Origin great Gary Larson confronts biggest challenge
GARY Larson played 24 consecutive State of Origin matches for Queensland, going into almost all of them with some kind of a niggling injury.
He represented the Kangaroos in nine Test matches, including the 1995 World Cup final at Wembley, and pulled on the famous red and black jersey of the North Sydney Bears in 233 of his 250 NRL appearances. His 13 seasons in the furnace of the one of the most brutal body-contact sports known to man branded him a genuine tough guy.
But nothing on the rugby league field - or in rugby union as an Australian Schoolboy rep alongside Ricky Stuart - prepared him for the health battle he has recently endured with a cancer that will visit one in every five Australian men. But just as he did in 10 of those 24 back-to-back Origin games, Larson took on prostate cancer, and won.
"I was 44 when I was told and yes, I was very scared," the 52-year-old reflected this week when backing the Maroons to seal the 2019 Origin series with a win in Perth on Sunday.
"Just like the result of a game of footy, the initial test could have gone either way. But when they came back and I was told it was cancer, I said let's get it out."
So, without so much as a second thought, out his cancerous prostate came. And although there were some dark moments for the strong and outwardly healthy former back-rower, his regular check-ups since show the outcome has been another triumph.
But rather than accept his diagnosis as just another pot-hole in life's often-challenging road, Larson has become somewhat of a crusader in the hope that his sporting profile can convince men of any age to have their PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) checked regularly.
"The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70, but that wasn't the case with me," he said.
"Blokes who don't have their regular checks are playing Russian roulette with their lives, because when we do get signs of something wrong down there, it is usually too late."
Larson spent much of his sporting life battling injuries but only a couple have had long-lasting effects on his career.
In his first two seasons with North Sydney - 1987 and 1988 - the former schoolboy centre underwent two knee reconstructions, on the same knee. As a result of those major surgeries, and a predilection to run over his opposition rather than swerve around them, Bears coach Frank Stanton moved him into the forwards.
And although the other major injury did not thwart his career, it had an adverse effect on his post-career earning capacity. An innocent elbow to the throat has left him with an extremely raspy voice, which he flippantly says has people often mistake him for Darren Lockyer.
But Larson says his major irk is that his best buddy, former Bears and Maroons teammate Billy Moore, has earned icon status - and the odd dollar - on the back of the word Queenslander, which he helped instigate.
During the half-time break in the first match of the much-celebrated 1995 Origin series, Larson and Moore realised the underdogs needed a psychological lift. The duo conjured up the idea of the Queenslander call, which Moore boomed in the tunnel as the players returned to the field for the second half.
"I yelled it too, but no one could hear me," Larson said with a grin.
And has Moore shared any of the benefits of this headline grabbing part of his post-game career?
"No, not a cent," he said.
Larson, who works at the Gladstone Port Authority, just 20 minutes from his home on the beach at Tannum Sands, still has a keen eye for the game although he is not actively involved.
He is in awe of the speed at which the current game is played, and the athleticism of the players. But a couple of the personal traits of many of the modern-day playing group he finds difficult to appreciate.
"What about all those tattoos, the beards and the haircuts? I'm not sure they would have fitted the image of the game back in my day," joked the clean-cut Queenslander.