Why Queensland was the salvation of Greg Inglis

When Greg Inglis talks about the footprints he's left behind in life he quickly adds that they are ones he keeps going back to.

And to understand what makes the new Maroons captain tick you need to understand that in many respects the 12 months he spent in Queensland as a teenager in 2004 was his salvation at a time in his life when he threatened to run off the rails.

When the 31-year-old spoke for the first time as skipper of his state last week about why he chose to represent the Maroons instead of the Blues, he referred to the "sense of belonging" that he'd always felt in Queensland.

You could write a book about all the influences that have shaped Inglis in his life, and if you did the year spent with the Coolwell family in 2004 while attending Wavell State High in Brisbane would feature prominently.

Last week Inglis rang the Coolwell's to invite them down for lunch and to watch the Maroons train at Sanctuary Cove for their first full contact session on Sunday. 

In a sit-down interview with NRL.com in Maroons camp, Inglis outlined why he valued being welcomed into the Coolwell home where Adrian, wife Mary and sons Zak and Jake made him feel like a son himself.

Maroons captain Greg Inglis.
Maroons captain Greg Inglis. ©NRL Photos

"Life is a bit of a circle. You always go back to your grassroots," Inglis said.

"You never forget where you come from, and that was instilled in me by my grandparents. No matter where you walk in life you leave footprints behind, but you always go back.

"I felt it was a home away from home.

"It was massive for me. Adrian kept reassuring me that I belonged to his family. He welcomed me into his family with open arms.

"Leaving my family at a very young age and coming up here was very difficult.

"It is known that Indigenous kids get homesick, and Adrian kept encouraging me to follow my dream to play football, like my father. He sort of became my father figure away from home."

Not long before moving to Brisbane the young Inglis had found himself at the proverbial crossroads.

"When I was down in NSW I went to school in Newcastle and it didn't work out well for me," he said.

"I was truant and wasn't going to school. I was staying in a hostel and getting into trouble off my carers down there. I was getting into trouble off the school, and running off the rails a bit.

"The Storm rang me up and I went back home to my grassroots in Macksville. I was talking to my parents and my grandparents and re-evaluating what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to stay in Macksville or continue on a football journey.

"The Storm got hold of the Coolwell's, and I am thankful Melbourne did that at the time or I wouldn't be here playing today."

Looking back 14 years on, Adrian Coolwell insists Inglis would have made it as a footballer without his family's influence. Inglis played for Norths Devils while signed to the Storm and carved up before making his NRL debut in 2005. It was the stability his family provided that was the telling factor, and partly explains why Inglis ticked the box that said 'Queensland' and not 'NSW' when deciding his Origin allegiance.

"That sense of belonging Greg felt came from living with an Indigenous family and playing his footy up here in Queensland that year," Coolwell told NRL.com.

"We had a small little family with my wife Mary and sons Jake and Zac, and he was like a big brother to my boys.

"Greg was always an Arthur Beetson supporter and spoke a lot about him, and I always go back to all the Indigenous boys that had played for Queensland. That always impressed him.

"He was only with us a year and was back and forth from Norths [Devils] to the Melbourne Storm but it was a year that changed him in so many ways."

Coolwell had seen too many young Indigenous lads take the wrong path and end up in trouble. He wanted a teenaged Inglis to get a clear understanding of the pitfalls so took him down to the Brisbane watch house for a "tour" with a senior sergeant as an escort.

"I was the watch house officer at the time and took him down there to show him what could happen if he got on the wrong side of the law," Coolwell recalled.

"We showed him all the people in the cells and he couldn't believe it. I said 'you can be on that side or this side. It is up to you'. When he was down at Newcastle he fell in with the wrong crowd. I said that if you go the wrong way this could happen to you, but from the rugby league games I'd seen him play I made it clear he had a bright future if he chose the right path."

The tour had the desired impact. Inglis remembers it clearly to this day.

"I walked into that place and I was scared," Inglis said.

"Adrian said he wanted to show me where he worked and what he did but when I walked out of there I said to him 'I never want to be in this place in my life'.

"That was a massive turning point. I don't think he realised what he did for me then."

Inglis was in fulltime training with the Storm by the end of 2004 and his career never looked back, but he still does… and with gratitude. It all comes back to those "footprints"...... It is why he has never forgotten what his first NRL coach did for him.

"I tell Craig Bellamy every time I see him that he played a massive, massive role in my life and taught me how to work hard," Inglis said.

"If you go down to Melbourne and see the structure they have and Craig in charge… he is pretty hard to impress. I remember I did one session down there and he looked at the trainer and pretty much told him to piss me off. He said 'get him out of here and take him back to Brisbane'.

"After that I just wanted to prove him wrong. I went back and worked harder, because if you don't work hard you are not going to be in the Melbourne Storm system."

Inglis is just glad that Bellamy and his staff pushed him to his limits and got the best out of him.

"Looking back now I don't think those guys realised what impact they had on me back then because I don't say much about my past," he said.

"I'm a very private person and I have always lived my life like that."

That is why he celebrated his elevation to the Queensland captaincy with two of his best mates in the world, long-standing ones.

It was the weekend Inglis and the South Sydney Rabbitohs were in Townsville, when a call came that left him with a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye.

"When I got the phone call from Kevvie (Walters) I was up at the Cowboys. It was a massive honour," Inglis said.

"My two best mates from high school were up there so we went and spent the day together on Maggie (Magnetic) Island. It was just a great day, a great memory to have and great people to share it with.

"One I have been best mates with from Year 2 and one from Year 8 – Lachlan and Floyd. I had another good mate who I wished could have come up – Laurie from Year One."

Greg Inglis in action for Melbourne in 2005.
Greg Inglis in action for Melbourne in 2005. ©NRL Photos

 

Inglis's earlier comments about the "footprints" that he keeps returning to spring to mind again.

It is why he was on the phone to the extended Coolwell family to make sure they all caught up at Sanctuary Cove last week.

"I spoke to Jake, Aunt Valda and Paulie Coolwell, the brother [of Adrian]. It is always good to see Aunt Valda. She is so well respected in the Brisbane community and throughout Queensland.

"I just said 'come down and bring your family down on Sunday to see us train'. I am just happy to get to see them all."

Adrian Coolwell is just glad that he can point to Inglis as a shining light when he gives talks to Indigenous students all around Queensland.

"I always use Greg as an example when I go to the Torres Strait Islands, Cairns and all the Indigenous communities throughout Queensland," Coolwell said.

"When I say 'Greg Inglis' they all sit up and listen. They are transfixed. He is an example I use of someone who has set a great example to young Indigenous people.

"I was at Wavell High School and I said that education is important to each and every one of us and how important it is to get it now. Greg wasn't the best student but to his credit he is doing a business degree at university in Sydney. We can't all be NRL players but we all have our pathways in life."

Inglis's new pathway is as captain of Queensland. Has the enormity of it all hit him yet?

"Not as yet. By the time I put my head down at night my eyes are that tired," Inglis said.

"I've come into camp and it is all down to business, but it still hasn't sunk in. It is still surreal to me."

Inglis looked off into the distance when it was put to him that his distant relative and NSW counterpart James Roberts would provide a stern test on Wednesday night in the opening clash of the Holden State of Origin series at the MCG. It looms as a centre confrontation for the ages.

"It will be a great battle, but all I am worried about is what we produce on Wednesday night," Inglis said.

"We have prepared the best way we can, the Queensland way."

With Inglis at the helm, Coolwell has no doubt the Maroons will prevail. The South Sydney captain revealed last week of the tears that rolled down his cheeks when he was told he would be the 13th captain of the Maroons. He wasn't the only one to well up with emotion.

"I know it brought a tear to Greg's eyes, and it brought a tear to my eyes too," Coolwell said.

"My son Jake looks up to Greg and he always says 'I can't believe we had a Queensland captain in our house dad and he is like a brother to us'.

"Come Wednesday night, Greg will lead the way in every aspect. I know he will."