“We spoke about belief in yourself. It feels like you’re getting beaten up after a training session or you pull up after a match and it feels like your body has been put through a meat grinder.
“It’s about making sure you have the tools in front of you to build yourself up again. They do see themselves as the ‘Family Club’, a community club. It’s about looking for something more than just playing for the number.”
There is no more inspirational figure in Australian sport than Fearnley. In her role as the chief executive of the Australian Paralympic Committee, Bulldogs chair Lynne Anderson has seen it first hand. This is a man who, aside from winning three Paralympic gold medals, seven world titles and a staggering 35 marathon triumphs across 10 countries as a wheelchair racer, has been part of a Sydney to Hobart crew and crawled the entire Kokoda Track on his hands.
That’s why Anderson decided the NSW Australian of the year was the perfect person to address the team ahead of its 2019 campaign. After some convincing – Fearnley is a Panthers fan with a soft spot for the Knights since shifting to Newcastle – he heeded the call. He even posed up with coach Dean Pay and the entire squad in a blue and white jersey after telling the story that is his remarkable life.
“He had a lot of key messages that I’ve been reminding myself of on a daily basis coming to training,” said forward Adam Elliott ahead of the Bulldogs’ round-one match against New Zealand Warriors on Saturday.
“You might feel a bit of a niggle here and there but then you remember the footage of him doing the Kokoda Trail on his hands, it’s just so inspiring to see someone so determined and motivated when the odds are stacked against them.
“It’s a great way of humbling the group and bringing everyone back down to ground zero.
“It was a great visit, the boys appreciated having him in here.”
Each player took away something different. For Elliott, it was the way Fearnley and his coach related to each other, how everything was always positive no matter how much they pushed each other’s limits.
“They weren’t whinging about any of the sessions they were doing, it was all about moving toward that one common goal,” Elliott said.
For captain Josh Jackson, it was the way Fearnley made the seemingly impossible possible.
“He was fantastic,” Jackson said.
“He told us about his life, about what he has been through, his career through the Paralympics and what he has achieved. He’s a really tough guy, a real inspiration. He tries to compare what he’s done to what we’re doing, but really there is no comparison.”
Fearnley has described wheelchair racing as one of the most solitary sports in the world, one in which your head is constantly down. In his final representative race, a gold medal victory in last year’s Commonwealth Games, he glanced up and realised how many Australians had joined him on the journey.
“I remember seeing on the Gold Coast when he won the marathon, that jubilation,” said Bulldogs forward Aiden Tolman.
“He knew it was his last race and the excitement he had after 20 years in the sport, we need to take something out of that.
“It’s a great lifestyle, a great job. You have to enjoy every day.”
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.