Hold the front page -- Cooper Cronk doesn’t wear a cape!
When you look at Superman up on the big screen, if he put on a pair of footy shorts and a jumper, he’d look right at home in a footy team – except maybe his calves could be bigger. I say this because people, especially young blokes, sometimes look at their favourite football players as if they’re comic book heroes. As if they’ve come to earth in a spaceship with their super powers intact and ready to rock. And there was a time when I almost believed that to be true. But we’re not gods and we’re not super heroes. No one has all the answers, especially when you’re just starting out in life. There is always someone else out there that knows more than you do. And that’s as true for me today as it was when I was 15 years old. Even Superman needed advice. Even blokes like me. Never be too proud to put up your hand and ask for advice. And remember to go back and thank the person who gave it.
I was born with some ability, it’s true. But the fact is I got to where I am now through persistence and hard work. These are the boring things that your parents tell you all the time. And it is true. But what you’re often not told is how to make hard work fun. I don’t have all the answers but I can share a few things that might help you get started in finding your way. I can offer you the things I know and the equally important fact that I don’t know everything. Like I said, no one has all the answers, especially when starting out in life. And that’s where it all begins. When you’re a kid.
The one good thing I knew early on
I read a story recently about Princess Charlene of Monaco, a former Olympic athlete who teaches poor kids to swim. It was interesting to me for two reasons. First, the princess was visiting Melbourne and watching some local kids go through a set of drills. At one point they were doing tumbling exercises which she hadn’t seen before. She said she was going to try these exercises out on her students in the future. This impressed me because it showed she was always looking out for better ways to do things. She wasn’t stuck in a rut and was open to learning something new.
The second thing was her idea that if you teach a young person new skills, their self-esteem will get a boost and then, as she put it, they will begin to further themselves. I could relate to that. I had a happy childhood but there were times that I was inspired, even at a young age, to make something of myself. That I wanted something different to what my mum and dad had. But you don’t get anywhere just on dreams and getting a few skills was the boost I needed.
That boost can be addictive. You become motivated to learn more, not because your parents or teachers are telling you to do so – but because you want to. I always worked hard, but you need something to work with. A few skills. That’s why I was never afraid to ask questions. The truth is, you can throw a hard working kid in a swimming pool. But if he doesn’t know how to stay afloat, he’ll drown. But once you know how to stay afloat – or kick a ball properly, or play a few chords on the guitar – you’ve got something inside yourself to draw on. And you’ll want to go further.
So the next step is to set yourself a challenge and to meet it. Not for the sake of a crowd cheering you on. Not for the sake of a blue ribbon. But because it feels good. And it makes you strong. It builds you up when other things in your life might be dragging you down. This was the important lesson I learnt early on.
When I was younger – about 14, 15 or 16 – I would often compete with myself and I still do it today. Back then, I’d get off the train from school, go to the local fish and chip shop (which had the best tasting chips in the world), grab some of those chips and then walk to the football fields. They were about a kilometre from my home, and I wouldn’t go home until I had met the challenge I had set myself. I didn’t have my mates with me. I wasn’t trying to show off to anybody. It was just me and what I had to do.
I had this ritual of kicking the ball through the posts from five different locations on the field. I'd tell myself if I kicked ten in a row I could go home. There were many times when I kicked seven, eight or nine in a row and then missed the next one, which forced me to start again. Sometimes I would still be there after dark. I remember it was raining one day but I didn’t use that as an excuse. I completed my afternoon ritual. Because it was fun. It made life better, believe it or not. Everything that seemed to be a problem just dissolved at the park. If things at home or school were annoying me, I went there. And when I felt the urge to be a professional footballer, I went there to help make that possible.
It also transformed the way I thought about myself. If you asked the boys I went to school with, they would tell you I was the runt of the litter. I was always the smallest for my age and was a bit scruffy-looking. I had a major complex about my size. I always wanted to be bigger. I guess this is where I developed my bulldog instincts. I turned my physical limitations into my calling card and trained the house down to make sure I always got a game. Even now I continue to challenge myself beyond the demands of Melbourne Storm, often setting myself additional training drills when it would be so easy to go home, lie on the couch and expect life to give me everything without any further personal effort on my part.
Where it all started was setting the challenge for myself. Going down to those football fields. I still go past the area whenever I return home for holidays. I always find an excuse to drive that way. It’s changed physically, but not emotionally. I still get a great thrill. The backdrop was the local train line and the grass was often long and the paint on the posts was weathered and fading. The posts themselves were not exactly straight and there was a toxic smell from a diesel mill next to the train station. But that was a beautiful smell to me. This was my dreamland and I went there all year round. I had a lot of good memories from playing baseball and other sports around there, but the best feeling I got was winning against myself: kicking those balls through the posts, ten in a row, no matter how long it took. It made me feel physically bigger, and quite powerful actually.
All I can say is set yourself a challenge you enjoy, make it a ritual and stick to it.
This is no feel-good Hollywood movie
I could tell you a story that would make a great movie. I could make it sound like I heroically overcame great obstacles and, through sheer determination, turned myself into a top football player with all the good things that come with a well-paid high-profile job. And it would sort of be true.
The problem with making movies about real-life people is that they tend to leave out the unattractive parts. For example, I didn’t appreciate my family as much as I should have. If my parents hadn’t driven me around to all those sporting events, I wouldn’t have a football career. The fact was, I had my sights set on getting far away and making a name for myself, not on looking back. And then when that dream started to come true, I still didn't pay a lot of attention to my family. When I went home I'd politely say “Hi’’ before going out with my friends. I didn't show my family enough love.
Thankfully, I got over myself. These days, I am a son, brother, grandson and cousin, and I do not take that responsibility lightly. I love it. Take my grandfather for instance. He gets so much joy out of watching my games and just generally talking to me. I make sure that if I miss his call, I don't let half an hour go by without calling him back. And it is a two way street. I have learnt that his humility, wholesomeness and grace are must-have ingredients for any life that we want to call a good one.
Does this mean I’m squeaky clean? Can I afford to preach and hold myself up as a good-bloke role model? I wish. The fact is I’m sometimes asked if I was picked on at school because I was smaller and I have to admit I actually picked on other kids to give myself a boost. Raising myself up at someone else’s expense. And it works, sort of. You get a big laugh and it makes you feel good, but it also makes you feel bad at the same time. Thinking back now, I don’t remember the laughs so much. I remember the bad feeling mostly and I’m ashamed.
I suppose this brings me back to the real lesson I found in kicking those footballs through the posts, ten in a row. There was much greater happiness in taking on that challenge than in putting down a weaker kid. I didn’t need to look good in front of the other kids. Because I looked pretty good to myself. And that still feels good today.
Dreams are like fish, they can slip through your fingers
My first full pre-season of professional football was in 2003. I’d always been one of the fittest and fastest teens, no matter what form of exercise. 2003 was the hardest we had ever trained collectively as a group. I expected to pass all the tests easily but that wasn't the case. As time went on I found training, for the first time in my life, difficult, almost to the point of no return. For a boy who was normally up the front, I found myself 50 metres behind the slowest bloke – and he was 30kg heavier than me. I didn't know what was going on. Then one day I collapsed at training. I was copping it from everyone, including the coach saying “Get up, you lazy so-and-so”. I was taken to hospital by ambulance and diagnosed with anaemia – a lack of blood in my system as a result of bleeding ulcers in my stomach. I got physically better but this didn’t make me feel any better for training badly. And what made it worse was some of the boys got to stay in Melbourne while I was sent back to Brisbane to continue playing with the reserve grade team.
I was distraught, embarrassed and totally of the opinion that I wasn't cut out to be a professional footballer. I gave up. It was too hard. For the first time in my life I didn't have the answer. So I did what any other teenager would do … which was sulk, whinge and blame everybody else. Worse, I covered up the problem by going out with my mates, putting mucking around ahead of my ambition.
Meanwhile, the reserve team was given the feedback of my performances in Melbourne. This resulted in me being played out of position, reinforcing the message that I didn't have what it took. At that point, I half gave up my dream and partied harder. But halfway through the year, Melbourne Storm started to sign other players from the same competition I was playing in. This was a massive wake-up call. I was off contract that year with Melbourne and if I didn't do something quickly, my career was going to be over before it started. I asked the coach to play me in a more familiar position and I played like a man possessed. I scored fourteen tries in ten games (including eight tries in two games) and got an offer to re-sign at Melbourne. And the rest is history.
The thing that changed most, the thing that saved me, is I stopped blaming everybody else. With the threat that my dreams were going to be taken away, I used my vulnerability as my strength. The fact that I couldn’t hide behind my excuses anymore was all the motivation I needed.
One day a scruffy kid is going to approach me after a game. And I'm going to know by the look on his face that he found this website and found something to flick the switch for him.
There is no greater privilege than knowing that, in some small way, my journey made it easier for another scruffy kid, a lot like me, to live his best life.