Greg Inglis’ journey into darkness became quest to save lives with Goanna Academy

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Greg Inglis is finally ready to reveal the real him. Not the shiny side but the one that lived in darkness. Right when he could have dived back into an NRL job, he has chosen another path.

These days Greg Inglis is smiling more.

He’s been through hell to be able to say that.

But sitting in a high rise Sydney office with a sense of purpose and peace, he doesn’t have a single regret about how it all played out.

It’s a rainy afternoon in early November and the ex-Australia and Queensland superstar has just emerged from a two-and-a-half hour meeting on his first day back in the office since returning from the UK.

A stint with Warrington turned out to be shorter than expected thanks to a hamstring injury, but he’s relaxed and happy despite a second unsatisfying end to his professional rugby league career.

For 19 years he threw everything at it, but the laser intensity he aimed at becoming one of Australia’s greatest athletes is now refracted towards a bigger mission.

The Goanna Academy.

“I’m just glad that people can reach out and be open and curious with me, whether it’s asking questions for themselves about mental health and getting into the details, I’m happy to sit there and tell them my story,” he says.

“That’s the whole purpose of the Goanna Academy. I want to go and share my journey.”

In the spotlight

The shiny parts of Inglis’s life story are well known – the early success at Melbourne, a drought-breaking NRL premiership with South Sydney, a State of Origin dynasty with the Maroons and a 39-game Test career with the Kangaroos.

Since being signed by Melbourne at just 14, he has gone on to become one of the greatest rugby league players of all time.

His NRL career is the stuff of legend.

But on-field success does not tell the full story of the man.

“I knew I had more to offer, but I also felt like I couldn’t be the true me. The real me,” he says. “Being out in the public eye and in the public 24/7.

“But I have no regrets of what I’ve done throughout my life because at the end of the day I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about the things I’m excited about next.”

Greg Inglis had incredible success in his career, both with the Storm and the Rabbitohs. Picture: AAP

Five years ago he wouldn’t have been comfortable talking about his feelings with his loved ones, let alone a complete stranger.

Certainly not a group of school kids.

Behind the scenes he struggled for years with a darkness that confused the people closest to him. In a low he would completely shut down rather than talk about his feelings, but when he was on a high he was unstoppable.

The mood swings took a heavy toll on his relationships, particularly with former wife Sally, mother to two of his children, Quinn and Nate.

Publicly the cracks began to show when he entered a rehab facility for the first time to seek treatment for mental health issues in mid-2017. But even he admits he didn't take it seriously enough. After rupturing his ACL in the first game of the season, his mental health spiralled without the routine of rugby league and he spent a few weeks in the facility in an attempt to break the cycle of excessive drinking and dizzying oscillations in mood. But he wasn’t open enough and says he didn’t allow himself to be truly vulnerable. It was beneficial, but not effective.

Even though he returned to the field consistently in 2018, privately, he still was not OK. And it was about to become even more apparent.

Inglis was stripped of the Australian captaincy in October after an embarrassing drink driving ordeal. He’d been named Kangaroos skipper only hours before he was caught driving over the limit in Lithgow, NSW.

He then managed two games of the 2019 season before the physical toll of his intense playing career inevitably ravaged his body too much to continue.

Inglis played two rounds of NRL in 2019 before it became apparent his body wouldn’t hold up to the week-to-week demands of the sport. His capitulation off the field would soon follow. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

His second stint in rehab would come soon after, when he hit rock bottom on a three-day booze bender during Magic Round in Brisbane in 2019. He essentially vanished. The club didn't know where he was for 48 hours and it was impossible to ignore that still, the champion was not OK. Souths boss Shane Richardson moved quickly to find him, fearing the worst.

Richardson was the man he turned to when he finally admitted he wasn’t coping.

“I knew something was wrong before I went into rehab for the first time, just from my ACL (injury),” Inglis recalls.

“I didn’t know how to handle it, even though I had the best medical advice and treatment around me. I turned to drinking.

“(I was) telling myself I’ll be OK when clearly people I trust knew I wasn’t. Having a hard conversation about it really hit home and I checked myself into rehab.

“My second time (in rehab) ... I knew I was retiring and again, new to a role, thought I was OK, once again. Turned to drinking and thinking ‘I’m fine’.

“Before the second time, I turned to Shane Richardson and others around me that I truly trust and said, ‘I’m not coping’.

“I do encourage people to talk about it to those they trust and do so before it gets out of hand.”

It wasn’t until he was admitted to a rehab facility for the second time he was finally diagnosed with bipolar II disorder – an important step that led to the restoration of his quality of life.

It took appropriate medication and psychology work to be free of the prison in his own mind, where he is his own worst enemy and harshest critic. It broke the relentless cycle.

Inglis could always find the line and the goanna became part of his iconic post-try celebration. Picture: AAP

Telling his story – all the twisted downfalls, heartbreak, mistakes and redemptions – he finds a little bit more freedom every day.

Mental illness does not discriminate, and he’s the perfect example of it. Because despite all the privilege afforded to one of the most famous sports people in Australia, Inglis is only now learning the power of his voice and how much it matters.

“I made really good friends during my second stint in rehab, believe it or not,” he says.

“That’s where you find yourself and find the people like you, and that’s where I found myself really opening up.

“Professor (Gordon) Parker, who is my psychologist, suggested (forming an academy). I didn’t really want to do it because I was still in the phase of not wanting to talk about it, even though I just came out of rehab.

“But he told me, ‘You don’t know the power you have, you might have saved one or many lives’ and that’s what really got me.

“I realised this is what I want to do, this is what I’m passionate about. My try-scoring celebration is a goanna, and I thought what a fitting way to do it. Being Indigenous as well, it’s not my totem, but it just fits because it’s part of my heritage, it’s part of my culture.”

A new direction

The Goanna Academy launched in August last year. Inglis has put together a program that he presents to school kids in classrooms encouraging them to be their authentic selves and to seek help if they are struggling with poor mental health.

He’s armed with tools and practical answers – how to support someone who may be at risk, where to find help and offering hope that life can get better.

“People see me as Greg Inglis, famous footballer, 1000 friends,” he tells classrooms.

“Then there’s who I really am. I’m a Dunghutti man who grew up in Macksville, who loved football, who did this and that.

“If you strip all that famous stuff away, then I’m just a normal person like them. I have the same challenges as anyone.

“For me to tell my story in that way, I find it not only rewarding but... it’s a weird feeling that I get when I see kids listening. After the talks, they don’t ask anything about football, they ask about mental health and where they can get help.”

Telling the warts-and-all story of his life gives the kids permission to examine their own thoughts in a way they might not have done before.

Because if this untouchable hero isn’t embarrassed to ask for help, then maybe it’s OK if they do too.

As one of the code’s genuine superstars, Inglis could always command the attention of kids, who idolise him. Picture: Mark Calleja

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.

Inglis grew up in the northern NSW town of Macksville and spent most of his life playing one of the toughest sports in the world.

From childhood through to adulthood, it was the norm for boys to swallow their emotions to present a tough exterior for fear of being thought of as weak.

“The way I grew up, in Nambucca Valley, we were out on the streets playing, riding bikes, having stacks, friends around so you don’t want to cry in front of your friends, you get hurt playing football, you don’t want to cry in front of them and you just suck it up and get on with it. That’s the way I grew up,” he says.

“I grew up with older cousins, so getting bashed by them or getting pushed around by them playing footy in the front yard.

“If you start crying, they’d say ‘shut up or we’ll get a hiding off your mum’.”

But more recently there has been a redefining of what it means to be tough, leading to the recognition that there is strength in vulnerability.

“It’s not just mental health, it’s people feeling comfortable to talk about themselves, and who they are... transgender issues, so many different things.

“That’s what I’ve learned… allowing myself to be vulnerable allows other people to be. [Society is] definitely changing. If it makes them happy and they can express who they are, then I’m all for it as long as they’re happy with themselves. If your true friends are your true friends, they’ll stick by your side.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that I have that.”

While in England Inglis was running the academy sessions via Zoom, which limited his ability to connect with the kids.

But now that he’s back in Australia he’s planning trips around the country to spread his message and hopefully save lives.

A European adventure

Still, there is no separating rugby league from the man.

Surprisingly, his three-game stint with Warrington came close to not happening.

As Covid-19 raged through the UK, Inglis watched on from his home in Sydney and decided just 24 hours before his flight was booked that he was going to get on the plane.

Both he and his partner Alyse Caccamo were anxious about what awaited them in England – between the lockdown, the weather and the virus itself.

What finally confirmed his decision to board the plane was the possibility of a European adventure and the chance to prove he could still play professionally after two years off the paddock.

“When I was over there I realised I should have done it in my late 20s or early 30s,” he says.

“It’s a great club, Warrington. It’s just a totally different experience.

“Living in a different country and everything is starting to open up… I don’t mean to rub it in people’s faces, but you pay a 13 pound flight to go to Spain, or a 20 pound flight to Switzerland.

“We pay $400 to go to Perth from Sydney.”

Greg Inglis and his partner Alyse touched down in Warrington, England, in the depths of winter, but quickly began to enjoy the spoils of living in Europe, including holidaying in warmer climates. Picture: Instagram

In the freezing temperatures he trained for six hours a day away from the main group to get his fitness back, only for a hamstring injury to end his career for the second time after just three games.

Surgery was on the cards, but it would have taken until the end of his contract to be able to get back on the field.

So, a mutual agreement was reached between Inglis and the club to terminate his contract.

“It was just unfortunate that it happened at that time because I was just starting to get into it and getting back into my match fitness,” he explains.

“I felt good even though second game in I went straight back to fullback, which I didn’t expect at 34 years old.

“It is what it is, I’m too stubborn when it comes to playing football to say no or anything like that. It’s in my blood, it’s always been there and it’s always been my passion.”

The hamstring injury was a cruel end to his professional career, but it’s not over completely.

A second chance at retirement

In a conversation with Alyse while on a holiday in Spain, he decided he would knock back an offer to join Jason Demetriou’s staff at South Sydney to put all his energy into the Goanna Academy.

He doubts coaching full-time could make him happy.

“Maybe because I’ve been in that environment, I was signed when I was 14, moved when I was 15, so I’ve been in it my whole life,” he says.

“Going into rehab really showed me different views of my life that I could go down, there were different paths that I can actually take.

“I don't want to go into coaching, but if the club does ring up and want me to go in and help or mentor someone, then yes, of course I would.

“But being in there full-time? No.”

While he’s happy mentor talented players like Latrell Mitchell one-on-one, Greg Inglis declined a full-time coaching role with South Sydney to focus on the Goanna Academy. Picture: Brett Costello

Instead, he will live in Sydney, work on the Goanna Academy and his clothing brand Strive, and return to Macksville on the odd weekend to play for the Sea Eagles in the local group two competition.

It’ll be a second introduction to life after a professional football career while still feeding his passion for rugby league.

It will also come two decades years after he was plucked out of the Macksville jersey by the Storm.

He hopes to play at least 10 games for the club, although he’s not interested in taking a starting jersey off a local who has earned it.

“I was playing for Bowraville juniors when I was 15 years old and then Macksville under-18s on a Sunday. It’s just ironic that it happened to be 20 years later that I’m putting the Macksville jersey on again,” he says.

“For me it’s just about going back home and finishing my career off where I started. It might be my last year, I might play another five years, who knows.

“I don’t care if I sit on the bench, I just want to go back home and get back to my community.”

What’s next

It’s taken a long time for Inglis to learn how to form boundaries by simply saying no.

He doesn’t have social media on his phone anymore, because reading messages or negative comments would drain him and send him into a spiral.

These days he records content and approves posts to be managed by someone else – a truly modern version of self-care.

If a fan reaches out to him to ask for help or advice – as they often do – he will respond, but only when he feels equipped mentally to do so.

It’s an ongoing battle that he faces with the support of Alyse, as well as Sally, who lives in Brisbane with their two children.

It’s been almost 12 months since he’s seen them, although he is hoping like everyone else locked out of Queensland that borders open next month.

“I miss my kids a hell of a lot, that’s for sure,” he says.

“The ex and I have a good relationship and so do my partner and her. The important thing is the kids are happy.

“Alyse and I do our best to support each other and that’s what makes the relationship work.

“If anyone out there has a partner who seems to be struggling with mental health, I would encourage them to be patient and choose the right time to speak up and the right time to say nothing.

“Encourage them to seek help. It could be a good friend that they trust, one family member. Just someone. That’s the biggest thing.”

The Greg Inglis that many knew just a few short years ago is now a completely different person, but more of himself in so many ways.

‘Greggy Paul’ (as he’s known to his nan) is more authentic. He has more honest relationships. He knows what he wants. And he works hard to make sure he doesn’t slip into the same cycles of shame and silence.

“I reflect on everything that’s happened. If you don’t reflect then you don’t know how far you’ve come,” he says.

“You can wake up and one day and it’s not your day, but you wake up the next day and the sun is always going to rise.

“I try to forget about what happened the day before and try to change it the next day. That’s something that I’ve had to learn, just to move on.”