Comeback King's agonising 733-day wait
No-one could suggest Eels hooker Cameron King hasn't worked hard for his latest opportunity.
In a career ravaged by injuries, a full 733 days after he played his 21st NRL game, King finally played his 22nd.
Eighteen months after leaving North Queensland for Parramatta with 17 starts at the Dragons and four over two years at the Cowboys, he made a long-awaited Eels debut last week.
For a club that last year was forced to part ways with Blues hooker Nathan Peats due to the former administration's salary cap sins then lost their top two hookers Isaac De Gois (concussion) and Kaysa Pritchard (knee) to season-ending injuries, the formerly injury-prone King was the last man standing.
Throw away your Steven Bradbury comparisons though; King is an NRL-calibre player.
Speaking to media after his long-awaited return – a golden point 13-12 win over Canterbury last Thursday in which King made 31 tackles (with none missed), as well as providing excellent service and a few pinpoint kicks from dummy-half – the Wagga Kangaroos junior admitted it was a nervous fortnight since Pritchard was injured but seemed relieved more than anything to be back in the top grade.
"It's been a long time," King smiled in the ANZ Stadium sheds as friends and family of the team – and even retired Eel Danny Wicks – milled around to share in the excitement of a push towards a return to finals football.
"There's probably been times I wasn't sure whether I'd get back to this level. It was an emotional week. I was just trying to keep a lid on it during the week," he added.
Asked to relay just how many setbacks he's had, King had no trouble reeling off the mental checklist.
"In 2010 I did my shoulder; 2011 I did my pec; 2012 I was in and out of first grade, broke my thumb and did my medial. In 2013 I was either in first grade or injured; I did my medial Round 4, came back then did my shoulder and was out for the rest of the year.
"2014 was when I moved to the Cowboys and my second game for the Cowboys did my ACL so that put me behind the eight-ball and I knew at the back end of 2015 that I was going to be moving on."
To add insult to an absolute shopping list of injuries, King was denied a return to NRL action last year amid a late-season spate of injuries by the club's second-tier salary cap issues.
"That was frustrating but [coach] Brad [Arthur] was really good about that, he's really honest and that's all I can ask," King recalled.
"He told me what the situation was and it was out of my control so I just focused on playing good footy for Wenty (Eels Intrust Super Premiership team Wentworthville) and having a good pre-season."
After so many interrupted seasons, King said the past year and a half at Parramatta has at least allowed him to play regular football, even if it has been in reserve grade. Knowing he was good enough for the top grade and biding his time was hard, he admitted, but self pity never got anyone anywhere.
"It was tough. But if you sit around kicking stones you're not going to be playing good footy and when that opportunity comes you won't get picked anyway," he said.
"It is hard but the best thing I can do is try and play my best footy every week no matter where I'm playing. If I get an opportunity like this I'll try and take it."
The ACL injury early on in his Cowboys career was probably the lowest point, King said, compounded by the distance between himself and his support base at the time.
"I think 2014 at the Cowboys [was the hardest time]," he said.
"I was new at the club and I'd worked really hard to get into the first grade team and my second game, that was when I first did my knee and that was probably the hardest point.
"Being up there away from family and little things like that. Like I said I have great family and great friends around me who are always there and would call on me every day. That was probably the lowest point.
"There was definitely times where self-doubt and things like that [crept in] but I've got a good family around me, good partner, really good friends and I just knew if I kept working and refused to give up I might get another chance."
That chance has now arrived. Assuming King stays injury-free – touch wood – that blue and gold No.9 jersey is his for the rest of the year. And at just 25, he believes his best footy is in front of him.
"That's probably what's kept me going – I feel like personally my best footy is still in front of me," he said.
"The most back to back first grade games I've played is about five. I feel like if I could get on a good run and stay healthy that my best footy is still in front of me."