When Neil Henry announced to his players at the end of Tuesday’s session at Helensvale that Cameron Cullen had been chosen to make his NRL debut against the Sharks, the applause was as loud as I have heard when a rookie had been revealed in the team huddle.
And that’s more than just a tribute to ‘Cullo’s’ popularity or ability as a footballer, but a show of respect and appreciation for how he smallest man in the group has approached his long-awaited opportunity that many – but certainly not him – thought might have never come.
Cullo has been in the NRL pathway system since he was picked up by the Broncos at 13. He’s played two seasons of under-20s, 50 games in the Queensland Cup for Redcliffe, Mackay and Burleigh Bears. He trained for three months with the Cowboys before last season, hanging on every word Johnathan Thurston sent his way.
And he had to overcome the loss of his older brother Justin last July from a surfing accident in Bali.
But he never gave up, never gave in.
Football was far from top of mind in the months that followed. He headed home to Cabarita to be with family. His partner Charis was pregnant and presented them a daughter, Coast Ele, on New Year’s Eve.
After showing the resilience he’d often portrayed on the field, attributes obviously handed down by his father Wayne who was also a halfback/hooker who won a Brisbane premiership under Wayne Bennett, rugby league regained its strong calling. And it has been so good medicine for him since.
“Footy has been great for me the last few months, and becoming a dad,” he says.
“It gives me focus, something to drive myself for. I just put everything into it and when I’m at training with the boys or on the field playing; it’s great. And they have been such a big support.
“Yeah, it was pretty nice when they gave me all that applause when Neil told them I was playing this week; to see how happy they were for me.
“I’m so thankful Neil gave me the opportunity back when Kane [Elgey] got hurt, and now to give me my NRL debut.”
There are so many angles of the Cameron Cullen story.
His resilience; his dogged determination but an even, open nature; and his positiveness during the toughest time of his life.
He was so close to Justin they did everything together and footy was the bond. In their late teens Cameron played two years above his age to be in Justin’s team. He treasures those memories.
In 2010, while a student at Palm Beach Currumbin high, he made the Australian Schoolboys team that toured England. Captained by Paul Carter, other teammates included James Tedesco, Chris Grevsmuhl, David Klemmer, David Nofoaluma, Jack Whighton and current Titans teammate Lachlan Burr.
A scrawny kid a year younger at the school, Kane Elgey, looked up to him and set himself the goal of emulating Cullen’s feat. He did in 2011, alongside the likes of Nene Macdonald, Lloyd Perrett and Curtis Sironen.
Elgey was devastated when he twisted on his knee in the last drill of the first training session of 2016 and later found out the ACL tear was likely to end his season. It led to Cullen getting a call-up and, despite his dejection, Elgey was the first to call Cullen and congratulate him and reinforce that he belonged in NRL company.
When I went to Kane’s home to do a video interview that week, he spoke so confidently about Cameron Cullen and how he was an idol at school and how certain he was he would do a great job for the Titans.
Cullo is used to the deal in life – no guarantees, no certainty of what is around the corner.
But he has never wavered in wanting to play NRL. That’s why, when he was unwanted by the Broncos, he drove to Townsville with a supportive Charis with nothing surer than a few months training with the Cowboys.
“I knew Greeny [Cowboys coach Paul Green] from his days at the Broncos and just the opportunity to have a pre-season with JT was enough for me to move up there,” he said.
“I learned so much just watching him; how much time he had through putting himself in the position to create time for himself; how he positioned players around him and how he prepared every day.
“I’d hang off his every word when we had the chance to talk pass on a tip. The most important tip he gave me was to slow down; I was trying to do everything at 100 miles an hour but he said it’s fine to slow it at times and take a breath and look around.
“I had a pretty good year at Mackay but never got a chance to play for the Cowboys but I always, even then, thought I’d get a chance at a club somewhere in the NRL.
“When Justin passed away footy was out of the picture for a while and then we had our baby. Coming home was all about family and not football but I knew I wanted to play again sometime and I never gave up on wanting to play NRL,” he says.
“I’ve grown a lot as a person from the journey I’ve been on and all I wanted to do was play first grade. Now I get that chance – and with my home club.”
It was not surprising that Cullo, who was working at a Casuarina health club where the Titans trained pre-Christmas, spent his Wednesday day off this week picking potatoes on a mate’s farm. He is on a second-tier Titans contract and would have probably earned more money if he remained a Queensland Cup only player, so the extra income helps.
He accepts that. He even enjoyed the work. It’s part of the journey.
Cameron Cullen feels whatever happens for him from here is perhaps just fate.
But whatever transpires, he’ll handle it, knowing he did all that was within his powers.
His family should be justifiably proud. Justin will be smiling down on him … with good reason.