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He was the prodigious teenage talent who debuted for the Newcastle Knights at 17 while still at school, bought a house and a car before he'd learned to drive and won an NRL premiership at just 19.
But Owen Craigie's greatest win in life was not being a part of that memorable 1997 premiership triumph over Manly that so captivated the city. His greatest personal triumph is still being alive to talk about it.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview for this week's edition of Toohey's News - The Podcast, Craigie reveals for the first time how a phone call six months ago to former teammate Matty Johns, as his life spiraled out of control, stopped him from committing suicide.
He also details his experiences with racism, how he gambled away as much as $2 million on poker machines and horses during his career and how the trauma of feeling helpless following the deaths of relatives, including his 31 year old sister who had a heart attack while breast-feeding, led to alcohol and drug addiction that ate away at him, causing his marriage to break down.
Thankfully Craigie, who Andrew Johns once described as the most naturally gifted rugby league player he ever played with, has won the battle over his demons.
"I'm out the other side - I've got rid of all the toxicity," he said during our interview. "There's two things I've learn in my 42 years. One is the greatest project you can ever work on is yourself and [the second is] it's all right to have a shit day."
Craigie debuted for the Knights in the NRL in 1995 as a 17-year-old while still at St Francis Xavier College at Hamilton, the youngest ever Knight.
He went on to play 153 top grade games for the Knights, Wests Tigers and South Sydney over a decade before ending his NRL career at the age of just 26 to have a season in the English Super League with Widnes in 2005 before returning home and retiring.
The eldest of seven kids from the small town of Tingha near Inverell, Craigie says he "grew up poor but grew up rich with dreams". Rugby league, he said, was his opportunity to make something of his life.
"I lost a lot of family - aunties and uncles and a lot of my cousins - to suicide and kidney failure and I just wanted a different life," he said.
Asked about his future if he had stayed in Tingha, Craigie said: "I'd have ended up in jail because that's where my cousins were. They thought it was normal to go to jail. They'd get out and say 'yeah, I've been to jail, I'm a man now'.
"I'm thinking I'd cry if I went to jail. Watching footy back then, I had posters on my wall and I just wanted to be the next Freddy Fittler. I dreamed big."
Craigie says he has dealt with racism his whole life but it came to a head in the late '90's during a game against North Sydney when he took issue with a taunt from the Bears centre Chris Caruana
"This was way before Latrell Mitchell and these [latest] guys came out," he said. "I think it's great what they are doing now but I did it back in the 90's when no-one really wanted to talk about it.
"I wore my heart on my sleeve and it was after the game that the ref ran up to me and said 'I heard what he said, are you going to make a complaint?'. I said let's bring him to the shed and we'll have a yarn about it.
"I was 17 or 18 and I get Chris Caruana around the back and he apologised but the referee still put in a complaint. The NRL's anti-racism policy that's in now, that stemmed from that game. But get this, me and Chris Caruana have become very good mates. He just said something out of the heat of the battle.
"Everyone makes mistakes but everyone has the quality to change and become better people as well."
Craigie said racism is something he has experienced throughout his life.
"Not all the time but when it does, it hurts because the thing you can't accept is we live in a world where we think it is one love and peace but you still get people who want to make life hard for everyone else," he said.
"But I think we live in a good world and I think my culture and my people have come a long way in the past 50 years."
Craigie estimates he lost a staggering $2 million because of his gambling addiction.
"I was gambling and developed an addiction there and it got me big time," he said. "It happened when I was 17 or 18, as soon as I started making big money.
"I had a house, a car and I was chasing that next rush, that adrenaline hit you know and that's where I found it. I was gambling on horses, pokies, you name it. It took control of my life.
"It's funny with me because people can tell me this and show me that but me, Owen Craigie, I've always got to fall flat on my face to learn it. I learn the hard way. In my whole career, I lost about $2 mill. I was terrible at it."
Asked why he didn't get help, Craigie said: "I had help - the club put me in some help. But I was young, I was cocky, I was arrogant - I had an attitude that I thought Owen Craigie could save the world but he couldn't even save himself.
"But over time, you meet people and deal with psychologists and you develop systems and it's all about just knowing what the triggers are, why you've done it. Also with that [addiction] was my binge eating when my weight blew in and out, and I was binge drinking and things like that too."
It was mid to late last year that Craigie's mental demons really took hold.
"Six months ago, my life was shit," he said. "There were certain things in my life that happened like when my sister died at 31 while she is breast-feeding, when I've got my younger cousins committing suicide, I've got things that are happening within my community and family - sex abuse and this and that.
"It's a lot for me to wear because I feel like I should have been there to protect my family and friends and my community but I'm down here [in Newcastle] doing this. Over time, it's an underlying trauma that I didn't really deal with and I ran to other things [alcohol and drugs] to try and substitute my thinking and feeling."
At one stage, he was so low mentally, he was in the psychiatric ward of a Newcastle hospital, "handcuffed to the bed".
"It just hit me. I had a nervous breakdown - it shattered me and crushed my whole world," he said. "My mental health was bad, I was in a dark place. My life was very toxic."
Craigie was on his way to "tap out" of life, as he puts it, when he made the fateful phone call to former teammate and current Fox Footy star Matty Johns.
The call saved his life.
"I was going to end my life," he recalled.
"The first person I rang was Matty Johns. He just said 'where are you, pull over'. So I pulled over near Cooks Hill Surf Club and then Kurt Gidley rings me. He says 'mate, I hear you're in a bad way and I said 'I am'.
"That afternoon, the Men of League Foundation rang me, a day later I filled out the paperwork and five days later, I was in rehab. It was a pretty important phone call I made to Matty.
"People see the funny side of Matty and Joey but you know what, they are Immortals in sport but what they do behind the scenes for people like myself and there's Boozey [Mark Hughes] and Kurt too. They have been there for me and Matty, especially Matty, he took my call you know and thank god he took that call.
"At that stage, my wife couldn't put up with me and left. She'd had enough of all the bullshit I suppose and I'd lost who I was and where I was going and that became toxic. I was in a bad way and I just thought I can't do it no more, I'm tapping out.
"I just rang Matty and said 'Matty, I'm at the bottom of the barrel, I can't do this no more man, there's no more me, I'm tapping out'. But obviously, I was crying and in a bad way."
Craigie says rehab brought him back from the brink.
"For me going into rehab was the greatest thing I've ever done in my life because I learnt about my mental, physical and spiritual well-being and why I'd done these certain things in my life," he said. "And if it arises again, I know the triggers and I know how to overcome it.
"Who'd ever think you could go to an AA class or an NA class in Newcastle and sit next to Owen Craigie? I go because it's part of my recovery but it's alright. I'm now at a place where I'm very lucky and blessed because there were people in rehab in the same boat as I was who took their own life."
Craigie, who works for Awabakal at Wickham, providing disability services and support, is a big advocate for indigenous mental health.
"We lose two aboriginal people every day to suicide - we lose 800,000 a year," he said.
"The focus right now is COVID-19 but what about mental health and chronic disease? From the flick of a switch, we can go from being normal to not even being here.
"I've been very blessed that I have three beautiful children but I know what it's like to lose yourself. I now know what it's like to have a good life and be happy.
"I can talk to people about it now because I've made every mistake, broken every rule and I'm very lucky and fortunate to be alive."
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If you are affected by anything you read in this story, help is available:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- MensLine 1300 789 978
- beyondblue 1300 224 636
- In an emergency call triple zero