Before he was ready for another NRL berth, Albert Kelly had to go through the other kind of birth. ”It definitely puts things into perspective,” Kelly says of his newborn daughter. ”I look back on myself growing up and I want her to have some of the things I missed out on.”
Over the past two months, Kelly has gained valuable life experiences to go with those he picked up while contracted at Parramatta, Cronulla and Newcastle. The 21-year-old has two important additions to his life – daughter Brida-Lee and mentor Brian Dowd. The pair have given him the motivation to return to the highest levels of the game.
”Definitely – it’s still one of my goals to get back up there,” Kelly says. ”I wouldn’t mind getting there and having another shot. I can make something out of it now. I’ll put it all in. Make sure I don’t leave any stone unturned and see what comes of it. Any opportunity I get I’m going to grab with two hands and go at full speed. I don’t think I hit my straps when I was in Sydney. Now I’m ready for the experience of the NRL.”
By his own admission, he wasn’t ready for the responsibilities that come with becoming a professional athlete the first time around. Even before he had played a single first-grade game, the hype was overwhelming. The cousin of Greg Inglis. The scorer of the fastest try in league history (a nine-second effort for Wentworthville against Newtown in May 2009, one of five he scored that day). The next Brett Kenny.
”In every article, I was ‘the cousin of Greg Inglis’. It’s overwhelming,” he says.
The incident that ultimately cost him his chance at the Knights was a trivial one. Wayne Bennett handed him a contract in the Hunter, which was torn up after he smashed a light outside Fannys nightclub. He paid the $100 required to replace the bulb, plus an additional court cost of $150. But because he was on a ”one strike and you’re out” policy, the ultimate price was much higher.
The common denominator in all his misdemeanours was alcohol. But with the help of Dowd, his mother, Hannah Donavan, and his partner, Mtia Tass, great progress has been made on this front. For proof, look no further than the latest community events he has been involved in. Kelly recently attended a party for a friend who had died, the function marking what should have been his 18th birthday. It’s the sort of occasion that would normally result in a big night. Not any more.
”I’ve been off it for a while and that makes me make more rounded choices,” Kelly says. ”[Dowd] has helped a lot in that process with alcohol and the issues I had.”
Dowd knows what Kelly is going through better than most. He, too, was a young Aborigine who came down to play for Newcastle, at the age of 23, but a raft of personal issues meant he never made it. He battled ”every problem under the sun”, including depression and bankruptcy. At the age of 27, he attempted suicide. ”I know what it’s like to be Albert Kelly because I was that man once upon a time,” Dowd says.
But after turning around his own life, Dowd dedicated the rest of it to helping others. Six years ago, he founded Black on Track. It started as a modest pilot program in Newcastle and has become a Deadly Award winner as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment program of the year.
”It pretty much set me free,” Kelly says of the venture. ”He’s got tools to set people free to make choices for themselves and manage their lives. I’ve learned about my responsibilities, how you carry yourself, [knowing] that younger kids look up to you as a role model. It puts things in perspective, having little kids come up saying ‘Can I get your autograph?’. It puts a smile on your dial. It makes you feel happy putting a smile on someone’s face. I just want to be the best dad I possibly can be and a full-time role model for my daughter.”
At the moment, Kelly is a ”full-time dad” and part-time footballer, playing for the Central Charlestown Butcher Boys in the Newcastle competition. But there is unfinished business in the NRL. When Bennett was accused of poaching Dragons forward Beau Scott in March, he defended the early signing by saying ”there’s no one to recruit in September”. Kelly is one of the few high-profile NRL players without a contract for 2013 alongside the likes of Wests Tigers winger Lote Tuqiri, Bulldogs veteran David Stagg, Titans forward Michael Henderson, Eels prop Justin Poore and Rabbitohs co-captain Michael Crocker.
While some of the comparisons to Inglis annoy him, he makes this one himself. ”I know Greggo has done a lot of good things for himself and the community back home,” he says of the Kempsey product. ”He’s one of the biggest stars in rugby league and definitely a role model. I look up to him myself and to be like Greggo would be great.”
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