It was a chilly Tuesday morning when I pulled into the Cherry Bean Cafe at Glenmore Park.
A quick scan of the premises showed the tall figure of David Simmons awaiting my arrival. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake as we ordered coffee and sat down to talk.
A former Cronulla Sharks and Penrith Panthers player, David has successfully made the transition into retirement. Simmons, now an Anglican minister at the Emu Plains parish, is relaxed and genial figure. His height is immediately noticeable - possessing a similar frame to retiring legend Brett Morris - and his eyes clear and focussed.
We spoke about how life is going and he engaged me on what I’m up to. His earnest demeanour and interest in people quickly saw me relaxed and talking. I made the amusing realisation, as he listened, that the interviewer had become the interviewee. But this is David - a man interested in people and wanting to learn their story.
“I grew up in the Shire,” he told me.
“I played junior footy with De La Salle. I only started when I was 13 or 14. Before that, I played a lot of rep soccer. It was a big decision to change codes, but my dad was really supportive. He loved footy, and he helped me along the way.”
When asked about the decision to swap codes, he reflected before continuing.
“I just loved the game. I had some mates who were playing, and they encouraged me to go along. I thought it would be good to give it a go.”
The support of his father was critical to David’s decision to take up the sport. He mentioned he was not a naturally confident person, so the support of his dad was critical to making the adjustment.
The irony is he was quite talented - winning Player of the Year at the club, joining the junior Sharks teams and narrowly missing out on the Australian schoolboys when he probably deserved his spot.
But this knock back is what paved the way for his NRL career.
“I went to the Sharks and told them I’d missed the team. They promoted me to 2nds, and the rest is history,” Simmons said.
His eyes lit up as he told me about his emergence as a player.
“It was a great time. I was a boy playing against men and I was holding my own against them.”
Although he liked fullback, the wing is where he knew his skill set were best matched.
“I couldn’t tackle,” he laughs. “If someone broke through, they knew they were going to score.”
Simmons talked honestly about himself. There’s no illusions about his own skill ceiling; rather, a gratefulness that he got to play a sport he loved.
“Rugby league is the great meritocracy - people judge you on what you can do and how well you play," the 36-year-old admitted.
While very realistic about himself, he acknowledged that part of many players' psychology is a belief they are better than they are. This confidence is what lets them go out and do great things on the field, because they never believe they can’t.
It’s an interesting aspect of elite players to consider, as it is probably what separates the professional from the amateur - they don’t simply dare to dream, but dare to act.
I wonder if what separates the park footballer from the NRL athlete is as much mental fortitude as it is talent.
The Shire Boy
Simmons' time at the Sharks was a happy one. Living the dream of every boy, he played for the club he supported as he grew up. His lips curved with a smile as he talked about the club.
Following a turn to the topic of player culture, the man who played 112-games with the Sharks shared some unique views.
“The game does change you,” he said.
“You have huge money being given to young men. They have so much spare time between games and many of them have big profiles. Not to mention, the stress you’re under as a player to perform each week and the scrutiny you’re under from fans.
"Players need a release. Some get that release by going out and partying, although not all of them do that. But they feel they need a reward for all the hard work and sacrifice they’re making.”
I asked him if he mixed much with the party scene in his time, but he shook his head.
“No, I was never part of it."
"Whenever you could see things get a bit too loose, I saw it as the time to head home.”
Simmons was a model citizen among NRL players. He acknowledged that time spent with teammates - whether training, socialising or otherwise - is what drew the them together and bonded them.
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He also knew that his decisions on when to leave a party did impact on his ability to draw that little bit closer to his teammates, but it was right for who he is and what he believed in.
“I’ve been a Christian since I was 16,” he told me.
“My family attended church too, but I made the decision to commit my life to God in my teenage years.”
The subject of Christians in rugby league is often one met with mixed sentiment. Israel Folau and his much publicised Instagram post have divided both rugby codes. It's often a heated discussion and I can’t help but wonder if it is quietly stoked by journalists and media personalities to sell papers.
Nevertheless, David’s faith has been influential on his career and his transition to retirement.
“The rugby league meritocracy means people don’t care what you believe - they care what you do on the field. I decided I wanted to glorify God with how I played and how I behaved on and off the field," the 2006 City rep said.
He told me that when he graduated to the Sharks first grade side, Jason Stevens was an important role model to him.
“Jason was going through the whole celibacy thing at the time. It drew a lot of heat from the media, and I think it was a really positive thing because it showed the joy of being a Christian to the wider public. He was a great witness to me as a young Christian in the game.”
It was Stevens' example that Simmons wanted to pass on as he moved through the game.
Simmons explained further the importance of always being available for team mates who were interested in reading the bible and working out what it was to be a Christian on and off the footy field.
Passing on that encouragement and being that example that other young Christian footballers could come to was his goal.
Moving out West
It’s clear his positive contribution to the playing group is what made him an attractive option to Penrith.
“Leaving was hard,” he said.
“I loved the club, and I wanted to stay but they were going through a change and I was told I wouldn’t be signed when my contract expired. I wanted to keep playing, and reached out to a few clubs.
"Penrith and Matty Elliot were keen and they brought me on board. They were looking to fill some gaps with experienced players and I fit the bill.”
My observation of David is his strong integrity and character was just as important to Penrith as his try scoring efforts.
He inadvertently explained this to me when he described what it takes to build a successful rugby league team.
“Footy isn’t a science. There’s a lot that goes into winning a game," he expounded.
"It’s all about relationships between the players, getting them to play for the coach, to play for each other, to work together to get the team over the line.”
It’s an insightful comment and one I feel sums up David’s most compelling attribute - his relational approach to life. The desire to deal with people and engage with them is humbling, and something he attributes to his faith.
The minister also told me how he and the team chaplain helped disciple many of the younger Polynesian players who were Christians and coming up through the ranks.
As you listen to him talk, you can hear the genuine care in his voice for these young men as they emerge into the NRL limelight.
His time at Penrith was impacted by injury, but being top try scorer in the NRL in 2013 was definitely a highlight. He is predictably understated in his view of his own performance.
“I reaped the benefit of other players playing out of their skin,” he said.
We continued to talk about his time at the Panthers and he tells me about Phil Gould.
“You didn’t see much of him, to be honest."
"He worked a lot in the background, but every now and again he’d come in and deliver a speech and you’d feel like you could walk through brick walls after it.”
Simmons chuckled as he told me that during one training session, the man they call ‘Gus’ approached him and started talking about contracts.
“He just kind of told me what the contact would be for and what was in it."
"We agreed and shook hands and that was it - I was signed for another two seasons. I went back to training after.”
It’s clear the club at the foot of the mountain is still near and dear to Simmons.
He uses the words ‘us’ and ‘we’ when talking about what he sees on the screen by the men in black. They’re still a club he is passionate about. He’s also aware of a lot of the work that has gone into making the club the successful powerhouse it is now.
“It’s the most fertile soil for making a rugby league player around," Simmons said.
"It’s such a big area too. Gus had a vision for what it could be and he worked to make it a reality. There were a lot of people involved in the transformation though.
"A key part was making sure the pathways were right for the club and that the junior system worked.”
The transition to retirement
I asked Simmons about how the NRL helps players transition into retirement.
“They do a really good job, actually,” he begins.
“At 28, they send what is called a Transition Officer to talk to you about your options after retirement. They focus on additional skills and career paths.”
Simmons, however, was well on top of that by the time he began to look at hanging up the boots.
He’d begun studying theology at Moore College and in time saw it as the future path he wanted to go into.
“I had a lot of injuries in 2014, and by 2015 I knew the time was coming," he confessed.
"The fire had started to go out, and my body was taking longer and longer to recover. I felt it was a good time to leave the game because I’d started to think about what I wanted to do after.
"With my course nearly finished, it was a good chance to spend the time completing it and then move into the next part of my life.”
I then asked about whether the NRL could do more to help players physically post retirement and he paused before answering.
“It’s a really difficult question."
"I mean, where does the NRL’s responsibility extend to? Do they do two years. Is it more? Is it less? I’m not sure.”
Simmons is aware of the damage the game has done to his body. He has had several surgeries to fix things post retirement and is grateful for the NRL’s support in doing this.
When probed about CTE, he acknowledged the gravity of the issue.
“It’s terrifying. You don’t know if you’ll be impacted or not," he said.
"The effects don’t show in an obvious way. You also don’t know what is normal and what is not.
"I mean, I have some difficulty remembering certain conversations or people - is this part of it? Or is this just my own bad memory? I’m not sure.”
He’s also aware that in his younger years, he didn’t care about the risks.
“You don’t. You’re a young guy playing the game you love. You sign up to it and don’t ever think about the consequences. Put simply, you don’t know the effect that the NRL will have on your body.”
His commentary isn’t a criticism of the NRL; rather, he’s identifying the reasons why CTE must be taken seriously by the governing body - because young players are so willing to play despite the toll it takes on their body.
The toll of the game isn’t just physical either - the encroaching of social media into players lives is something David talks about too.
“Players have an enormous amount of feedback being directed at them," the Sutherland local said.
"It’s one thing to receive criticism from someone you know and are in a relationship with - it’s another thing to have your personal social media flooded by hundreds of posts or comments telling you what you did wrong.”
He’s aware of the inverse effect too.
“Players are also weathering enormous amounts of praise too."
"Both ends of the spectrum are dangerous, because they present an unrealistic image of yourself - either positively or negatively.
“The NRL are great and educating players on how to use this, it’s still a lot for a young person to process and experience.”
Reflecting on the past
As we finished up, I asked him what impact the NRL had on his new career at being a Christian minister.
“It taught me a lot about hard work and discipline, not to mention the complexity of relationships.” He once again paused before laughing once more. “It also taught me a lot about how to receive and endure criticism.”
I pressed him for more.
“It also taught me a lot about being thankful for the good things. I got to do something I love for a long time, and that was a good thing. I’m very grateful to God for being able to play in the NRL.”
As we parted ways, I reflected on Simmons as I drove away.
As the NRL grows and expands, it's people like David that are the unsung heroes of the game - players who contribute positively to the cultural fabric of clubs and the wider sport itself.
These are players who create safe spaces for their teammates and their families. They live out positive lifestyles the NRL are trying desperately to get younger players to conform to. And they do all this without fuss or fanfare.