In the latest of a series on the breakout stars of the NRL in 2020 leading into the finals, Chris Kennedy reveals the work ethic behind the rise of Reed Mahoney from lonely Bulldogs prospect to a key player for the Parramatta Eels.
Reed Mahoney is on the cusp of his second finals series and a possible spot in the Maroons' Origin squad but it nearly never was after the young Queenslander's initiation to Sydney life.
The 22-year-old Eels hooker grew up in Landsborough, a quiet town about half an hour south-west of Mooloolaba, playing junior footy for the Beerwah Bulldogs.
From the Beerwah Bulldogs to the Canterbury Bulldogs, a daunting move to Sydney as a teenager to live in the "Bulldogs House" resulted in some lonely nights and plenty of thoughts of retreating home before being told by the club he wasn't headed for a first-grade career.
But the determination and work ethic that has underpinned his NRL career was already on show as Mahoney toughed it out with a singular focus on a spot on an NRL roster.
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A tackling machine at age four
Before missing round 18 due to a shoulder injury, Mahoney ranked second in the NRL for tackles behind only Dragons skipper Cam McInnes, with 812 made (and just 34 missed) at 48 per game.
The seeds for that defensive appetite were sown early.
"There was a video Mum took when I was quite young of me at the footy fields and I was tackling the bags, I only would have been four or five," Mahoney recalls.
"It's one of those fond memories I still have in my head, I always wanted to play footy. In Queensland everything is about footy, especially in those little country towns. You go to school with all your mates then head to footy training in the afternoon and that's what it was all about really, playing footy with all your mates.
"I probably didn't start taking it seriously until I was probably 14 or 15 when I started making a few of the rep sides but definitely the early days of playing with my mates and just spending the whole day at the footy.
"You get there at 8.30 and you're there until four o'clock or five o'clock with A-grade. Those are my fond memories of growing up."
On the Bulldogs' radar
Once Mahoney did start making those rep sides as a teenager he landed on Canterbury's radar.
"When I was 15 I played in a carnival and a few months later I signed with the Bulldogs on a little development deal," he says.
"I'd head down and do a few three-day camps with people from around Australia then when I got to 16 or 17 years old they wanted me to move down at the end of 2015 and I finished school up there, I thought 'this is my best opportunity, this is what I want to do'.
"I moved down by myself and being in Sydney by myself the whole time, my parents did come down a lot but it was pretty tough at the time, I was only 17. But if you ask me now it was worth all the struggles and the times you wanted to go home."
Mahoney's eventual Eels NYC coach and house parent, Deen Feeney, recalls a respectful young man who he was amazed was allowed to leave Belmore, let alone pushed out.
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"I did a bit of checking as one of the [Parramatta] NYC coaches and being a former Bulldog myself, people were a bit sad to see him go over there," Feeney says.
"I was his house parent over here as well so I'm a bit biased when it comes to Reedy, he's like one of my own to be honest.
"People I know and trust over there were sorry to see him go. Someone said to me 'do you think he can play first grade?' I said 'I don't know if he can play first grade but he's not going to leave any stone unturned' and that's what he's been like since he got here."
Lonely nights and thoughts of home
Mahoney has nothing but praise for the people who helped him out in those first eight months in Sydney, particularly house mum Viv, but admits as the youngest in a group where everyone else was old enough to go out to pubs he had some lonely times.
"I lived at the Bulldogs house for about eight months," Mahoney says.
"I was living with Adam Keighran who's at the Warriors now, he was one of my good mates there at the time but it was a bit hard the first couple of months.
"All the boys were 18 or above and I was still 17 and they'd go out on the weekends and I'd have to stay at home by myself. That's what I found pretty hard so I had to get my head around it and go from there. But I got through it.
"It was pretty hard, I spent a lot of time with the house parents. They helped me with staying and trying to pursue my career. Those things, you want to go from the bottom to the top but there's a process and with my age, I just had to stick at it.
"Hard work is what I knew I had to do and that's probably why I'm playing NRL at the moment.
"I couldn't go to the pub so I had to do my own thing. But if you ask me now it was worth all the struggles and the times you wanted to go home."
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Finding his feet
Keighran remembers a kid who was shy at first before blossoming into "a bit of a smart arse".
"We kicked off pretty quick," Keighran says.
"You get those mates who understand you and that's what me and Reed were. We got close with the house parents as well, we were always up there talking to them.
"Little things like that made us close … he's easy to get along with, real caring.
"It was tough to hear he was going to leave because we'd become so close but it was a good opportunity for him at Parra.
"He's a top bloke off the field and as you can see on the field he's competitive and that's what we saw at the Dogs quite a bit. We wrestled quite a bit and he'd be winning the wrestling. I did have it over him a bit there but he'd have it over me now he's been exposed to the big boys.
"He did start pretty shy but then again I started pretty shy as well … Once he got comfortable around the boys he'd always have a little smart comment to say, he's a little smart arse but it's good, you need different personalities.
"He was shy at the start but definitely came out of his shell and that's how we made such a strong bond."
A no-brainer for Parra
As much as Canterbury didn't see him as a future NRL player, the Eels jumped at the chance to bring him into the fold.
"I finished the SG Ball season and tried to make the '20s side and they said I wasn't in their plans and they had other people ahead of me," Mahoney says of his departure from Belmore.
"I sort of accepted it and didn't really think anything of it. A week later I was meeting with Parra and Luke Burt and two weeks later I was there training with Parra."
Feeney is still struck by Mahoney's work ethic.
"He'd be first to training and last to leave, wanting to do extras, tackling, passing off the ground, he'd be always there doing his extras to the point I'd have to say 'mate, time to get home, you've left early this morning and it's 9.30 at night'," Feeney laughs.
"Everything he's got he's worked for. Once he moved out of the house he was one of those guys you didn't have to check on. He banked his money, dotted all his I's and crossed his T's. Became a real team player as well, nothing was too hard or too much of a fuss."
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A spirit of giving
Mahoney is a deserving Ken Stephen Medal nominee for the Eels this year after doing untold amounts of work off the field with several charitable causes.
"When he got here we put him in the house with me and my wife, Dylan Brown was in the house at the same time and another young fella Stevie Dresler," Feeney says.
"He started working in the children's hospital as a teacher's aide and started that program off for us then went to Giant Steps, worked in the Children's Hospital in the school there with all kids who were crook and had to spend a lengthy amount of time in the hospital, they have a primary school and a high school in the hospital there.
"He did his teacher's aide certificate in there then graduated to Giant Steps then started working with all the autistic children in Giant Steps."
Unsurprisingly Mahoney isn't keen to talk up his off-field work too much but admits he gets a kick out of helping others.
"I think it's just my personality, I like to help people," he says.
"You have to give to receive, I sort of live by that. Obviously if the club need me to do something I'm definitely willing to do it. I really enjoy getting out and helping out others."
Mahoney has also been heavily involved with initiatives like the Eels Community School Blitz, the bushfire appeal in Bega and Ronald McDonald House and Westmead Children's Hospital visits.
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A bright future at Parra
Mahoney was delighted to finally get a deal done with the Eels recently, extending his contract through to 2022. He was the final piece of the puzzle in terms of locking down the club's promising young spine after Clint Gutherson, Mitch Moses and Dylan Brown were signed.
"It was really good to be able to stay at Parra a few more years," he says.
"Brad (Arthur) has re-signed at Parra now too. We've got some really good things in place and I think the next few years are going to be very successful. At the moment we're going pretty well, we've got a big next few weeks."
He'd be always there doing his extras to the point I'd have to say 'mate, time to get home, you've left early this morning and it's 9.30 at night'.Deen Feeney Mahoney's Eels NYC coach
As to whether he ever considered leaving, Mahoney says he left it with his manager with a priority to get something done with Parramatta.
"I tried to stay away from that. If that came up my manager would talk to me about it but I told him I didn't really want to be a part of that, I wanted to sign with Parra," he adds.
"Both parties found the right position which was really good. I didn't get too involved in that stuff."
Set to make his return from a week off with a shoulder injury, Mahoney is excited to be preparing for another finals series.
"Very excited. We've been training really well, started the season really well and put ourselves in a good position," he says.
"We wanted to finish anywhere in the top four because it's obviously very unlikely you win a premiership if you're not in that top four. We're still striving for that, we've got the next two games to secure that and a big few weeks leading into the finals."