'Everybody needs to know the Owen Craigie story'
Last week Owen Craigie sat down with respected rugby league journalist Barry Toohey to do an emotional podcast interview which every young sportsperson and their parents should hear.
Craigie was a phenomenon. I'd never seen such talent and athletic ability.
An athletics coach spotted a young Craigie running barefoot in a park in Tingha and saw Olympic potential.
I was working as a junior development officer at the Newcastle Knights when my boss Keith Onslow told me to go to Belmont Airport and pick up this "superstar" kid and his dad, Ray.
Craigie had just collected a swag of medals at the world junior athletics titles, including gold in the 100m sprint in 10.93 seconds from a standing start.
When Owen stepped off the plane you could see the power and athleticism. He was like a teenage Mike Tyson, a powerhouse.
Relive classic NRL matches from the 60s to today on KAYO SPORTS. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
The next day, youngsters from all over the country were at the Knights' trials looking to earn a contract.
Onslow told Craigie he wasn't required because there was already a contract for him to sign. He knew other clubs' scouts would be watching on and wanted to hide Craigie away.
The problem was that another youngster from Tingha was wowing the crowd at the trials, scoring try after try. His name was Nathan Blacklock.
Owen wanted in and, unbeknown to Onslow, asked another member of the Knights staff if he could have a run? The answer: "Sure mate, good luck."
In the 10 minutes Craigie was on the field, he was mesmerising, but then Onslow raced to the sideline and yelled: "Get him off!"
Owen left the field and immediately signed a $1000 contract, which included incentives and all his school fees being paid.
It was a pretty good deal for the Knights but Owen's rise was so rapid that he would buy his first house 12 months later.
Onslow is a champion. There are not enough like him in the game these days and he looked after Craigie as if he was his own flesh and blood.
Onslow asked me to help Craigie adjust to life in Newcastle, and as a result "Owie" and I became tight.
When I did extra training he would join me. If he needed to be somewhere, I'd drive him. If he was homesick, my wife Trish and I would invite him over to our place.
In the lead-up to the 1995 season, the Knights and a number of other NRL clubs went to Fiji for the World Sevens.
Coach Malcolm Reilly decided to take a then 16-year-old Craigie to the tournament.
In the second game, we were down four points with time running out but Craigie came on and with his first touch of the ball scored a 60m try which showcased all his gifts.
After the game, Reilly nudged me and whispered: "Owen Craigie ... f***ing hell."
Later that year, Craigie was standing in the schoolyard when he was asked to report to the principal's office. He rolled his eyes and thought: "What have I done now."
The principal told Craigie he had to report to Knights training immediately because he had just been selected to play first grade against the Broncos on the upcoming Sunday.
With 15 minutes remaining in the match, Craigie, who had just turned 17, found himself opposite his hero, Steve Renouf.
After the game, he went into the Broncos' shed and asked Renouf to sign his footy card.
Craigie was headed for superstardom and was already a star in the Hunter Region.
However, the Super league war was devastating for his career.
Firstly, Craigie's protector and guardian Onslow joined the Hunter Mariners and, secondly, he received great money.
Youth, money and stardom attract troublemakers who want to use people like Craigie, steal from them, sponge off them and, through jealousy, bring them down.
Over the next two years, Craigie's problems became bigger.
One morning when I arrived at his house to collect him for training, there were people everywhere - new mates, old mates, fairweather friends, hangers-on and drop kicks.
And there was Craigie, sitting alone looking miserable and a long way from home.
I asked him several times move in with Trish and I but he would say, "nah, I'm all good".
He wasn't. Craigie had an incredible charisma and energy, but I could see the light going out in his eyes.
If I had my time again I'd insist, even if I had to pack his things myself.
Through all his difficulties, Craigie kept playing great football. But just because a bloke's playing great, doesn't mean he's going great.
Professional rugby league is a difficult place for sensitive souls, but even more so in the '90s. There was no player welfare, no one confided in a teammate for fear of being ridiculed or branded "soft".
In Craigie's final years at the Knights, football wasn't so much fun.
There were still moments of magic, like his chip-and-chase try against the Dragons in 1999, but he was miserable.
When Craigie left the Knights at the end of the 1999 season, the players were devastated because the side was so tight.
Craigie would eventually retire at 26 after stints with the Tigers, Rabbitohs and Widnes.
Retirement was tough. He continued to battle personal problems and found escape in gambling. He lost an enormous amount of money to poker machines.
He once told me: "I don't care about the money I wasted, it's the time I wasted that hurts."
Craigie also found an escape in alcohol. I'd ring when I heard he was struggling, but typically he would say: "Nah, I'm good."
Again I knew he wasn't, again I should have done more.
The years went by and we would speak here and there, and catch up occasionally, usually at Knights reunions.
But a little more than 12 months ago, Craigie's phone calls became more desperate and we would have lengthy discussions trying to find solutions.
Then one Monday he called as I was about to go into work, and luckily I answered.
"Matty, I'm done,'' he said. "I'm tapping out. I can't take it anymore."
I asked him to pull his car over to the side of the road and we had a brief chat. I was 200km away so I asked him to give me two minutes.
I called Kurt Gidley, explained the urgency of the situation, and he and the Knights' old boys kicked into gear.
They have been magnificent, getting Craigie the help he needed and providing support.
Craigie's call was a desperate plea for help and in the last year he has bit by bit addressed the many issues in his life he has carried with him for far too long.
After his interview with Toohey, Craigie has been inundated with messages of support and appreciation from people dealing with similar problems.
He is rebuilding his life, working with people with disabilities and also with Newcastle company Awabakal, which does great things with the indigenous community in the Hunter Region.
"When I help others, it gives me strength," he said.
When I read Craigie this article before I sent it off, he asked me to add one thing.
"Matty, can you put in that if there's anyone out there who needs help and thinks I can help, please reach out to me on social media," he said.
Unfortunately, this kind of story is a common one in our game.
Lfeline: 13 11 14.
Originally published as Johns: Everybody needs to know the Owen Craigie story