Gould: Rugby league stars are not all rogues
The community arm of the Penrith Panthers is ‘Panthers on the Prowl" . The purpose of the "Prowl" programmes is to enhance opportunities for our young people and their families to develop self-esteem and self-worth and to become positive contributors to society.
Panthers run a number of programmes through the Prowl but the signature involves a fully equipped school classroom under the eastern grandstand at our home ground. Basically, schools throughout our area nominate kids whom they believe, for one reason or another, are in danger of dropping out of the education system. Our "Prowl" bus picks up these kids from their homes or schools and brings them to our classroom at Panthers for an alternative classroom experience.
A major part of the success of this programme is the interaction the kids get with the NRL footballers at the Panthers. Our players visit the Prowl classrooms to sit, talk and learn with the kids.
There is no set roster. No obligation to do so. Our players know the "Prowl" is there and they visit on a regular basis.
Teachers who work in the classroom marvel at the effect and influence the footballers can have on the kids. The teacher can tell kids what to do until they are blue in the face; but when one of the footballers says it, the kids react.
The teachers tell a great story about our NRL winger Dave Simmons. One kid asked, "What is the hardest part of being a professional footballer?" He was obviously anticipating a story about hard training, or having to tackle or getting tackled by big players.
Dave replied: "The hardest thing about my job is the diet. I love junk food but I know I can't eat it if I want to be healthy. I have to show discipline and sacrifice to be at my best".
Dave went on to talk about his diet, and how important it was that he ate the right foods.
The next day the kids come to class, and instead of chips, lollies and chocolates in their lunch packs, they had fruit, vegetables and healthy snacks.
It's just a small example of the influence our players can have on kids. The success of the Prowl in sending kids who graduate from the Prowl programmes back into mainstream education is absolutely amazing.
We have testimonials from kids and parents who have been involved with these programmes who claim the "Prowl" changed their lives - if not saved their lives.
Over the past 12 months, players from the NRL roster at Panthers have made almost 300 school, hospital, charity, community and junior league appearances. Every week I receive letters and emails from members of the general public to inform me of great deeds being done by our players away from our mainstream programmes.
Just this week, for example, I have received two emails relating to our NRL player Adam Docker.
The first email began: "Dear Mr Gould; I understand you are a very busy man, but I was hoping to have five minutes of your time.
"In the light of yet another rugby league controversy, it's time to switch to a positive story".
The letter went on to describe the work Adam has been doing in his own time to help raise funds for a special charity. Not only had Adam given his time and profile to assisting the people with these charitable events, but he had engaged with and befriended the writer's son, giving him encouragement and belief to deal with his issues.
The gentleman ended his letter by saying: "As I said at the beginning of this email, there are many negative things that are talked about in rugby league but we fail to recognise the positive ones. Adam Docker is a hero to many kids and adults alike. But what I will always remember him for is his selflessness when it came to my son, his footy team and his support of a charity that gets very little support or acknowledgement".
I could go on with this stuff for days. The truth is that I could go to the personal files of all our NRL players and find records of similar letters that have been sent to us over the years.
Many of our senior players are married with young children. They are wonderful citizens who take their responsibility as role models very seriously. They are educated, responsible, caring individuals who give of themselves every day to assist, lead, educate and better the lives of others.
I'm sure every NRL club has similar stories to tell.
As a sideline to this story, I recently had a young Panther player in danger of dropping out of the system through disciplinary and lifestyle issues. I met his family and learned more about his life and circumstances.
This lad was of Samoan heritage. I asked him which sportsperson he most admired. He said "Sonny Bill Williams".
I approached SBW to see if he would mind having a chat with the young man. SBW called the lad immediately and had a chat with him. He then invited the boy and his family to a Roosters home game to watch Sonny play - all at Sonny's expense.
SBW invited the young man to his own home for dinner and a talk. He gave the lad a new pair of playing boots and joggers. He has kept in touch with him ever since, encouraging his football and lifestyle development.
Like I said, I could go on with these stories for days.
Why am I writing this stuff today?
I just get frustrated when some people spoil the good work that 99 per cent of our rugby league players and staff accomplish. I get mad when people in the media seize upon these unsavoury incidents to generalise and claim the game is a disgrace and on its knees.
It's not; and it isn't. There is much more to this game and to the people involved.
I'm proud of our game. I'm proud of our club at the Panthers and the players and people we have working in this organisation. I'm sure other club leaders have a similar tale to tell.
I just wanted to make that point.