ALMOST five years after the positive drugs swab that appeared certain to end his career, Jarrod Mullen has been cleared to proceed with what could be one of the most remarkable comebacks in NRL history.
Mullen, the former Newcastle Knights captain and playmaker, was advised last week by the NRL integrity unit that his application to be re-registered will be considered, "the same as any other player", if he is able to find a club willing to offer him a start.
Mullen completed a four-year WADA ban in January after testing positive to a banned steroid and immediately signed to play the 2021 season with Queensland Cup side Sunshine Coast Falcons.
He remained ineligible to return to the NRL, however, after pleading guilty in December, 2019, to trafficking more than $10,000 worth of cocaine. Mullen was spared a jail sentence, instead receiving a two-year community corrections order and 300 hours of community service.
The highly publicised court case meant that before Mullen was any chance of pursuing a return to the NRL, he needed to convince the integrity unit he was a "fit and proper person" to be re-admitted.
His reintegration into a team environment with the Falcons was monitored by the integrity unit, who were also aware that Mullen had started a family, completed a drug-and-alcohol education course and started working as a youth counsellor.
After proving he has turned his life around since suffering a near-fatal overdose in 2018, he is no longer "off limits" to any NRL clubs who might be interested. His manager, Steve Gillis, has already emailed all 16 NRL outfits to advise them that his client is open to offers.
"I've written to every club, so they all know he's available," Gillis said.
"So now it's just waiting to see if anyone will take him. I only wrote to them last night, so it's probably a bit early to be saying who's who in the zoo."
The obvious concern for any clubs who may be interested is that Mullen turns 35 in April and has not played at NRL level since September, 2016.
But during his 211-game career with the Knights, he was regarded as one of their fittest, most professional players and believes he can defy Father Time for at least another season.
"How long is a piece of string? The way the body feels, I reckon I've got at least one more good year in me, maybe two or three," Mullen told the Newcastle Herald.
"Cameron Smith played until he was 37. I'm only 34, so we'll see how we go."
Mullen played only a handful of games for the Falcons last season after two frustrating setbacks - a partially dislocated shoulder and a concussion.
"It was a bit of a stop-start season," he said.
"I'd prepared my body as best I could, given I'd had four years off, but I wasn't able to join the Falcons' system until January, so I really only had a month or five weeks of contact work before the season started.
"So I think I'd benefit a lot if I can go though a full pre-season, whether that's with an NRL team or the Falcons. That should just help me get the body nice and battle-hardened."
Mullen said the medicos were pleased with how his shoulder injury had recovered.
"I went and saw the specialist about it, and he said I'd rehabbed it that well, it was as strong as my other shoulder," he said.
"So there's no need for surgery."
Gillis said the NRL deserved credit for offering players a second chance.
"Jarrod's made mistakes, but he's done a lot of work and turned his life around," Gillis said. "I think even the NRL would agree it's one of the redemption-type stories that people like to see happen.
"People are always going to stuff up from time to time, but the NRL do a good job with these situations.
"They give the player a chance to earn back their trust. They support them and encourage them, and they don't just shut the door and say 'never again'.
"Then it's up to the individual, and in Jarrod's case, he's ticked every box."
Knights CEO Phil Gardner did not rule out the prospect of offering Mullen an opportunity, but he admitted vacancies on Newcastle's roster were "very hard to come by".