Sydney Morning Herald

By Andrew Webster

April 5 2019

It’s the run no player wants to take. First run off the kick-off, off your own tryline, the tap restart. It’s the brave line infield towards the teeth of the defence, instead of the outside line towards the sideline. There’s not much love for the “No Love Run”, but certain players stake their reputation on them. In more than 200 matches for the Tigers, Cowboys, Roosters, NSW and Australia, Luke O'Donnell was such a player.

In late January, O’Donnell readied himself for another “No Love Run”. “That’s it, Lukey,” he said to himself. “Hit the ball up again, Lukey.” This time, O’Donnell wasn’t on a football field. He had just walked into a courtroom at the Downing Centre in Sydney, where he was facing charges of damaging property, intimidating with intention to harm and assaulting and resisting a police officer. The charges followed a harrowing scene at O’Donnell’s Clovelly apartment in the early hours of June 3 last year in which six police officers wrestled him to the ground and then tasered him because he refused to be handcuffed.


His distraught mother, Dianne, called police after her naked son had held a knife to his throat and said, “I am going to kill myself” before trying to throw himself out the window of the fourth-floor apartment before his father, Ross, pulled him back in.

“He’s got mental health problems,” Ross says now. “The game’s had a big effect on him. As much as he loved it, I don’t know how he feels about it now.”

The purpose of this story isn’t to cast blame, although Dianne feels rugby league must shoulder some. “As much as I love rugby league, I don’t think it did enough to help him when his career finished. I know it’s up to the individual. You have to take responsibility for yourself. But it’s that environment.”

If anything, O’Donnell’s story says something about the men the game creates. “Luke O’Donnell is a special young man. He represents all the Westfields Sports High community aspires to ... He is a leader.”

It’s about an unassuming kid from the South Coast who lived for footy and fitness; who didn’t drink alcohol to the point he thought less of those who did; who was captain of his school; whose demeanour swung on an injury that almost ruined his career; who won a premiership in his last match before his life spiralled into a haze of drugs and alcohol, leaving him broken personally and financially.

Who, three years ago, sat in his parents’ kitchen in utter despair and told them: “I’ve got nothing. I don’t own anything, I’ve had all these years of playing and what have I ended up with? Nothing.”

Ross and Dianne O’Donnell live in a two-storey home a few streets back from Mollymook Beach, about a three-hour drive south of Sydney. They have reached out because they want people to know their son is not the man seen in the graphic black-and-white footage from the body camera on one of the police officers of him spinning out of control. They don’t want people to judge him on the front-page image of him sitting inside a perspex cell at Maroubra police station.

The O’Donnells have barely heard from their son since the morning of June 3. “There have been little messages here and there,” Ross says. “But he’s angry. He wants to blame us for his problems.”

There are no photos of their son on the walls. No evidence of his career. But then they scatter dozens of old photos, references and old contracts across their dining room table. One letter, from 1998, bears the letterhead of Westfields Sports High. O’Donnell went there for the final two years of his schooling and was made Year 12 captain.

“Luke O’Donnell is a special young man,” wrote the long-time principal, Phil Tucker. “In effort and achievement, Luke represents all the Westfields Sports High community aspires to obtain for its members. He is a leader.”

'We thought it would be wonderful - we didn't know what was to come'

He’d shown the same attributes from an early age, as a junior for Milton-Ulladulla then Albion Park. He had the same chiselled physique as Ross, so much so that people wondered how an eight-year-old could possess such powerful legs.

On the field, he was never the best player but the hardest worker — and tackler. In 1997, Balmain coach Wayne Pearce and other officials were sitting in the stands for a match between Westfields and Holy Cross Ryde. They were there to see Holy Cross hooker Mark Riddell. At full-time, they rushed to O’Donnell, who had played the game of his life. He made his debut for Balmain in 1999 but his big chance came the following year when the club merged with Western Suburbs to form the Wests Tigers. After Kiwi international Jarrod McCracken suffered a serious neck injury from a spear tackle, Pearce handed the vacant jersey to O’Donnell.

“I’ll never let go of this jumper, Mum and Dad,” he told them. “I’d do this for nothing.” In the hours I spend with the O’Donnells, Dianne sheds many tears. She’s been through a lot. She blames herself for calling the police that night, even if it was in fear of her son hurting himself. But the only time Ross becomes emotional is when he talks of this moment. “Because it was his dream,” he says. “It wasn’t the money that motivated him. Some might’ve seen it as a pot of gold. He just wanted to play at the top level. To see how he walked onto the ground; how straight and erect, he just walked with pride. It was great to see him grow into this man.”

One person who admired O’Donnell from afar was Jack Gibson, the revolutionary coach who was introduced to him by Dan Stains, who played under Gibson at Cronulla and was now coaching at the Tigers. O’Donnell was Gibson’s kind of player: supremely fit, hard-working, the best defender on the field. Gibson would call him after each match, offering praise and criticism in equal doses.

In 2003, his aggressive style cost him. He was suspended for 11 matches for a high tackle that broke the jaw of Canberra rookie Michael Monaghan. During his suspension, he thought about life after footy. He once turned up to Balmain training in his Westfields High uniform and some of the older players called him ‘‘Brains’’. He wanted to study part-time at the Australian College of Physical Education.

“Do you want to be a footballer or go uni?” Tigers coach Terry Lamb asked him. He didn’t go to university and he didn’t play for the Tigers again. He headed north to the Cowboys. His career took a similar trajectory. Grand final appearances, NSW and Australian jumpers, shirtless photo shoots for women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. A few years later, he would feature in the Gods of Football calendar.

Playing careers swing on the slightest of moments. In rugby league, it often swings on a tackle gone wrong. The moment when everything changed for O’Donnell was a tackle in April 2007 against the Tigers.

Midway through the first half, Tigers defenders Bronson Harrison and Liam Fulton pulled his legs apart like he was a piece of KFC, snapping the wishbone apart. O’Donnell bellowed with pain as all three hamstring tendons were ripped from his pelvis.

‘I remember thinking ‘please don’t do it’ but he went ahead and did it,” O’Donnell said at the time. “I was pretty dirty on that.”

He was even angrier when the NRL match review committee refused to charge them, despite the pleas of the Cowboys. O’Donnell was sidelined for more than six months. After six weeks on his back following surgery, he had to learn how to walk again.

“The more I’ve looked at it, the indication has become stronger and stronger that was a turning point,” Ross says. “How his personality became, it points directly to that incident. People don’t realise he didn’t know if he would walk properly again let alone play.” Says Dianne: “He’d been on a lot of medication. We don’t know how long that went on. We’ve only started putting these pieces together lately, trying to work out what has happened.”

People at the Cowboys from that time agree O’Donnell was never the same. He went from being an aggressive player to a bitter one. “There was always a fire in him,” says one former teammate. “But after that he was just angry. 

He was angry that his career almost ended, and nothing happened to them.” O’Donnell was angry. In one match against Penrith, he was reported twice for head-high tackles and then for abusing an official. While playing for NSW in 2010, an all-in brawl erupted after he spear tackled Queensland’s Darius Boyd. He then used the head of Maroons forward Dave Taylor as a punching bag.

“I thought he was going to eat him,’’ Blues halfback Mitchell Pearce said. In another match, also against the Tigers, O’Donnell was penalised four times, placed on report and sin-binned ... in the space of a minute.

“It became an agenda against him,” Ross says. “Some of the media coverage, especially when he played against the Wests Tigers, was very inflammatory. Players goaded him. The referees directed their attention at him.”

Frustrated, O’Donnell signed with Huddersfield in the UK Super League and left as the most suspended player in NRL history, having spent 29 games on the sidelines. Running around the north of England, O’Donnell, now in his early 30s, figured he’d never play in the NRL again.

One man who thought differently was Trent Robinson. The pair played together at the Tigers. Robinson was impressed with O’Donnell’s dedication then, just as he was as the young coach of Catalans. When Robinson became Roosters coach in 2013, he made sure O’Donnell came home with him. Back then, the Roosters pack had a soft underbelly. Plenty of skill but couldn’t play tough. O’Donnell was aggressive, had quick leg-speed, could do a job.

He came on early in the second half of the grand final against Manly despite a hamstring injury. He got the forward pack going but then felt his hamstring go. He squeezed another five minutes out before Robinson replaced him, job done. Halfway through the lap of honour, O’Donnell found his parents in the stands and told them he was going to retire.

“He was ecstatic, after everything he’d gone through,” Dianne says. “That’s what made him decide to finish. The culmination of all the years of hard work. We thought it was going to be good. He had a marriage, he had children, he had everything going for him and we thought it would be wonderful. We didn’t know what was about to come.”

For as long as anyone can remember, O’Donnell didn’t drink alcohol. Former Tigers teammates say he was proud of the fact and ribbed them whenever they fronted recovery sessions with a hangover. Same deal at the Cowboys. He drank, but very rarely.

The signs of its influence were there at the Roosters when, early into the season, he was stood down for “breaching the club’s standards” when late to training. Almost within months of winning the premiership, though, he seemingly lost control. A failed business venture — a chicken shop in Rosebery — was one of the triggers, according to his parents.

“I thought he undersold himself,” Ross says. “He had a lot more potential than running a chicken shop. But he was determined to throw himself into it.”

Rumours about O’Donnell’s off-field behaviour swirled. He was arrested and charged for drink driving, although the media never found out. “He was a mess after that,” Dianne says. “Devastated. Just the shame of it.”

He joined Manly as a strength and conditioning coach under Trent Barrett but that only lasted a year. When he finished, he only offered one explanation: “I’ve had enough of rugby league”. Soon after, he checked into a rehab facility south of Sydney.

“It was for alcohol and ‘other drugs’,” Dianne says. “We don’t know what other drugs and we didn’t ask. In our eyes, we don’t know what was going through his head. He said there’s nothing wrong but it was a façade. His marriage had ended. We knew that his life was falling apart but we didn’t know why.”Ross understands why his son didn’t reach out for help. Ross understands why his son didn’t reach out for help.

“He didn’t want to be seen as having weakness in any area of his life,” he says. “He clung to this pride. Mental toughness is what he’s about. Outwardly, he might have it but on the inside he’s got low self-esteem.”

Former Roosters official Brian Canavan tried to help. He called former club doctor John Orchard, and they wondered if his erratic behaviour had been caused by concussions. Tests were done.

“They advised Luke not to drink and lead a calm, orderly life,” Dianne says. “Luke tried but life was anything but orderly for him. Things went from bad to worse.” In 2016, O’Donnell called his parents and said he wanted to come home. He’d been on a bender.

“He’d been missing for three days,” Dianne recalls. “I was ringing up to find him. We went to Sydney and brought him home.”

For the next five months, the son who had walked out the door in his late teens returned. He started surfing, fishing, doing part-time work as a labourer. He reconnected with his junior footy team. Then he returned to Sydney and bad habits.

On June 2 last year, Dianne and Ross travelled to Sydney to attend the Holy Communion of O’Donnell’s daughter. Afterwards, O’Donnell, his girlfriend and his parents had dinner, sharing a bottle of wine. Not Ross. He hadn’t drunk for years, having given it away when his sons were born because he wanted to set the right example.

The four of them returned to O’Donnell’s flat and soon after went to bed. Around 3am, Dianne woke up when she heard O’Donnell and his girlfriend arguing. “I asked, ‘Are you alright in there?’” Dianne says. “I’d never heard Luke swear like that. The next thing, he’s calling out to me. I go in there and I was shocked. They were both drunk. Luke had no clothes on. Then Luke started raving.”

According to the police facts sheet, the couple had consumed a bottle of vodka. O’Donnell started “flailing a knife” at Ross, threatening to “bash ya!” Ross recalls it this way: “He had the knife under his chin. He let that go. Then he was out the bedroom window, gripping into the joint of the brickwork. He was well outside the building, still holding onto the window. I was able to grab his hand and he came hurtling back in.”

Desperately, Dianne phoned triple-zero.

“The reason we called the police was because we were concerned for his welfare,” she says. “He was not going to hurt us. He was our worry. We asked the police to come and help him. They came and made it worse.” By the time the police arrived, O’Donnell had calmed down. He had made Ross a cup of tea. But the sight of the police at the door enraged him.

The events from there led O’Donnell to the Downing Centre in late January, readying himself to hit the ball up one more time.

His legal team applied to have the charges dismissed on mental health grounds but the magistrate denied the request. The court was shown footage of Senior Constable Belinda Jones putting her hand on O’Donnell’s arm. That set O’Donnell off, unleashing a barrage of foul language.

O’Donnell’s parents remain shocked by his language. They’d never heard him speak like that.

That was not the son they knew.

Ross believes the police inflamed a delicate situation. He says an apprehended violence order taken out on his behalf by the police was unnecessary and he subsequently had it removed.

At the end of the hearing, O’Donnell was convicted and fined $1600 and placed on a one year community corrections order. He left the court without speaking to his parents.

“He is quite annoyed with us,” Dianne says, sobbing. “I am annoyed with myself; that I called the police and all this has happened. He’s always tried to do good. I know I sound like a mother but he does. That’s what worries me now: the media exposure, the picture of him in the jail cell. That would hurt him so much.”

Your past is always prepared to chase you but O’Donnell hopefully put it behind him on March 22 when he fronted Waverley Local Court on drug possession charges. In September last year, with the charges from the incident in June still hanging over him, he was charged after police pulled him over and found he had four bags of cocaine hidden in his underpants.

He pleaded guilty and asked for a second chance. He told the court the pain and stress from his playing days had been responsible for his descent. He was fined $2200. He also told the court he was still on medication for injuries suffered as a player.

“He has so much potential as a person. Just as he did as a footballer.” “That’s the case of being a professional sportsperson,” he told reporters outside the court. “But everyone has to go through their own journey in life.”

O’Donnell was approached several times to speak for this story. He was initially prepared to catch up for coffee, but then stopped taking calls and answering texts. He wants to move on and that’s fair enough. Indications are his life is improving. He’s settled into his job in construction. A former teammate says he saw him in the surf recently and he “looked like the old ‘OD’.” Others say the same thing. Dianne and Ross hear from him occasionally. They just want their son back; the one who walked onto the field with pride, straight and erect.

“He has so much potential as a person,” Ross says. “Just as he did as a footballer.”

© 2019 BIC 

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