'It should have been Jane'.
As Jason Arthars stood before Gold Coast Titans players and staff and spoke of the pride he felt in being able to present his son Jesse with his debut NRL jersey last Thursday, his thoughts kept drifting back to his late wife.
Specifically, the dying wishes she would never get to fulfil.
It’s almost 12 months since Jane Arthars tragically passed due to a brain tumour, Jesse’s debut against the Sharks last week a bitter-sweet moment for the boys left behind.
Jesse’s younger brothers Stellan and Denver stood behind their father as he spoke of Jesse’s journey, fighting back tears as his eldest son sat at the other end of the Suncorp Stadium dressing room struggling to do the same.
Contracted to the Storm when Jane was first diagnosed in 2017, Jesse remained in Melbourne as his mother received treatment but surgery in early 2018 revealed the crushing scenario now before them.
The timeline of Jane’s life had suddenly been reduced to a matter of weeks, not years, Jesse fighting the torment of being so far from his ailing mother following a summer switch to South Sydney.
The gravity of the situation prompted conversations no partner, parent or child ever wants to confront.
There was fear, and there was anger. The scars are still so raw that an element of that anger still lingers. It might never go away.
Titans v Bulldogs - Round 10
Because Jason Arthars knows that for the moments in their boys’ lives that Jane will now miss, not seeing Jesse run out to play his first game in the NRL was one that hurt as much as any other.
"All I could think about was that it should have been Jane presenting Jesse with his jersey,” Jason tells NRL.com.
"I love rugby league, I played and coached it, but Jane lived and breathed it. She's been the driving force behind Jesse.
"If she was here, she would have wanted to do it, and I would have happily stood in the background.
"When she was really sick and in hospital and it was only a matter of time there were three things that she was most upset about. She said, 'It's not fair that I'm not going to see their 21sts, it's not fair that I'm not going to see my grandchildren and it’s not fair that I'm not going to be able to see Jesse's debut’.
“Those were the three things. So that was rolling through my mind.”
A group of 30 friends and family from New Zealand, Brisbane and the Gold Coast were on hand to watch Jesse run for 108 metres in 53 minutes on debut against the Sharks, the one person who couldn’t be there ever-present in his mind.
"With what happened it's real hard for me and my brothers and my old man but Mum's with me regardless,” Arthars told NRL.com following his debut.
“She's always watching over me and I'm always thinking of her.
"I was just super proud to be able to debut. All that hard work and all the sacrifices that my mum and old man did for me, I was just super proud and humble to fulfil my dream and fulfil their dream for me too.”
The power of persistence
Skillful enough to play in the halves, quick enough to play fullback and tough enough to handle lock forward, Jason Arthars was himself a footballer of note coming through the grades at the Glenora Bears in west Auckland.
He was just 20 when, standing up in the play-the-ball after a tackle, he was king-hit, the retina of his right eye becoming detached due to the force of a single punch.
After a year out of rugby league he returned the next season only for the retina to detach again in his very first game back.
He never played again and in 2009 he and Jane decided to bring their three boys to the sunshine of the Gold Coast and the opportunities that would hopefully open up for them.
“One season we had five weeks in a row cancelled because the fields were too wet,” remembers Jason, who coached his sons at the East Coast Bay Barracudas before relocating.
“With three boys under the age of eight we just wanted to live somewhere they could get out and play every weekend.”
In his second season at the club Jason stepped in to coach Jesse’s under-14 Runaway Bay team – a team that included current Titans team-mate AJ Brimson and a host of other juniors who populated local representative teams.
As friends were signed to contracts by the Titans, Broncos and Cowboys, Jesse was continually overlooked yet his determination never wavered.
“He'd come home and tell me about all his mates who had got contracts but it didn't faze him. He just kept training hard and now look where he is,” says Jason.
As a teen, Jesse would stay behind as his family spent school holidays in Fiji and Port Douglas simply so he could continue to train with his school side at Keebra Park High.
“What 15-year-old kid would do that? Would you rather go to Fiji for a week with your family or stay at home and fend for yourself so you can go to training?” Jason adds.
"I don't even know if what we did was legal, but we did it.”
As the likes of Brimson and Thomas Mikaele earned selection in the South Coast team to contest the Queensland School Sport Under-18 Championship in 2015 – a carnival that also boasted future NRL stars in Brodie Croft, Patrick Carrigan, Corey Allan and Enari Tuala – Arthars again missed out.
In a remarkable twist of fate, Arthars was asked to play for a South West team short on numbers and scored two tries in the side’s defeat of the Presidents team, catching the eye of Storm talent scouts in the process.
He spent two years in the Melbourne system before signing a two-year deal with the Rabbitohs, a deal that the club released him from after just one season so he could return to be with his father and brothers.
He was prepared to put the NRL on hold to make sure his family were OK but soon after arriving back on the Gold Coast was offered a one-year deal, forcing his way into the 17 with form so good for the Burleigh Bears that he was selected in the Queensland Residents team.
The pain of what his family went through last year will never fade away but Jesse now seems destined to fulfil the destiny his mother envisioned for him.
“He didn't want to give the game away, he just wanted to be home,” Jason says of Jesse’s decision to leave the Rabbitohs, praising the club for the understanding they showed during such a difficult time.
"He'd lost his mum, he just really wanted to make sure his dad and brothers were OK.
"We haven't seen the best of him yet because his head space is now good. No hang-ups about being in Sydney while we're up here, no hang-ups about Mum being sick, he can just concentrate on football now.
"We both knew he was going to get there. We just knew it. And he's earnt it.”