Twelve months ago as he grieved the sudden passing of his brother, Cameron Cullen considered throwing in the towel. Now the 23-year-old stands on the precipice of an Intrust Super Cup grand final with Burleigh and a two-year NRL deal with the Sea Eagles.
When Justin Cullen tragically passed last July while on a surfing holiday overseas younger brother Cameron laced the boots on to play for Mackay against Tweed Heads a week later but his mental state meant that it was the last game he would play in 2015.
A former Broncos under-20s half and Australian Schoolboys representative, he returned home to the Gold Coast to be around friends and family with next to no consideration for football.
He signed to play with the Burleigh Bears but when Titans half Kane Elgey ruptured his ACL on the first day of training in 2016 Cullen was handed a 'train and trial' contract that he parlayed into a one-year deal and five – long-awaited – games in the NRL.
With plenty of depth at the Titans with Elgey, Ash Taylor and Tyrone Roberts on the books for next season, Cullen has taken up a two-year deal and hopefully a clearer pathway to regular NRL football with the Sea Eagles – and proving in the Intrust Super Cup and his five appearances with the Titans this season that pathways still exist for players well after the have left the under-20s competition.
"I was so grateful to get the opportunity to play first grade this year but I just know that there's more opportunity down there to play first grade at Manly so definitely excited to get down into that squad and really push for a jersey in the 17,” he said.
Admitting that his headspace wasn't where it needed to be when he first began training with Burleigh, Cullen conceded that Elgey's misfortune allowed him to move beyond the grief he was experiencing and throw himself into his footy.
"It's been a crazy 12 months. When I look back on it it's ridiculous," said Cullen, who will line up at halfback for Burleigh against Redcliffe in Sunday's Intrust Super Cup Grand Final.
"The first couple of training sessions I did with Burleigh I was just thinking, 'What am I doing here?' I was in a pretty bad headspace for a while and the way that everything worked…
"Elgey did his ACL and I got a bit of an opportunity to be full-time and it made me more narrow-minded. When you're going through something like that, an opportunity like that to have something to focus all your energy on and not think about everything else was probably a really good thing for me at the time.
"I was able to rip into that and take it with both hands and get the contract and play five games of first grade.
"Now we're in the grand final for Burleigh, it's crazy. To be in the grand final after the year I've had is unbelievable and I'm so grateful for everything."
This story first appeared on nrl.com.au