Selfless drive of Eels' unsung hero

The average rugby league fan might not know a lot about Parramatta's club career coach Dean Feeney but the sheer generosity and selflessness of the Eels assistant NYC coach has made him indispensable not just to the club but also to the Women's Indigenous All Stars team, for whom he goes above and beyond as a matter of course.

Feeney looks after education and wellbeing for the Eels and is also described as the club's 'House Parent' for his work with Parramatta House which takes care of the young players who come in from country areas of New Zealand.

Feeney had a tough childhood in the rough old days of Woollomooloo, growing up not knowing his father.

But instead of heading down a destructive or hopeless path, he was saved by the local PCYCs and recreation centres as well as a passion for football.

One of his proudest moments in life came recently, when his son Jaelen – who is currently in the Knights first grade set-up – designed Newcastle's Indigenous Round jersey along with teammate Dane Gagai.

"Football has been a massive lifesaver for me, it helped me find and get in touch with my Indigenous side which I only found out when I met my wife at a later age," Feeney told NRL.com.

"I grew up in a pretty rough situation in Woolloomooloo when I grew up it wasn't as trendy as it is these days, it was a bit rougher back then and the PCYCs and all the rec centres saved me and my mates, it kept us on the track so youth has always been a passion of mine."

Feeney only came to know more about his Indigenous heritage later in life, given it is on his father's side.

"My father was Indigenous and I never knew my father so that came about and football helped me get over those hurdles. I love the game and my son at the moment just designed the Indigenous jersey up at Newcastle with Dane Gagai which is one of my proudest moments," he said.

"It helped us get in touch with that side and finding some aunties and uncles and brothers and sisters I didn't know existed, it's been a bit of a journey.

"I know what the game itself has done for me in unusual ways. If it wasn't for the game a few of my mates might have been not here today."

Of the jersey, Feeney laughed that Jaelen "kept it a bit of a secret".

"When I saw it and saw them talking about it [on League Life on Fox Sports], it made me very very proud. I was watching that with my wife and my daughter, I was very proud."

One of Feeney's many success stories is Tyrell Fuimaono, who just made his debut for the Rabbitohs after being a star in the Eels NYC system which saw him play plenty of junior reps.

Fuimaono told NRL.com Feeney had a huge influence on him in his time at the Eels.

"I consider Dean family really, he's been like my uncle. I've known him for going on five years now," Fuimaono said.

"He was a massive influence on me even outside football, he put me in the right direction, opened opportunities and was a massive influence on where I am today.

"He rang me during the week [ahead of my debut] and said he couldn't be happier for me and I thanked him. I couldn't be more grateful for what he's done for me."

Parramatta's Education and Welfare Manager Matt Francis was also glowing in his praise of Feeney's contribution to the club both to Fiuimaono and to plenty of other players.

"He's one of the unsung heroes of the game; he's got a real commitment to go above and beyond," Francis said.

"He does a lot of hours work with kids, meets them out of hours to discuss issues in life even out of football be it career or other issues. He's just a totally committed person.

"When I came to Parramatta Dean joined me not long after. He came from the School to Work program which is taking kids and ensuring they not only complete year 12 but have a clearly defined pathway after they complete school. 

"Tyrell was a great example… [Feeney] was getting up to pick him up and take him to university but Tyrell was one of the many of hundreds of kids he helped just to get there and ensure he was on track.

"Tyrell in his first year in the under-20s was playing junior Kangaroos but also excelling off the field at university, getting his credits." 

Dean Widders, coach of the Women's Indigenous All Stars team, had nothing but glowing praise for the influence Feeney has had on the team, particularly from a cultural point of view.

"Dean is one of the most selfless people I think you'll find – he's always about putting other people first," Widders told NRL.com.

"He goes above and beyond in everything he does for people. With the women's team, he'd bring gear for the girls to train in, tee up opportunities for them to train at the Eels. 

"This is all in his own time, it's not stuff that's part of his role, he just goes above and beyond."

Feeney even helped some of the players in the Women's Indigenous team looking for work or other off-field opportunities, completely separate to his coaching role, Widders said.

Feeney's original involvement with the women's team came as the team's bus driver. Why? Well, they needed a bus driver.

"Then I saw they were a bit of a blank canvas and how proud they were and I got involved and ended up coaching," Feeney said. "It was like I had 20 daughters on the field."

His involvement with Widders also helped him on his path towards where he is now, as a careers and guidance mentor.

"Dean always said to me you have two 'Plan As' – football is one and the other Plan A is outside of footy. So it's not something you fall back on because footy doesn't work, it's something that you're passionate about so it's to find that passion. That started me on that path," Feeney said.

Feeney really lights up when NRL.com asks about the growth and improvement he has seen in the kids he mentors.

"Some of or 20s boys work at Giant Steps, the school of autism; we've got five under 20s boys who work with kids with autism five days a week," Feeney said.

"One of those boys did his knee in the third round this year and his first thought after he calmed down from the shock of it was 'what am I going to do about work'.

"Here's a kid, 18 years old, did his knee, going to be out for the season and his first thought is what is he going to do about work, because he works one on one with a boy who's got severe autism and needs one on one care. So for me that's a win, whether or not he goes on and plays football I know he's a well-adjusted young man."

This article originally appeared on NRL.com