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Russell Packer: from jail cell to uni graduate

Dragons player Russell Packer during the round 17 clash with the Titans.
Dragons player Russell Packer during the round 17 clash with the Titans. DAVE HUNT

THIS story has nothing to do with the NRL finals, but it's a Cinderella story in September, all the same.

Last Wednesday, St George Illawarra forward - and soon-to-be Tiger - Russell Packer, slipped on a graduation gown and mortarboard felt cap.

Two years ago, he was wearing prison greens.

With his partner Lara in tears and much-loved five-year-old son Marley and seven year-old daughter Madison staring up at their 115kg father, Packer accepted his graduate certificate in business at the University of Wollongong.

Packer achieved the results in the same dominant fashion he displayed in the front-row for the Dragons this year, graduating from his two subjects, accounting and financial management and operations managements, with high distinction.

Which, given that his outstanding academic level of intelligence was recognised just four months ago by being included on the Dean's Merit List - awarded to the top 5 per cent of students within the faculty - it should come as no great surprise.

However, how this story will widen your eyes is just how Packer, who spent 12 months in jail for a violent alcohol-fuelled assault in 2013, achieved what very few of the many thousands of rugby league players ever would, or could.

Equally, who he stood smiling in his gown on Wednesday for?

And why now, he has aspirations to work alongside the game's leader and decision-makers at the NRL.

"I'd love to do an internship at the NRL before I retire. The NRL is such a big business, I'd definitely be open to any opportunity like that," Packer said.

"Just to get the work experience and see things from a different perspective as well.

"I've also got plans to do an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of NSW before I retire."

When Packer walked out of prison, he never envisioned that his desire to change the course of his life and that of his family, would include uni assignments at 6am before training, or pouring through text on every of the Dragons away-trip flights over the past two seasons.

 

Russell Packer playing for the Warriors in 2013.
Russell Packer playing for the Warriors in 2013. ROBB COX

"The boys would call me a nerd with my reading glasses on and my laptop out, but it's not how you look, it's what's going on inside your brain," Packer said.

"The thing is, the biggest wake-up call I got was when I did get out of jail was I thought; 'I'm going to have to go and apply for a job.

"I went to write a CV and I couldn't write anything apart from, playing NRL.

"I didn't have any qualifications. I just played footy.

"I didn't grow up in a conventional upbringing. I've said before, I was 12 when I first started drinking 12 to 18 beers.

"So, footy were my skills from the age of 18 to 23, I then went away (to jail) for a year and got out and I had nothing, except skills in league.

"Which, means a lot while you're playing NRL, but I couldn't get a job as a butcher's assistant by saying 'oh, by the way I've got skills in passing the football'.

"For the majority of people playing in the NRL, that is the reality of it.

"Because NRL stops eventually.

"I kind of know what it's like to retire - having spent two years out of the game, not getting paid and doing other things.

"Graduating, it's a silver lining for everything I went through.

"I have something to be able to transition into a different career, which is going to last a lot longer than my football career."

Like this story, the keyboard warriors will publicly deface anything Packer attempts for the rest of his life.

The game, they hammer into the comment box of forums, doesn't need a person who spent a year in prison in 2014.

And who cares, if for the 12 months after being released, Packer, who has sworn off alcohol, needed to re-establish not only his footy career, but his relationship with Lara and his children?

 

Russell Packer of the Dragons chats with teammates.
Russell Packer of the Dragons chats with teammates. DARREN PATEMAN

But if the game, including other players, administration, coaches and welfare staff can't learn from Packer's story, than who?

"Time is the only thing that allows you to change," Packer said.

"For example, you can't just come out of prison and expect life is back to normal.

"From the ground up, I've managed to rebuild my career as a football player, but more importantly I've rebuilt my life with my family.

"We've really grown as a family and with the Dragons, I've grown as a man.

"I lost everything, but the things I missed wasn't anything material it was being there to help my kids have a shower, or dressed after swimming or taking them to school.

"And they are the big reasons why I don't drink alcohol, I try to live my live the cleanest way possible because I would never want to be in a position where I jeopardise those things ever again in my life.

"My two kids and my partner are my driving force. They're kids who lost their dad for a year because of a choice that I made.

"And that's why I endeavour to pay them back through this hard work to achieve these results.

"I want to show them that it's possible for someone to do the wrong thing and still with commitment and passion, come out and correct there lives and use education as a tool."

NRL boss Todd Greenberg said: "Rugby league has always been about giving people a second chance and Russell has grabbed his with both hands.

"His commitment to making a success of his life on and off the field is an inspiration to everyone in the game."

Which is the same reason why Packer wanted his story told.

"Hopefully, some of the boys that are playing NRL, who are thinking that maybe they don't have the time, read this and just have a crack," Packer said.

"It wasn't easy, but I did it."

Topics:  russell packer sportfeature st george illawarra dragons

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