There was a moment in the second half against Parramatta last Sunday when Mat Croker was gassed and his lungs felt like they had caught fire when the enormity of what he'd achieved suddenly hit him.
"I remember just having this fleeting thought at one stage when I looked across at the Eels boys that holy hell, this is the NRL and I'm here. It was just a split second but I thought this is just the best," the Knights debutant said.
"It was all I'd ever wanted and dreamed of so to be there living it, that was pretty special. The result was obviously really disappointing but everything else is something I'll never forget."
Croker relived the build-up and the big day for the Newcastle Herald.
Breaking the news
"The best part of the whole week was telling mum and dad on the phone together that I was going to debut. I was at work and mum was at a netball carnival in Orange with my younger sister so I rang her and told her to wait on a second and then I merged a call with my dad so we could have a three-way conversation. They didn't know what was going on or how they were even on the line together and I just said listen up for a sec. I have some news, I'm at work right now but I just got off the phone from the coach and this Sunday, I'm going to be making my debut at McDonald Jones. Mum was pretty much instantly in tears - happy tears, and I think it took the old man a little bit to register it because he just said 'What, you're debuting?'. That was the only time I got really emotional."
The fight to get there
"When I didn't get a contract at the end of last season, it upset me a fair bit and I probably could have gone back home. I'm not going to lie, I did have a few thoughts like that. But instead of sooking, I guess you can do something about it. I was lucky I had good people around me. Mum and dad would never let me throw in the towel like that and the rest of my family always backed me up and having good coaches helped. Andrew Ryan [NSW Cup coach] has been a really big influence in getting me there. He won't claim it but he is. He always had belief in me and he's a massive reason why I was lucky enough to get the debut. All the shit thoughts and all the negative stuff I went through, I spent some lonely nights wondering if it was worth it. Well, Sunday proved it was."
The Old Boys' tunnel
"That was pretty awesome. It was weird. I couldn't believe how long the tunnel actually was. It felt like it went forever and they were really close and smacking us on the back and giving us encouragement. It felt like they were teammates, it was such a cool feeling - something as a player you just never forget. It was just disappointing what happened on the field. We all felt very much like we let them down a fair bit."
On the bench
"When I ran out and sat down, I was next to Connor [Watson] and he tapped me and goes 'soak it all in'. There was 23,000 there, the Old Boys, and I did, I soaked it all in. Adzy [coach Adam O'Brien] gave me some good words before the game. He told me when I'd be going on the field which was pretty much when I did and he said to just sit there and don't think too much about it. Just look at the game like you normally would and process what you are seeing and enjoy it. I wasn't too bad actually nerves-wise. I could see what we were doing wrong and I could see where we had to improve and I'd take a moment every now and then and just think to myself, 'Wow, how cool is this'.
Into the fray
"I came on with about 10 to go in first half and then played the first 20 of the second half. It was tough, we were on the back foot a lot, we didn't have a lot of ball and we had to do a lot of defending which made it hard. They had a roll on and trying to stop that was hard but it was fun - it was a good day despite the result. I got to halftime okay and J Saf said to me to just wear myself out when I get back out there, even if I lasted only 10 minutes because Adsy would bring me off. I was like sweet and I sort of gassed myself trying to make every tackle I could in that first 10 minutes. But I was left out there until the 20 minute mark so my lungs were burning by then, I'm not going to lie."
The final message
"I had a heap of support there from family and friends. Dad sent me a real nice message I won't forget. He said: 'Not everyone's son plays NRL and today mine does."
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