Wade McKinnon, NZ Warrior #132 talks about the difficulties athletes go through transitioning to life after footy and shares some of his experiences post rugby league.
It’s part and parcel the New Zealand Warriors look across the ditch to recruit, just like every other club looks to these shores to bolster their own rosters. Over the years there have been some great investments as well as great lessons but most of us will agree that Wade McKinnon was one of the smarter ones.
Most Mount Smart loyals rate Wade as one of the better buys and good guys, with his colourful on-field antics and straight up the guts Australian attitude. His relentlessness toward the sport is a quality that helped make him an ultimate professional athlete.
His record supports this with the amount of times he overcame setbacks and injuries as well as the number of clubs he contributed to, playing top level league for 13 years. This same attitude he carried into life after footy though found himself challenged in new ways.
“I’m not going to lie, the transition to life after footy sucks. Think about it, you’re kinda semi-professional at school, and then you go full-time once you leave. When you finish all you know is rugby league.”
Some might say players should focus on skills for careers once they hang up their boots but the reality isn’t that straightforward. What other profession expects employees to prepare for two roles simultaneously? It’s a catch 22.
“With league there is the possibility of losing your job every week. If you don’t perform, you’re out. It means you always have to be at the top of your game, preparing to perform week in and week out. But that’s not how it is when you finish – when you finish the world is different.”
“You don’t often get the chance to show you can perform, people just want experience and unfortunately most players do not have that. It probably doesn’t help a lot of people look at rugby league players’ as meat heads but there is so much cross over in league and business that can be utilised – the dedication, discipline, and determination to keep going/win.”
In this day and age there is support from the clubs to help athletes prepare for the transition but like any work environment everyone is different. What works for some might not necessarily work for others. Add the extra layer of having to find experience or upskilling that doesn’t jeopardise fitness and performance as well as suits a full-time playing schedule and the options start to dwindle.
Not one to focus on the negatives, Wade’s key message to aspiring athletes reflects his own experience.
“Obviously focus on your career but look after yourself too – don’t let anybody influence your decisions. The reality is your time in the game is limited and eventually it comes to an end whether it’s on your terms or not.”
As hard as the transition was, Wade knew what he wanted to do after footy but unfortunately for some players that’s not always the case.
“I always wanted to be a firefighter. I had completed some experience with Parramatta but it didn’t happen straight away. I drove a rubbish truck for a couple of months waiting for an intake because I wasn’t going to sit around doing nothing. On the other hand three mates I’ve played with have committed suicide after football and three have attempted to take their lives.”
A sombre admission in our conversation but a reality Wade wants to share. In remembering his friends he raises an awareness about the difficulties professional athletes can sometimes find themselves in after they hang up their boots. This is the side of rugby league the public don’t see on game day.
“Like I said, you go from doing what you love everyday with your friends and then all of a sudden you finish, your mates aren’t there, and the adrenaline and excitement from work has gone. I see this side of professionalism because I’ve played and experienced it.”
A price in playing a sport they love means the public feel entitled to comment on their every move, both professionally and personally. Nothing is off limits and I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it as even the most mentally strong must struggle with the unforgiving. And maybe in this era, more often than most people care to know.
In amongst it all we shift to talking about his most memorable moments. Making City Origin, and playing with and against players he grew up watching rate highly.
“To play alongside guys like Gary Larson and Jim Dymock was surreal; playing against the likes of Brad Fittler and David Peachey was also pretty cool especially as David Peachey was one of my favourite players.”
Outside of footy, Wade’s love for travelling has seen him explore the globe from the Inca Trail in Peru, to sunny beaches of the Caribbean and his favourite place in the world, Hawaii. He loves surfing, motor biking, and wake boarding – activities that challenge and fulfil his love for adrenaline. Nowadays there isn’t too much spare time to engage in these as spending time with his children is his main priority.
I ask him if he’s worried about what they’ll see if they google him. “To be honest, I don’t want them to take articles or peoples’ opinions of me into account. I feel being present and raising them should influence that instead. They know me.”
“If my kids only remember one lesson from everything I share with them, I hope it’s that they know they can do whatever they want; I don’t want them to let people or society dictate that.”
When rounding off our time together I ask about his plans and aspirations for the future. His response is simple – raising his kids. “I’ve had my time, if there was a video of my life, you would see I’ve truly lived it to the fullest.”
If you strip everything back Wade McKinnon is a kid from Sydney who has continuously pushed himself to achieve his goals and is passionate about being able to share his experiences, good and bad, with others. No one can fault the good intentions behind the messages he shares; some may have issue with his delivery but his honest sharp shooting ways might be what’s needed to help the next generation of athletes coming through the grades to prepare for the unforgiving spotlight and beyond – a far greater return on investment for NZ than the Warriors bargained for all those years ago.
Photo credit: www.nzwarriors.com