I first met footballer Preston Campbell in 1998 when I was coaching the Cronulla Sharks. We initially used Preston as a utility player but he really burst into the big time in 2001, becoming the success story of the season. His brilliant play caught the public’s imagination, particularly the Sharks fans. Our team surged into the finals and Preston won the Dally M Medal for the best player in the competition.
After we had been knocked out one game short of the grand final, myself and a number of the coaching, training staff and players left the Sharks at the end of the season. I went to Penrith for the 2002 season with hopes of building them from wooden-spooners to a club that would challenge for the title. Meanwhile, Preston had an unhappy 2002 season at the Sharks. He never quite fitted in with the new regime and went from winning the Dally M Medal to a fringe first-grader.
We improved at Penrith in 2002 but not nearly as much as we needed to and we signed Preston as our number one new signing for the 2003 season. We knew that not only could he add spark to our attack, but would bring energy and enthusiasm to the squad both on and off the field.
Unfortunately the Preston that arrived for pre-season training at the end of 2002 was not the same Preston we had known at the Sharks. It was clear that he was doing it tough but we thought that with a coaching staff who believed in him and the support of a few old teammates, particularly his friend Scott Sattler from his Gold Coast days, he could turn things around.
Unfortunately instead of improving he got worse. He was concerned about his career and his home life was troubled. Preston has since admitted that he was trying to hide his struggles from the outside world at the time, and didn’t want to speak to his peers about his depression. I decided to broach the subject myself and spoke to Preston about seeking professional help, but he never did anything about it. I eventually thought the best way to go was to make an appointment to see a psychologist and then pick him up and take him there to make sure he went.
I can’t say for certain what part the counselling played in Preston’s overall recovery but by the start of the 2003 season he was getting back to something like the Preston of old. For all of us at Penrith, including Preston, that season was like a fairytale as we surged from near the bottom of the table to win the Premiership.
Playing football may appear a fairly trivial pursuit in the scheme of life, but for players and coaching staff in professional sport, it is their livelihood and the club is often a big part of their support system. If that support is taken away, it can have a traumatic effect on a person’s sense of wellbeing.
Fortunately for Preston, he went on to make the most of his career as a player and after leaving Penrith he returned to the Gold Coast to play for the Titans and then moved into a post football career there. He’s now an ambassador for mental health issues.
Since 2003 I have come across a number of players who have suffered from depression both during and after their playing careers. It appears to be a problem that is getting worse both in professional sport and in the general community. I do not know why but I’ve got no doubt that in professional sport abuse of prescription drugs is part of the problem. The transition from a playing career to a “normal” life is also often very difficult and is a dangerous time. Fortunately the stigma of seeking professional help has pretty much evaporated and players can almost invariably rely on the support of the administration and coaching staff of their clubs and, most importantly, their teammates.
I think we do a good job in the NRL at the beginning of their playing careers and make every effort to prepare them for the future while they are still playing. I believe the next area for improvement is to provide them more support once those careers are over, and that’s where players like Preston will play big a role.
John Lang is a former NRL coach. Preston Campbell joins a room of men to discuss why male suicide rates are so high on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 28 July 2014.