When Edrick Lee made his Maroons debut in last year's Origin series decider in front of a packed house at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, there were two empty seats on halfway.
The seats were a powerful symbol of how much family means to him.
The lanky Knights winger had more than 30 extended family members in the crowd to watch him and his cousin Brenko Lee play but among a sea of Maroon supporters, those two seats stood out.
Lee had purchased both to honour his mother and father.
Tragically, he lost them to sudden heart attacks in the space of 18 months. His dad Sam died in 2019 during Lee's first season in Newcastle. His mum Connie passed away suddenly last September, less than three weeks out from the Knights first finals series appearance in seven years.
"No-one really knew but I bought those two extra Origin tickets for my parents," Lee told the Newcastle Herald. "I knew specifically where the seats were and every chance I got during the game, I'd lock eyes on them and think of mum and dad.
"Back in 2015 when I was 18th man for Queensland in game three at the same ground, they were both there, sitting in seats on halfway behind the bench. It was a small gesture but it just felt right for me to get those seats for them in that same spot.
"Every time I looked up at them during the game, I could picture myself seeing my parents there. It gave me strength."
Lee needed every ounce of strength to get him through a difficult 2020. After breaking his arm in round 8 against Manly, he missed nine games before returning in round 18 against the Roosters.
Then tragedy struck a couple of days later when he learned his mother had died.
"To hear the news, it was the most heartbreaking thing to ever happen to me," he said. "Because of COVID and the bubble, I hadn't seen mum since the Christmas before . We used to talk on the phone all the time but I didn't see her at all last year and then she was gone."
Lee withdrew from the Knights clash against the Dragons in round 19 to privately grieve his loss but then came the toughest decision he has ever had to make.
He had to decide whether to leave the bubble and end his season to fly to Brisbane to be with his three younger sisters Abigail, Thelma and Namera for his mother's funeral or stay in Newcastle and keep playing.
"Mum loved watching me play," he said.
"I know when I got injured, I used to ring her after [rehab] sessions down in the dumps and she was always giving me encouragement to do what I had to do to get back on the field. I think it was her who gave me the mental strength to come back earlier than expected.
"So I knew when I made the decision to keep playing, it was what she would have wanted. When we played the Titans [final round] on the Gold Coast, I had plenty of family there and I got this sense that both my parents were looking done on me with a smile on their faces and were proud of me.
"Looking back at it now, I did the best I could under tough circumstances and made the situation as comfortable as I could with how I dealt with everything.
"My family circle really supported me through it but it wasn't just them, the whole Knights organisation from the top right down to the bottom really looked after me."
Lee knows his dream of playing Origin would not have happened if he'd left the bubble.
On his Origin experience, he said: "Words can't describe it. I was shocked initially to even get picked in the squad after the year I'd had with injury but once I got into camp, I had this belief that if I got called up, I was ready.
"To get named to play alongside Brenko with my partner Amber and our two kids and three sisters there along with a host of other family, the game itself and the week leading up was pretty emotional.
"Scoring a try and winning the game to take the series just capped it all off."
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