Jack back from the brink: How footy, family and troubled teens saved Blues rookie

"Footy saved me, definitely. I could've gone the wrong way many, many times."

Jack Wighton isn't talking about the last 12 months. Or the night out he can't remember last February, waking with a "shiner" and no idea what he'd done.

Not just his career in the balance, but his family's future and his own too with jail time a distinct possibility.

The Blues new bench utility is casting back 10 years earlier. To being packed up by his family in Orange, and sent to Canberra and the Raiders at 16.

"Who, me? I was a bit of a scallywag," Wighton nods when asked about his formative years, but leaves it at that.

On the face of it, a teenaged Wighton didn't need saving. Skipping school here, a scrap or two there and giving your teachers a bit of grief does not a problem child make.

But Wighton has since seen where that road can lead. And now spends his days off steering kids in the opposite direction.

Jack Wighton is loving his time in camp with the Blues.
Jack Wighton is loving his time in camp with the Blues. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

'This isn't bullshit, PR or just a convenient story'

PCYC Erindale's general manager Stephen Imrie sets the record straight.

It's appreciated, and echoed by all and sundry at the Raiders.

Wighton's work with "what society calls vulnerable or 'at-risk' kids" was pre-empted by a Cert IV course in social work two years ago.

Well in advance of that manic pre-season night in Canberra's CBD, when he stumbled out a nightclub, started swinging at strangers and ended up pleading guilty to five counts of assault.

Wighton works with teens at least once a week who know the courts system all too well.

Jack Wighton has raised money for his friend who is battling cancer and also devoted time to helping troubled youth.
Jack Wighton has raised money for his friend who is battling cancer and also devoted time to helping troubled youth. ©NRL Photos

Stories of ice and drug use, sleeping rough and domestic abuse feature far too often among the 600-odd kids which are in Canberra's PCYC programs each year.

"To go through Bimbirri [Canberra's juvenile detention centre], you don't get sent there for light stuff," Imrie explains.

"It's usually repeat offenders, with some bad choices that land there.

"You'll see a lot of aggravated burglary, usually related to drugs or drug money. Assault is common. And often it's not a one-off that lands them there, we'll try and get kids before they reach that point.

"Our programs are aimed to try and stop that repeat offending, but sometimes we don't get to the kids before they go into the juvenile justice system, and we'll work with them after they come out."

Which is where Wighton comes in.

At least one day off in his week is spent helping kids with schoolwork, life issues and getting them up and about – usually with a focus on "looking beyond themselves and their own issues for a day".

Knowing his way around a motorbike makes Wighton a popular man most every Thursday. His profile as a Raiders star, and come Wednesday night a NSW State of Origin player, helps too.

Match: Maroons v Blues

Game 1 -

Full Time
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Home Team

Maroons

Scored 18 points
Blues

Away Team

Blues

Scored 14 points

Venue: Suncorp Stadium

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"But Jack just has a natural knack of it, especially with the kids," Imrie says.

"There's no judgement, no bias from him. His first day even, no issues. I'd say he wouldn't know too much of the backstories, because he doesn't need to. He treats them with respect anyway.

"This isn't bullshit, it isn't PR or a good story just because it's convenient.

"Jack's genuinely bought into this. He loves being a part of it and we love having him."

Blues rookie Jack Wighton.
Blues rookie Jack Wighton. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

'Life doesn't come with directions'

As a kid Wighton spent his fair share of time at Orange's PCYC.

And Raiders officials have seen a shy, at times easily-led 16-year-old grow into a genuine leader "who will speak to the Prime Minister the same way he'd speak to an Indigenous boy".

"I can really relate to some of these kids, I can mix in and mingle with them," Wighton says.

Footy saved me, definitely. I could've gone the wrong way many, many times.

Jack Wighton

"It's just the way I grew up, I'm not too different to most of them myself. I had a great upbringing. There was always love in my house, always felt the love.

"But I didn't always have everything other kids do. I did beat around the bush a little bit growing up.

"… Footy saved me, definitely. I could've gone the wrong way many, many times.

"Just to have the club, having that love was one thing. Then the drive, that relief, and the structure it gives you.

"Structure is the massive one, probably the game changer for me, having that in my life probably kept me going any further down the wrong track.

"Life doesn't come with directions, if you beat yourself up over your mistakes all the time, at the end of the day no one really cares but you and it doesn't effect anyone but you.

"You've got to learn from it, that's the key thing for everyone, not just these kids. As long as you change out of something, and don't make those mistakes again."

'You can go to jail for assault'

Canberra simply couldn't fathom the position Wighton put himself, his teammates and his club in last year.

A 20-minute drunken rampage captured on CCTV cameras that could have ended much worse than it did, yet still dogged Wighton, the Raiders and rugby league too for most of 2018.

Canberra fumed privately and publicly at the NRL's 10-match ban and $30,000 fine – chairman Allan Hawke dubbing it "excessive", coach Ricky Stuart "disrespectful" as League Central came over the top of the Raiders' initial punishment.

Jack Wighton with Indigeneous Youth Summit ambassador Meah Murray.
Jack Wighton with Indigeneous Youth Summit ambassador Meah Murray. ©raiders.com.au

CEO Don Furner provides perspective.

"More important than any sacking - which was with the [Raiders] board - he was facing court," Furner says.

"Your footy career, that could've gone yes. But Jack wasn't just facing the sack from us, he wouldn't have got a gig at another club.

"And, of course, you can go to jail for assault. That can shake you up, it should of course."

Wighton received a two-month suspended jail sentence and was placed on a one-year good-behaviour bond by the ACT's Galambany Circle Sentencing Court.

Stuart gave him both barrels too.

"He was devastated. Gutted. Filthy at me to start," Wighton says.

"Fair enough too, obviously. You know you've done wrong by Sticky because he'll let you know about it.

"But he's also big on learning about yourself and making something out of your mistakes. He wants you to become a better person, learn at the same time."

Wighton's two daughters Ariah and Aaliyah, and partner Monisha Lew-Fatt were his first thoughts throughout every self-inflicted trial and tribulation last year.

His young family were fittingly the first people he saw after learning of his upcoming Origin debut, Brad Fittler calling him on his way home last Saturday night.

"This time last year I was every chance of being sacked," Wighton says.

"I didn't know what was going to happen and my career was uncertain, every option was on the table.

"You just keep going, that's all I could think. My two little girls, I have to support them, they're the motivation when I come back to all that.

"The mistake was made and I have to live with it … But you have to learn from it too. And here we are."

 

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