When Dylan Walker makes his State of Origin debut for New South Wales on Wednesday, he will do so in the knowledge he is lucky just to be alive.
The former South Sydney man is thriving at his new club Manly, so much so that he has been called up to represent his state on rugby league’s biggest stage.
But that could not have looked more unlikely in September when, out injured, he overdosed on prescription drugs with ex-teammate Dylan Gray and was rushed to intensive care.
Given just a 50-50 chance of surviving, families of the pair were told to brace for the worst possible news which, thankfully, never came.
Concerns about abuse of prescription drugs in the NRL community remain high, with South Sydney assistant coach Matt King declaring to Fox Sports last month that a death from an overdose was inevitable.
“It’ll [a death] happen one day. We were so close at South Sydney last year to facing that exact dilemma and I just thank the big man upstairs that Aaron and Dylan are still with us,” he said.
Once Walker and Gray returned to full health, they were fined and handed community service, with South Sydney’s review determining that they had brought the club into “serious disrepute”.
While Gray stayed, Walker requested a release from South Sydney, with his lawyer saying the club had treated him “like a piece of meat”.
He needed a new club. He needed a new start.
The lucky break
An ex-South Sydney teammate and childhood friend of Walker’s, Jake O’Sullivan can take credit for saving not just one, but two lives on September 22, 2015.
Walker and Gray had taken a large dose of painkillers, Oxycodone and Tramadol, and O’Sullivan “thought they were both going to die” after waking to strange noises from the duo as they slept.
O’Sullivan quickly rang emergency services and put into action what he remembered from a first aid course. That, and the help of a reported eight paramedics, saved Walker and Gray.
“We speak about that night here and there,” O’Sullivan told the Sunday Telegraph.
“It’s something we’ve moved on [from]. It happened, we know what happened – we know how much that meant to us.”
O’Sullivan, who thanks Walker for helping him through a bout of depression last year, said he is likely to cry when Walker runs out to represent New South Wales.
“There will be emotions. There probably will be [tears],” he said.
“I was struggling … he got me on my feet. He is my best mate. He did a lot for me.
“I’m just excited to see my mate out there after everything he has been through. I’m very proud.”
New start at Manly
The Manly Sea Eagles came calling for Walker in December, signing him to a four-year deal.
His shift in “attitude” since joining them has been particularly noticeable, O’Sullivan said.
And Walker, who has spent time at five-eighth and at centre, has caught the eye in a struggling side – so much so that NSW coach Laurie Daley feels he is ready for an Origin debut.
That came as a surprise to Walker, who wants to put last year’s drama behind him.
“I thought it did [come out of the blue] but I’m not going to shy away,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“This week will be another learning curve for me. I will do my best. I’m pretty excited, I can’t wait to play.
“That [the drugs dramas] is behind me. It has been a big leap forward since then. I am just really enjoying my life at the moment.”