When the Australian Rugby Union ripped up my contract in 2006 and suspended me from playing football for two years because I failed a drug test, I fell into a dark pit from which there seemed to be no escape.
I struggled to deal with the shame and personal disappointment of a foolish act.
Apart from the love and support of my family and some long-term friends from my hometown of Sarina, I openly credit Wayne’s phone calls and his obvious concern for helping me to fight my way through the destructive feelings of self-loathing and despair.
He couldn’t possibly know what it meant for me to answer my phone and hear his voice open our latest conversation by asking, ‘How’s it going, big fella?’
I’d then pour my heart out and he’d listen before offering some quiet, strong words of advice and comfort.
He’d tell me to remember I had my wife Tara and the kids and they were depending on me.
He’d say I wasn’t the bad person I painted myself to be and he’d tell me to get up out of bed and make the most of the day.
The best way I can describe Wayne’s commitment to me and my family during that time is we had people walk through our door; we even had people walk out our door but Wayne Bennett BROKE DOWN our door to help.
While I was waiting for the decision about my future to be handed down I received a call from Wayne and he said I was going to be hit with a two-year ban.
He said I’d made a mistake and it was going to cost me big time; I wouldn’t be able to get on the field and do what I’d loved doing for my entire adult life.
Wayne promised he’d help me but he also made it clear I needed to deal with some personal issues – my binge-drinking, my being adopted and now the drugs.
He also pointed out that even though I joined Brisbane as an 18-year-old, I didn’t drink alcohol until I was 21 and that meant something.
Wayne then implored for me to ‘hang in there’, a message he would constantly repeat over the next two years.
On reflection I think Wayne was scared there was a chance I might have suicided.
I know that sounds strong, and I’m certainly not jumping on the issue of mental health that’s dominating a lot of talk in the NRL, but I believe Wayne feared I was the perfect candidate to do something drastic as the life of the party who’d overnight become the footballer that seemingly lost it all.
It was personally important to have his support because each phone call re-enforced that Wayne Bennett hadn’t given up on me.
His belief meant the world to me, and a decade on his significance in my life is still just as strong.
He’s done so much for me as a player, a person and as someone who has made mistakes, I have no hesitation in saying Wayne saved my life in so many ways.
The reason why I’m dredging up a time in my life that I’d prefer to forget is because of the suggestion coach Bennett is on his last legs at the Broncos after – I quote – an “unnamed source” told the media “he’s lost the dressing room”.
Other critics have cited his age – he’s 67 – saying he’ll struggle to deal with the current generation of kids who are cocky, full of self-interest and expect an easy ride to the top.
Well, that was ME way back in 1993 and it ought to be obvious Wayne’s old school ways not only placed me on notice but, in time, he became a father figure (and I say that with respect to my own father Daniel, a great man who provided me with love and guidance before he passed away in 2001) because of the respect he commanded from me and the tenderness he provided when life’s challenges meant I needed a cuddle.
The key to Wayne Bennett is he gets to know his players.
Technically he mightn’t be rugby league’s greatest coach – and some will argue that point – but no-one comes close to matching his man-management skills.
He’s interested to know what makes his men tick; their belief systems and their families and he taps in to that to make each player perform at his best.
I found that the more interest Wayne showed in me, which translated to belief, the more I wanted to play for him.
I’m sure it’s the same for those who have played under Sir Alex Ferguson, Darren Lehmann and Vince Lombardi.
I forged a trust and respect with Wayne.
I would’ve charged through a brick wall for him as a player, and I’m prepared to do it now as a friend who can’t believe people are swallowing rumours his career is on the skids.
If you need proof it’s a joke look at the spirit of the team that defeated the defending premiers Cronulla in the opening round of the 2017 season.
I haven’t seen Korbin Sims play with such intensity for a long time.
Darius Boyd has gone up another level and he’s someone else who Wayne has helped on a personal level because (like me) he needed to overcome a few demons.
Forget the so-called unnamed source, I’m sure the kids at Brisbane are benefiting from their relationship with Wayne.
I imagine, for some of them, it’s the first time they’ve had a strong male role model in their lives and they’ll walk taller for that; they’ll grow to be wiser, fairer and better men as a result of Wayne’s influence.
His legacy is measured by most people in rugby league by the trophies he’s won as coach of Brisbane’s Southern Suburbs Magpies, the Canberra Raiders, Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra.
However, for those of us who’ve been coached by him, the much greater legacy is the quality of men he moulds as their mentor.
Look at the people he’s influenced – Craig Bellamy, Kevin Walters, Steve Kearney, Allan Langer, Glenn Lazarus; Alex Corvo is at the Broncos now and the list goes on and on.
Wayne Bennett’s players are taught the importance of loyalty, pride, sacrifice and respect.
As you get older and become a husband and a father, you learn these things aren’t just words, they’re values to live and die by.
However, I can’t help but to chuckle when I recall the first time we spoke because he held nothing back and I was forced to ask some tough questions of myself.
I was 18 and arrived to Brisbane from North Queensland for the last five weeks of the 1993 pre-season after Illawarra, St George, Cronulla and Canterbury brushed me.
I wasn’t a Broncos supporter in those days and I think my attitude might’ve suggested I was doing Wayne and the defending premiers a huge favour by trialling for them.
I was a centre/fullback and Wayne took me aside to let me know the state of play.
If I was smiling about being granted an audience with the super coach it was wiped from my face in record time.
He said: “I’ve seen you play in state carnivals. I think you have some talent but you’re way too brash for my liking – and you’re lazy.”
I was gobsmacked.
After all, this was my FIRST meeting with the Queensland legend and the truth was out – he didn’t think much of me.
I was mortified because I didn’t want to go home to Sarina with my tail between my legs.
Dale Shearer, Kevin Campion, Marty Bella and Steve Jackson had all left home and made their mark in rugby league, and while I wasn’t escorted out of town by a marching band, I made it clear to anyone who listened I’d be the next to make the big time.
Brisbane’s late, great talent scout Cyril Connell took me aside when I walked out of Wayne’s office and he offered some wise counsel.
He told me to use my week at the Broncos to impress Wayne, and I took his advice to heart because I busted my arse.
At the end of the week the Broncos’ then trainer Kelvin Giles, who coached the champion British Olympians Daley Thompson and Linford Christie, told Wayne ‘I don’t know if this Wendell Sailor kid can play football but he can run!’
They turned out to be life changing words because after my last training session Wayne said Kelvin’s vote of confidence counted for a lot.
In his next breath he looked me square in the eye and asked me one question, and his words went straight to my heart.
“CAN YOU PLAY?”
I knew not to flinch because that would’ve suggested doubt and even though I was shitting myself I somehow found it in me to bark back that I could play.
He nodded, kind of smiled and told me I had a year to prove it.
I guess Wayne’s fatherly instinct then kicked in because he told me to phone my family and tell them the good news.
That afternoon was the beginning of a lifetime relationship that has enriched me, and I hope our friendship has been as rewarding for him.
When I look back on my rugby league career something I really value is realising the Bennett family Wayne, Trish and the kids, embraced me when I was a brash teenager and I don’t think they can possibly know what that did for me.
Wayne was also there for me when my father died after a heart attack in 2001.
I buried Dad on the Friday and while Wayne made it clear I didn’t have to play against the Northern Eagles at Gosford the next day I wanted to honour my father by putting on the boots.
I didn’t stay for dad’s wake and while that’s something I still regret, at the time I felt like I HAD to play.
The reality is it was the hardest thing I did as a footballer.
I scored my first try and looked to the heavens.
I scored a second but when the fulltime siren sounded and the rest of the players were thanking the fans I headed to the empty dressing shed, sat in a corner and bawled my eyes out.
I was in pain and that’s when Wayne walked in.
It was only me and him in there and he hugged me.
He then said ‘Your dad would be so proud of you’, and while I cried even harder when he said that they were the words I needed to hear.
Wayne and I could . . . can . . . always talk about the tough things.
When I decided to leave to play for the Queensland Reds I dreaded having to break the news to Wayne.
Would I seem ungrateful to him?
Would he resent what some people had already described as a betrayal?
Could I still count on him for his guidance?
I should’ve known better because he basically said after all I’d done for the Broncos I’d always be a part of the club.
He wanted me to stay but he understood the opportunities rugby union was offering were hard to resist.
So now Wayne is said to be on the way out of the club he’s built and I’m stunned the suggestion is being treated by some members of the media as gospel.
Why would such a rumour take flight?
I can’t help but think it’s a result of his personal / family life coming under an unwelcome scrutiny before the season kicked off and I wonder whether some people are looking for a reason not to like him.
Perhaps they want to see him punished?
I’m proud to say I stand shoulder-to shoulder with him.
Wayne is strong but I will call him and offer him an ear if that’s what he needs.
I’m here, ready to break down the door to help him and do whatever is needed.
Something I would advise him (as a friend) is to talk more to the media.
He has never had a great rapport with journalists and now I’m part of that world (and loving it) I would like to grab Wayne, shake him by the shoulders and plead for him to give more of the man his players love and adore in his interviews because his words resonate.
And, I’m here to tell you his words count.
- Wendell Sailor, exclusively for Sportsta.