Since announcing his retirement from NRL last month, the sport's star player Billy Slater has found himself at a new crossroads. The 35-year-old father of two says while he ends his sporting career on a high, the mental impact of retiring has its consequences.
"I feel like life is exciting and daunting all at once," says Billy Slater who has just returned to half day's training and is kicking back on the couch until school pick-up.
"Walking away from what I have done my whole adult life is really difficult. I have trained myself to be a rugby player and stepping away has all sorts of question marks around it," he says.
'I feel like an old man'
Growing up in Far North Queensland, Slater was always destined to play rugby. His father was a player and coach and he fell in love with the sport as a four year old, ever intrigued with the ball that consumed his father's life. There was a momentary side step into thoroughbred racing, but that wasn't his ultimate calling.
"I knew nothing else but rugby from a young age," says Slater who grew up in Innisfail, QLD.
"I am a product of my environment and when you come to the end of your career it has impact on you. You can say to yourself, wow I've fulfilled a dream and am grateful for the opportunity to play rugby, but right now I feel like an old man to be honest," he half laughs.
End of an era
Announcing one's retirement from a sport you've played professionally for most of your adult life is no easy side step and Slater is the first to admit it. Sure you can look at life philosophically, can knowingly spend more time with the family and take on mentoring and coaching roles to keep the wheels turning, but the dynamics shift and you have to find your new happy place.
"I don't know much about mental health, but I know I need to keep physical and get outdoors to avoid negative mental traps. I do whatever it takes to keep a healthy mind," he says.
Slater looks back at his career fondly, recalling those pinch me moments with microscopic precision.
Pinch me moments
"I am so lucky I have been able to enjoy many memorable moments from playing NRL Grand Finals to State of Origin and playing for my country, but I will never forget my debut game for Melbourne Storm," he says of the turning point 2003 moment.
"The day I ran onto that field in a Melbourne Storm Guernsey fulfilled so many dreams of mine, especially as a young boy who worked so hard to where I got to today," says Slater.
"But it's the little things like seeing my parents on the side watching was another tick of the box, having my kids high five me in the middle of a grand final was another. Those moments are priceless and I never really took any of it for granted," he says.
For now, Slater will coach Melbourne Storm and continue mentoring young players too. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Nicole and their two children, daughter Tyler age 10 and son Jake, aged eight and have called Melbourne home for the past 16 years.
As far as those who've inspired him on his own journey, Slater counts coaches like Craig Bellamy and team players Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith as significant men in his life.
"Craig taught me a sense of work ethic and how hard to work to be successful – that built consistency in my game," he says.
"And Cooper and Cameron weren't mentors per se, but the way they went about being successful and wanting to improve on that made me want to be a better player. That drove me to want to be in this infectious game," he adds.
Slater has also taken on a seasonal mentoring role with Van Heusen – sharing his success story with a panel that includes Richard Roxburgh and comedian Nazeem Hussain.
"I never really looked at myself as a mentor until later in my life," he admits.
"I see myself as a role model to my kids first and foremost. To be a good one you have to lead by example, you can't expect your kids to behave a certain way if you don't. I also have a responsibility to the game and the kids who look up to me too and I take that on board."
Becoming a father at 25, right in the middle of striving to be the best rugby league player was a huge milestone for Slater.
"Having children certainly made my life a whole lot better. They put everything in perspective. They don't care if I dropped a ball or made a mistake on the field, I come home to those who love you unconditionally. That support from my wife and kids is priceless," he says.
So do the kids know how famous their father is? "Yeah, they do, but I am still their dad," he smiles.
"I walk them to school and it's business as usual most days."