Hodges: Thurston emerged as giant of the game
'CHAMPION' is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to sport but when you're talking about Johnathan Thurston, it's the word most fitting.
I hadn't heard much about JT before I saw him play for the first time.
I'd heard about him, but the talk was all the same: "he's got plenty of talent and plenty of heart but he's too small to make it".
The first time I laid eyes on JT he was playing a reserve-grade game for the Bulldogs.
He scored a couple of tries, set a couple more up and kicked a bag full of goals.
But the comments were the same: "he's got plenty of talent and plenty of heart but he's too small to make it".
Then JT went on to make his first-grade debut and won a premiership with the Bulldogs but the comments were still the same: "he's got plenty of talent and plenty of heart, but he's too small to make it".
And then JT made the bravest and smartest move of his career. He signed with the North Queensland Cowboys.
When JT signed with the Cowboys they were nothing like the club they are now. I wouldn't say they were the easybeats of the competition, they were always competing hard but when teams went up against them they expected to win.
No disrespect to the players who were already there, but when JT arrived at the Cowboys they were a side who were crying out for a leader.
What they didn't know then, but what the league world knows now, is when they signed JT they signed one of the greatest leaders the game has ever seen.
The combination he formed with Matty Bowen became one of the most lethal in the game.
The Cowboys went from the side that you expected to beat, to the side that you didn't want to play.
I remember when JT first came into the Queensland State of Origin team in 2005.
Most players when they come into Origin camp for the first time can be shy and timid. But not JT.
The greatest players in our game have an aura around them. Artie Beetson, Mal Meninga and Darren Lockyer all had an aura and presence when they enter the room and JT was and is the same.
From the first training session JT exuded confidence. He was confident in his skills and ability, but he was also a sponge. He hung around the likes of 'Locky', Cam Smith and Steve Price and soaked up everything they said. He asked questions, took in every word and then delivered in spades.
I've never seen a more competitive person than JT. He reminds me of Locky in that he gives 100 per cent in everything that he does. He trains the way he plays and wants to win at everything and that attitude is infectious.
JT is like a breath of fresh air in the game. Some games you turn up and you'd prefer not to be there, but with JT there you always wanted to go out and give you best, because you knew he'd do the same.
I remember being in Origin camp and hearing screaming and shouting coming from a room down the hall. Upon investigation it was discovered Cam and JT were battling it out on the PlayStation.
FIFA was their game of choice. They'd be swearing at each other and throwing the controls around the room like they were playing for a World Cup and not a friendly video game.
But that's what makes JT so great; his never-say-die attitude.
It's the same attitude that delivered the Cowboys their maiden title in 2015.
The Cowboys had no right to win that game but JT never gave up.
With seconds left on the clock the easy option in that grand final would have been for JT to put the ball in the air and hope for the best, but instead he rolled up his sleeves, dug into the line and got the Cowboys home.
When you speak about JT it's easy to get caught up in his highlight reel and achievements on the field, but it's what he does off the field and around the game that makes him a real champion.
JT wants everyone on his team to feel a part of the team. He'll take the young players out for lunch or take them out for a coffee and make sure that they're doing ok and feel comfortable with their role.
He takes time to visit schools and communities and meets with people from all backgrounds. He'll walk into a room and have 200 people ask him for a photo and he doesn't leave until everyone gets one. He gives away his head gear, kicking tees and anything else he can to make someone smile.
And as he prepares for his final home game of the season against the Eels this week you can guarantee that he'll leave everything he's got in the tank on the field and he'll give everything he's got left to his teammates and fans off it.
We've had a lot of great men play our game; Beetson, Lewis, Meninga, Lockyer and Johns but for mine, Johnathan Thurston, the kid they said was too small to make it, will be remembered as the greatest ever.