This isn’t the first time Nathan Gardner has had to overcome of one of life’s many hurdles. After bursting into the NRL as a fresh-faced 19-year-old for the Cronulla Sharks in 2010, it’s been a long string of cruel setbacks for Gardner.
“There was a point where I didn’t think I wanted to play anymore,” Gardner said. “I didn’t want to worry about the drama and everything that came with it.”
Off contract at the end of the season, Gardner faces another anxious moment in his life. But if history has shown anything, Gardner is resilient and he’s ready to make another comeback.
“There was a part where football wasn’t number one for me,” Gardner said. “I wasn’t trying to worry about my life off the field with the whole ASADA situation.”
Mention Gardner and the first thing people will remember was his unforgettable 90-metre try against the Sydney Roosters that was voted try of the year in 2010. Catching a towering bomb, sidestepping several defenders and sprinting the length of the field, was the beginning of what many predicted to be just the start of a long career full of similar highlights and heroics. Youtube features a popular five-minute highlights compilation of Gardner that is renowned with rugby league fans – it’s a teasing reminder of what could have been many other future exploits.
But it’s ironic that the thing you love most can cause the most pain – and Gardner has experienced more than his fair share.
In 2012, Gardner suffered a devastating season-ending knee injury and couldn’t beat his luck in 2013 when he missed most of the season with hamstring tears.
Gardner was then punished in 2014, receiving a costly ban from ASADA as part of the lengthy supplements scandal. It wasn’t just Gardner who was dragged into an ugly period of his life.
“The game hadn’t been through that before,” Gardner said, “I don’t think anyone knew how to deal with it or approach it. It really had an impact on me. People called the house trying to ask questions from my family and I didn’t like how they got dragged into it. It had a big impact.”
Love has a way of shining things clearly, and an extended break from the game rekindled Gardner’s affection for rugby league.
“I realised how much I love it, how much I needed it and how much fun I had everyday,” Gardner said. “It brought that hunger back and I tried to get back into the groove and enjoy it.
“I started watching the football and picked up a footy again, and I knew there was something inside of me that was missing. It was playing football and being around all the boys everyday and I couldn’t wait to get back after the ban was over. I knew football was missing and I wanted it back.”
Gardner is thriving with the Newtown Jets this season as one of their key weapons in attack and was awarded with selection into the VB NSW Cup Representative Team that played against Queensland earlier this year. He is determined to prove to his doubters that his time isn’t up just yet.
“I feel like I’ve been a little forgotten,” Gardner said. “I’ve done it before and I’m confident I can keep doing it. I’d like people to take notice of me again and hopefully I can come back and play consistent first grade – that’s the ultimate goal.
“I’m very proud of the things I’ve achieved in football. There’s a lot more I still want to achieve in the game. It’s good I have that but I still don’t think I’m finished. I’m still very determined to make a good go at it.”
Perhaps his doubters should remember how resilient Gardner is and how he has battled to get to where he is.
“Not everything is always going to your way,” Gardner said. “I wasn’t playing first grade and I went from such a high to a pretty low period. I wondered if I could do it anymore and whether I was right to play the game at that high level. It just came back to me telling myself I’ve done it before, so I can definitely do it again.”
[This article appeared during 2015 and has been replayed as part of NSWRL.com.au's "Fan Favourites" section. Stay tuned to NSWRL.com.au in 2016 for the best of the NSW VB Blues, NSW Cup, Country-City Origin and all the other senior and junior competitions.]