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E

ven if you don’t follow football, you can’t be a Queenslander if

you don’t know who JohnathanThurston is – or JT as almost

everyone calls him. He attracts a crowd wherever he goes with

fans clamouring for pictures, autographs or just to touch their idol.

To most onlookers he’s at the top of his game, at heights even beyond some

of the most revered in rugby league. He’s been namedWorld’s Best Player

three times – more than one of his own idols, Darren Lockyer – he’s won the

Dally MMedal four times, he’s scored more points and kicked more goals in

his State of Origin career than any other player, he’s won most Player of the

Year Awards at his beloved North Queensland Cowboys club and he’s their

all-time leading points scorer. Thurston has been the team’s captain since

2007 and co-captain with Matthew Scott since 2011, leading the team to its

first history-making premiership last year. But it’s been a long road to the top

– for the club andThurston.

His passion for the game began when he was just a boy, earning $2 a game

as a ball boy at his dad’s club matches and playing footy every chance he got

with his mates. Growing up in an extended family of uncles, aunties and

cousins there were always family barbecues and people to kick a footy with –

mostly in the neighbour’s front yard.

He admits his mind was more on football than on his

schooling in those primary school years but that

changed when he had an opportunity to move

to St Mary’s College in Toowoomba, a school

with a strong rugby league reputation. He

was knocked back initially because his

grades weren’t up to scratch and even at 15

Thurston recognised it was an opportunity

he couldn’t afford to lose if he wanted to be

noticed in rugby league circles. So he went

back to Brisbane, got his grades up and

went back to St Mary’s where he stayed for

years 11 and 12. “That’s when it clicked for

me that this was a good opportunity to work

hard and dedicate myself to rugby league and

to my studies as well. I had put all my eggs in

one basket in rugby league but I knew I had to

work extremely hard to get to where I wanted to be.”

There’s no doubt Thurston had plenty of drive and

determination to succeed even back then, writing out his goals

to keep him on track, but even as a stand-out player the opportunities

didn’t come easy. He was knocked back by major league coaches until he

offered to play for free to prove himself. Ironically, in 2013 he signed a $5

million four-year contract with the Cowboys reported to be the richest deal

in rugby league history. And he’s still writing out that list of goals every season.

For the last few years the goals have been pretty much the same: selection

for representative teams (tick), World Cup (Thurston played in the winning

Australian side in 2013 and was named Man of the Match), and the Cowboys

making the finals (tick). This year playing for the Kangaroos is back on

his list, another World Cup next year and, hopefully (negotiations are in

progress), another year with the Cowboys in 2018.

In the last five years Thurston has really found his mojo. “I just want to

play my best footy. I always try to be better each day. When I was in my 20s it

was a lot of trial and error and when you’re just coming through you just rely

on your talent and hard work. I’ve always trained extremely hard and now I’ve

got my routines that I know work for me and if I’m doing that on a daily basis

I’m playing my best footy and that flows on to achieving those goals,” he says.

He’s also learned from some of his own role models. “Locky (Darren

Lockyer) once told me ‘preparation is the key to success’ and that’s always

stuck with me. It’s embedded into me now and that’s what I live by and try do

on a daily basis,” he says.

Mal Meninga, his coach for State of Origin, has also been a great mentor.

“I appreciate his honesty. When my form hasn’t been great heading into an

Origin series and I’ve had self-doubt about whether I should be in the side

or not, he’s given me the confidence that I deserve to be in the side and that’s

helped me play the way I have. Having him in your corner and reassuring you

gives you the confidence to go out and play the best you can.”

He’s also learned that being a good leader is not all about game play

and he’s found his role models in teammates such as Darren Lockyer and

Cameron Smith.

“Locky and Smitty are quite similar, it doesn’t matter what the scoreboard

says their demeanour on and off the field is the same. They are cool, calm

and collected no matter what the situation is and that’s something that I’ve

tried to adapt over the years. I tend to play with my heart on my sleeve and

with a lot of emotion but I’ve learnt from those two boys that if I’m looking

frustrated or rattled on the field then that’s going to have a negative effect on

those around me and they are probably going to react to that. I can still get

emotional on the field but I think I’ve toned it down a lot over the last few

years and I understand my role within the team. I’d like to think it’s made a

difference to those around me as well.”

His off-field demeanour, too, is inspiring to others and, while

fans might treat him like a rock star, those around him

says he’s just a regular guy, down to earth, with great

integrity and respect for his fellow man and a

willingness to listen. What little spare time he

has he shares with the community, travelling

to remote regions in Far North Queensland

(he’s co-owner with Peter Collings of

regional airline Skytrans, rescued from

liquidation last year and now flying new

routes, employing more staff and winning

multi-million dollar commercial contracts)

and mentoring kids in programs such

as ARTIE which focuses on improving

education outcomes for Indigenous

children. Thurston visits schools to talk to

kids about goal setting and the importance of

staying at school and making healthy lifestyle

choices. “They have such a great opportunity in front

of them with all the programs that are available now. None

of those were around when I was at high school and I just try

to steer them in the right direction and try to give them confidence and

encourage them to take advantage of those opportunities,” Thurston says.

That also meant checking report cards one year while he was overseas in the

UK playing in the Four Nations tournament. The kids sent their report cards

over to him and he went through them all and wrote a little message on each.

Later, when those same students turned in their next report cards he saw the

effect in higher grades, many of them As. “I was blown away by how much

they had been working,” he says.

Thurston also gives his time to the Cowboys Learn Earn Legend program

for Indigenous students which has a 95 per cent success rate for keeping kids

in school through to year 12 and the Deadly Kindies program to encourage

Indigenous parents to enrol their children in kindergarten.

Having his own family, too, has changedThurston. He says it has added

to the calming influence on his demeanour and he has learned to separate his

footy from his home life, making himmore clearly focused when he’s out on

the field.

Thurston married his partner Samantha in the off season last year on the

stunning Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays (

pictured

) with only their

daughters Frankie, 3, and Charlie, 1, and parents as witnesses. It’s an insight

to the real Johnathan Thurston. He may be the rock star of rugby league

but, like any doting dad, at the end of the day he just wants to spend time

at home with his family.

ROCK STAR OF RUGBY LEAGUE

BNE May/June 2016 |

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