Sport Rugby League Johnathan Thurston: How the rugby league icon turned his life around
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Johnathan Thurston: How the rugby league icon turned his life around

Johnathan Thurston North Queensland
The Cowboys captain celebrated his milestone against Cronulla on Friday. Photo: Getty
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In the early morning of September 16, 2010, rugby league great Johnathan Thurston was arrested. Again.

Just two years after being charged with public drunkenness after locking himself out of his Townsville apartment, Thurston, who played his 300th NRL match last night, was in trouble once more.

This time, he was arrested for being a public nuisance in Brisbane, after allegedly being thrown out of a casino, wrestling with another man and failing to follow police instructions.

Thurston’s club, the North Queensland Cowboys, went public to “express their disappointment” as doubts over his future at the club started to bubble away.

“There was some conjecture at the club over whether he was going to be a good leader, and whether he was going to stay with the club,” Phil Gould, appointed to oversee an independent review of the Cowboys, told The New Daily.

“So, I asked him how he felt after all that. He was embarrassed by it all.”

A lengthy heart-to-heart chat followed, as the former New South Wales coach helped the Queensland legend map out his future and decide on how he wanted to be.

Thurston, 27 at this stage, had already won a premiership with the Bulldogs in 2004 and was a regular for his state and country.

But in Gould’s eyes, he was struggling as a leader and not making the most of his undoubted ability.

“He’d never really been given any leadership training – he was thrust into the role,” Gould said.

“The conversation was along the lines of not so much what happened or why, but more about that he’ll be remembered by what he did from that from that day forward.

“He’d be remembered for the last four or five years of his career.

“[I said] you’ve got the talent and the opportunity to become one of the all-time greats of the game.

Johnathan Thurston Queensland
Thurston has been a cornerstone of Queensland’s success. Photo: Getty

“But it’s how you are going to manage that process, and what you’re going to do in your own development as a leader.”

Peter Parr, Cowboys football manager, remembers the moment Thurston faced the press after the Brisbane incident.

“I met him there (at Townsville airport), and we walked to the car with all these cameras in his face,” Parr told The New Daily.

“I viewed that as something he never wanted to revisit.

“He was never a bad guy, and I don’t think he did anything particularly wrong that night – he probably said a couple of wrong things to the police – but it was more cheeky than it was vicious.

“It was a tremendous wake-up call to him.”

Thurston wasn’t aware of his standing in the game at the time and, according to Parr, all the attention took him by surprise.

“On the occasions that he had a couple of problems, he was taken aback by the amount of publicity those incidents received,” Parr said.

“The penny dropped that he had a big profile and a lot of young people looked up to him. That probably helped him mature and [from there he] realised his responsibilities.”

Thurston went away and started to take a more active role in his development as a person.

He started to engage in more community and cultural activities, and took the time to learn about his Indigenous heritage. He also did more to help his team mates.

Johnathan Thurston North Queensland
Thurston will retire at the end of the season. Photo: Getty

Brent Tate saw this change first-hand leading into the 2012 State of Origin series.

The experienced Queensland and Australian representative had just returned to the Maroons camp after three years of serious injuries.

He was extremely nervous and low on confidence, but Thurston soon changed that.

“I’ll never forget that week at training,” he told The New Daily.

“He was kicking a lot of high balls because I was really worried about them. Now and then he’d yell out, ‘Yeah Tatey!’ … those words of encouragement – I am 100 per cent certain that they gave me so much confidence going into that game.

“He was doing that for me. Imagine what he was doing for the young guys who were coming into the team?”

As Thurston found a balance in life, particularly at home, he started to achieve more on the field.

He married long-time partner Samantha in 2015, and they now have three daughters: Frankie, aged five; Charlie, three and Lillie Rose, one.

Parr says his responsibilities away from football made the four-time Dally M winner get perspective and slow down.

“Samantha has been by far the biggest influence in his life,” he said.

“He was always so fast-paced. He always did everything a hundred miles an hour, whether it be football training or having a few beers with his mates.

“I think Samantha mellowed him somehow. There was more life (than doing things quickly) – and when the girls came along, that just slowed him down a little bit more.”

In November, Thurston was named Queenslander of the Year for his work with Indigenous communities.

Johnathan Thurston North Queensland
Thurston is a hero in Townsville. Photo: Getty

He is also an ambassador for the Apunipima Cape York Health Council’s anti-ice campaign and the Queensland Reconciliation Awards.

Earlier last year, he also helped launch the $9.5 million Cowboys House, a home for 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote parts of north Queensland.

And in February, the 34-year-old launched ‘JT Academy’ to help young people reach their goals through employment and training programs.

They are all important to Thurston, who has gone from strength-to-strength in recent years, culminating in Dally M Medal triumphs in 2014 and 2015, and, of course, his starring role in North Queensland’s unforgettable 2015 grand final victory.

Those accolades and his near-weekly brilliance are almost expected, now, but Parr admitted he didn’t see it coming when meeting a cheeky 21-year-old for the first time.

“When I looked across at the table at him when he was 21 years old, I didn’t think I was looking at a four-time Dally M winner or a future Queenslander of the Year,” he said.

“For me, it’s just been a wonderful experience to be able to watch him grow and achieve everything he has.”

In Friday’s thrilling 20-14 win over Cronulla, Thurston became just the 31st man to achieve the 300-game milestone.

He has maximised his potential and become the great player many thought he would be.

But now, eight years after being arrested again, Thurston will be remembered as one of rugby league’s best away from the sport, too.

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