As hard as he might try, Alex McKinnon couldn’t hold back the overwhelming emotions stirring inside.
And as a near capacity Hunter Stadium chanted his name, he wiped away the tears streaming down his cheek.
For the first time since suffering his injury, McKinnon was back in the rugby league heartland for Sunday’s Newcastle-Gold Coast round-19 NRL fixture, the centrepiece of the Rise For Alex Round.
Flanked by Knights skipper Kurt Gidley and Titans captain Nate Myles, McKinnon led the sides onto Hunter Stadium to the cheers of a largely partisan crowd as the game they call the greatest of all lived up to its billing.
“I didn’t really know how I was going to handle it, to tell you the truth,” McKinnon said at halftime after addressing the crowd.
“It was pretty full-on. I was trying to hold everything back, but at the end of the day I suppose my true self came out and there were a few tears but you can’t help that can you?
“I’m very overwhelmed by the support. I’m very thankful.
“All the support from my mates at the club and Wayne (coach Wayne Bennett).
“The situation just shows that everyone comes out, that they care. Maybe they have been touched by what has been going on.”
Four months after sustaining the spinal injury against Melbourne in round three, McKinnon was finally home.
“It’s great to be back in Newcastle. I hope it helps the recovery,” he said.
“Everyone’s support does hit home for me.
“I’m happy to be back in Newcastle, happy to be back in the stadium.
“It feels right. It feels good to be back here.
“I suppose four months ago you go away to a game in round three and you wouldn’t come back for four months.
“That is the feeling I got when I came back into Newcastle.
“I’m very happy to be back.”
What we have seen is mateship and an extraordinary young man.
NRL boss Dave Smith paid tribute to McKinnon.
“I am proud to be associated with rugby league,” he said.
“What we have seen is mateship and an extraordinary young man.
“We are all here for Alex.”
More than 100,000 fans have streamed thought the turnstiles for the Rise For Alex round with more than $1 million expected to be raised towards McKinnon’s recovery.