As a young boy growing up, Darren Lockyer dared to dream big. His dream was that, one day, he would be as great a football player as his idol Wally Lewis, the king of rugby league.
“Watching Wally Lewis as a kid, I was really inspired by what he did for Queensland at State of Origin level,” Lockyer says. “He had the knack of being able to lift the team and when the team needed someone to pull out something special, he’d provide it.
“As a young person, he was the type of player I aspired to be.”
But while the Brisbane Broncos player certainly had the talent, this alone would not be enough to allow Lockyer to scale the heights that Lewis had; rather, it would require a level of dedication that not even the most talented players have.
Nevertheless, believing firmly that “anything is achievable if you are willing to work hard enough for it” – along with a hard work attitude and unwavering perseverance – Lockyer quickly cemented his place alongside his hero as rugby league royalty, proving dreams can come true if you never give up.
Since making his first-grade debut for the Broncos in 1995, Lockyer has racked up countless club, state and national victories. But it has been the triumphs when his team has been dismissed as a long shot, not the runaway successes, that stand out as his clear favourites.
“When you are written off and come out triumphant … those are the wins that are the most satisfying,” he says. “With the games you are expected to win, it is a sense of relief afterwards, whereas when you win as the underdog it is a feeling of euphoria.
“Games like the 2006 NRL grand final win with the Broncos, where we went into the match as underdogs, will go down as my most satisfying victories,” he says.
That win was one of many memorable victories that year, with Lockyer also becoming the first person to captain winning sides in the NRL premiership, the State of Origin series and the Tri Nations Series, which involved New Zealand and Great Britain, since the days of Allan Langer.
While Lockyer – like many elite athletes – had pre-game rituals he would perform before every match, it was his strong work ethic, not pulling on his favourite pair of jocks for good luck, which resulted in his being victorious more often than not.
Having the right mindset in business – as in sport – is crucial, he says, and if you have a good attitude towards what you are doing, you are going to form good practices and be successful.
Lockyer highlights preparation, both physical and mental, as one of the most important aspects of his approach to his performance – something that could make the difference between winning and losing.
“For me to be in a mentally confident headspace and feel good about my game I needed to be physically fit,” he says.
“I found if I put the work in to get myself in physically good shape, then that made my mind stronger. The only way I could achieve this state was by being prepared to focus on what I needed to practise and improve on,” he says.
But regardless of your mental state, a life of hard knocks, week in week out, takes its toll and injuries are frequent. Having the right attitude is therefore even more important if a football player wants to ensure longevity in their career.
“I only had one long-term injury in my career and that was the reconstruction of my right knee. It took me a long time to get over that injury physically, but it also knocked me around mentally,” he says.
“It was a big challenge and there were times when I thought I was finished, but I just persevered and kept telling myself that things would turn around if I kept working hard.”
Good habits and a ‘work hard attitude’ were instilled early on in Lockyer by his former Broncos coach and mentor Wayne Bennett, whom Lockyer believes has been one of the main contributors to his career lasting as long as it has. Under Bennett’s guidance, the Broncos won six grand finals over a 21-year period.
“Wayne played a large role in moulding me into the player I was; but it was what he did off the field, rather than on, that had the biggest impact,” Lockyer explains.
“By helping me become a better person off the field and teaching me the value of discipline and perseverance, he in turn helped me become a better footballer as well.
“He instilled these traits in me so that when I was criticised in the media, it made me more determined to work harder and prove a point.”
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Wayne Bennett was also a key part of Lockyer’s support network and was someone to turn to when the road got a little rough.
“I think it is important to have someone to vent and talk to when you feel like you are cornered,” Lockyer says.
“I always found going to someone who has experience, having been through or overseen a similar situation, is the key to overcoming tough times as they will know the answer better than anyone else.
“For me, that person was Wayne Bennett.”
So, with Bennett as his mentor and Wally Lewis as his idol, it’s not surprising that Lockyer has come to understand not only what it takes to be a good leader but also a respected one.
“To be a good leader you need to be respected,” he says. “While experience will get you respect, you will also gain respect if you set a good example through the way you train, play and carry yourself.
“Part of being a good leader is about bringing the group together and having them believe in the one direction and each other.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
It’s not uncommon for players to switch codes during the course of their career in pursuit of more money, but Lockyer’s commitment to the NRL never wavered.
While he was approached time and time again, his love of NRL always won through and he rejected any financial gain he might have made by switching to another code – and being snatched away from the game he grew up playing.
“I started to get approached by other codes around the same time I was becoming a senior member in the NRL and had just been crowned Australian captain,” he says.
“Because it’s the code I love, I genuinely wanted to make rugby league as strong as it can be, to represent the game in the right manner and to stay loyal,” he says.
In summing up his career, Lockyer says he feels very fortunate to have been able to play the game he loves at such a high level for such a long time and to finish with a victory, captaining Australia in the 2011 Four Nations campaign.
While Lockyer would be too humble to admit it, Australian league fans know it will take a very special player to replace him.