had to apologise to and I wanted to get that out of the way on my first day and just try and move on."

While Harawira-Naera chose to leave mid-season for a fresh start in Canberra after being cleared to resume his career, Okunbor was always keen to work his way back into favour at the Bulldogs.

"Me and Corey are in different positions and he did what was right for him and I've done what was right for me," he said.

Get Caught Up: Round 18

"We speak pretty regularly ... We've got a good friendship there and I think we'll be friends for life."

Okunbor believes his decision-making has improved following the introspection that came from his turmoil.

"I know I'm privileged to be in this position and I can't make stupid mistakes like that ever again," he said.

"My big thing is if Mum would be embarrassed by it, don't do it."

Jayden Okunbor is congratulated after scoring a try against Manly.
Jayden Okunbor is congratulated after scoring a try against Manly. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

It was his mother, Donna, who motivated Okunbor to start viewing matches again and maintained hope of a second chance.

"Mum kept telling me, 'You've got to be optimistic, it could work out for you so you can't just give up and not watch it, because you might be back there and you've got to know what you're doing'," he said.

"That's when it turned around."

And when he received the news that his exile was over, "I broke down. I went and told my Aunty, she broke down.

"Rang Mum, we just all broke down ... We had hope but we didn't want to get our hopes too high."

Every try from round 18

Now, after feeling like he was "debuting again" last round, Okunbor wants to prove his true character.

"I just want to be a good person," he said.

"I sort of felt like I was a pretty good role model before all this stuff happened and I sort of just want to build my reputation back up and gain people's trust again and not let them down ever again."

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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