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Legend Q&A: Owen Craigie

Owen Craigie was fit, athletic and confident when he walked into Newcastle's starting team as the club's youngest debutant in 1995.

Labelled one of the most naturally-gifted players the game has seen, Craigie's proud Indigenous upbringing was the catalyst to a career that had just about everything. 

While Craigie's football journey was over by the age of 26, he looks back on his 153 games in the top grade and is content. caught up with Craigie to discuss the highs and lows and the launch of a social media campaign.

Legend Q&A: Owen Craigie 

Tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got into rugby league?

I grew up in Tingha and was the eldest of seven kids so we'd be playing footy in the backyard or at school and on the weekends we'd go fishing or hunting for echidnas and rabbits so I was always running.

That's where I got my speed from so I got into athletics. I registered to play minor league with Inverell West when I was 12 and that got my career started. I had a great childhood.

How were you scouted to the Knights?

A fella in recruitment named Keith Onslow spotted me and I got contracted at 15 and was playing in the Sevens tournaments alongside guys like Matty and Andrew Johns straight away.

I played a lot of junior reps and was always playing above my age. I had a go at the Sydney Roosters elite squad and drove down to Narrabeen but there were no contracts in place.

Craigie on the charge for South Sydney.
Craigie on the charge for South Sydney. ©NRL Photos

My game went to another level at the Knights with the calibre of people around me and in the right environment. 

You were 17 when you made your NRL debut – what do you remember about it?

Mal Reilly gave me a call because I was at school and I got called into the office and was told I had to pack my bags and get to training. We played against the Broncos who had a gun side.

I came off the bench and replaced Ash Gordon in the final 15-20 minutes in front of 30,000 people in Newcastle and we touched them up. 

Danny Buderus and Andrew Johns have both described you as the most naturally talented and freakish footballer they'd ever played alongside – how does that sit with you?

It's humbling to be thought of like that by some of the most capped players in Knights' history. To have people of that calibre speak so highly of you it's hard to swallow, you get a bit emotional because these guys have played at the pinnacle.

I still pinch myself and think how did I do all this. I felt like I was part of a rockstar band and I was a drummer, they were the leads.

Owen Craigie playing for Wests Tigers.
Owen Craigie playing for Wests Tigers. ©NRL Photos

The memorable 1997 grand final and that Darren Albert finish gets talked about every year, what was it like on the other side of the field watching it unfold?

As soon as Albie got the ball I had flashbacks of being in the backyard with my brothers and sisters. It's a moment in time that takes your breath away. You just went 'wow'. People dream of that finish.

Every kid that plays rugby league wants to win a grand final. I was just looking around in a bit of disbelief at what just happened. I was only a young bloke, finished school in 1996 and was part of Knights history a year later, it was all coming at me fast.

Craigie playing against Cronulla.
Craigie playing against Cronulla. ©NRL Photos

You left the Knights for the Wests Tigers in 2000 – what was the reasoning behind that?

I was having issues with the coach (Warren Ryan) at the time, he didn't like me playing that adlib style of footy and liked to put me down so I just had enough. Wayne Pearce rang me at the time and I was a massive fan of Wayne's as I am a big fan of his son Mitchell Pearce now. I enjoyed my time there and I was grateful to be part of that merge between Wests and Balmain.

Your next move came in 2002 when you shifted to South Sydney...

Yeah, I was a massive fan of Manoa Thompson and all my family loved the Bunnies so it was more a family move. I captained Souths in a few games and was blessed to be part of such a great club.

Every club had its own strengths and I learned a lot, but Souths is the peoples' team. We got three wooden spoons but that's footy and I'm glad I played for them.

Injuries and weight issues seemed to get the best of you, how did you see it in your eyes?

I had issues with my knees but I wasn't eating the right foods or getting the right sleep or doing right by training. By the age of 24, I had three houses and three cars, had been to more than 10 countries and won a premiership.

I lost a bit of drive, I had family issues. It all crept up on me. I'd has enough and retired at 26, I needed a break, threw out the boots and was done.

Knights outside back Owen Craigie.
Knights outside back Owen Craigie. ©NRL Photos

Were you satisfied with what you achieved in the game?

I do look back sometimes but then I think what more could I have done. [But] I've got no regrets. I earned it all at the time but I also blew it throughout my career. I made a lot of mistakes along the way but it's made me the person I am. My why now are my kids and my purpose is mental health. 

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You recently opened up about your battles with a gambling addiction and mental health issues – how important was that to share?

It was very important. I was going through a divorce and spent some time in rehab last year. You tell yourself you're fine and good but really you're not.

I've learned to be comfortable in my own skin and I also don't want anyone else to go through what I have because I've seen people not be able to wake up of a morning or watch the sun go down in the afternoon.

My message to the world is it's OK to be different and you can have a bad day. Everyone is fighting for something – race, religion, sexuality – we don't talk about it enough. We lose a lot of people to suicide and in the Indigenous community, it's even worse.

Tell us about your new social media campaign, Chasing Energy.

I used to love running but lost that so it's all about getting back into some physical activity each day and encouraging people to join in and help burn off negative energy and creating a good mindset.

A lot of current and former players from Jack Wighton to Cody Walker, Nathan Cleary, Bryan Fletcher, and Anthony Mundine, have jumped on board and are sending great messages.

We lose people to suicide every day and it's even worse in Indigenous communities. If I can put my name to a purpose to save lives then why not. 

If you could play alongside any current NRL player in the game, who would it be?

I'd have to go with the young bloke Bradman Best. He's going to be a star and he reminds me of myself at a young age. I still get to a few Knights games with the old boys and he's going to be around for a long time.

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Wests Tigers respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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