Wayne Bennett opens up about Darius Boyd

Commitment is a common attribute among many of the great players I've coached. Commitment means struggle, sacrifice, effort, discipline and, at times, disappointment. It means no excuses. But not every athlete is committed. Some are just involved. They play extremely well, they can be gamewinners, but that doesn't mean they are truly committed.

Great teams need committed men and Darius Boyd is one of the most committed men I've known.

I first met Darius a few months after his eighteenth birthday. He was introduced to me by the great talent scout Cyril Connell. He was one of the last players Cyril scouted for the Brisbane Broncos. He told me to be patient with Darius. He had a good build but he was a bit thin. He was a bit shy. And he didn't say much.

Coach Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd look on during a Brisbane Broncos training session in August 2018. Picture: AAP Image/Dave Hunt
Coach Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd look on during a Brisbane Broncos training session in August 2018. Picture: AAP Image/Dave Hunt

When I saw Darius on the training paddock, the first thing I noticed was his athleticism. He was a wonderful athlete. He had a great running style, he could move and step and he had tremendous speed.

But I had seen a few of those players over the years and that didn't mean they were committed.

I had my first glimpse of Darius's commitment when we headed off for our pre-season camp before Christmas 2005. We had a new performance director who was about to make his mark on the team.

The camp was followed by weeks of exhausting training sessions in the Brisbane summer.

Darius stood up to it all. Bodies of young men aren't used to that level of work. Darius hung in with it the whole way and never complained once.

That made me think we had found a talented kid. He played in our pre-season games, although he was a bit tentative and he dropped a few balls.

But he showed enough that we wanted to stick with him. You only had to tell Darius something once and he would get it. He stopped making errors and he became less tentative as he gained confidence.

He watched the older players very closely and he took everything in, especially from Darren Lockyer. He bolted on to Locky early and learnt as much as he could from him.

Darius Boyd and coach Wayne Bennett in July 2017. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt
Darius Boyd and coach Wayne Bennett in July 2017. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt

But there was a lot more to Darius than his performances on the football field. I learnt a lot about him in our fourteen seasons together in the NRL. He's always been honest.

I've asked him some hard questions and he's never told a lie. He's introverted and he's shy but he's never been that way around me. He built strong friendships in his teams which was always a good sign. If they don't have mates in the team then you do worry about them.

He didn't have a dad and no one can replace a dad. I never saw our relationship in that way but, if anything, I helped him in the same way that men helped me.

I didn't have a father for most of my life but other men kept an eye out for me. I always tried to repay that to others.

I noticed early that Darius was putting on a brave front all the time. Given his upbringing, he was very good at masking his emotions.

The smart ones are good at doing that because they don't want to risk all the progress they have made. They want to survive so they do what they need to do.

Rugby league helped Darius to survive but it also started to bring about his personal wars. He was always trying to be a perfectionist but being perfect was of course never attainable. After he had won the Clive Churchill Medal for St George Illawarra in the 2010 NRL grand final, he apologised to me. 'Sorry, Coach,' Darius told me in the change rooms. 'I made too many errors out there tonight.' The Dragons supporters, cherishing their first premiership in three decades, would have disagreed.

Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd during a post game presser. Picture: Liam Kidston.
Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd during a post game presser. Picture: Liam Kidston.

That pursuit of perfection was one of the signs of trouble. Darius found it hard to be pleased. He would play a great game and still be down. We went from the Dragons to Newcastle together and the walls closed tighter on him. That's where I first started to see the extent of his struggles.

He was very angry with how he was playing and I could see the deterioration. We were in the gym one day and he was in a really bad way. He was even angry with me. He had never been like that with me. He was fighting a lot of demons.

The nineteenth-century author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: 'Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.' Darius had been masking his troubles for some time and his banquet had arrived. The bottom line was that he needed some help. And he was strong enough to ask for the help and to admit that he had some problems.

He left rugby league for a mental health clinic that did a wonderful job of listening to his story and helping him. They taught him that perfection wasn't attainable.

But excellence was possible. I went to the clinic and noticed the change in him straight away. In his room, he said more to me that day than he had ever said to me at any other time. I can remember the scene. Darius was sitting on his bed, looking comfortable and relaxed.

He said: 'Coach, I thought I had really serious mental issues but I've seen people who are really doing it a lot tougher than me. I have problems and I need to deal with them but I now know some people are doing it really tough.'

Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd at Broncos training at St Lucia. Picture: Annette Dew
Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd at Broncos training at St Lucia. Picture: Annette Dew

Darius became much calmer and more at ease with himself as a bloke. He didn't hide behind doors. He brought it out into the open. He came straight out with it.

That's when he began to stop some of the wars going on inside him. And he began to talk about mental health widely in speaking engagements with people he'd never met before. He would relive it and he would relive it for the benefit of others.

He returned to football nine months later at the Broncos, where we had both moved after the 2014 season. He would soon become captain of the club that he always loved.

The shy, introverted kid became a very good captain. He wasn't a natural leader but he learnt from the likes of Locky to make himself one. He became much more talkative and he gave good advice. He knew about human emotions because he'd been through so many of them leading the life that most of us don't want to live. He was only going to get better as a captain when the job was taken from him.

His behaviour has always been very good. He has always played the game in the right spirit. He's never made a cheap shot. He's never been to the judiciary. He's never upset anyone.

Darius's career has been remarkable: two premierships; a Clive Churchill Medal; a World Club Challenge win; ten State of Origin series and he won nine of those; twenty-three Tests and he won all of those including a World Cup final; and then you throw in his club career with fifteen seasons and more than three hundred games.

Wayne Bennett with Darius Boyd when he was made captain. Picture: Annette Dew
Wayne Bennett with Darius Boyd when he was made captain. Picture: Annette Dew

With a career like that, he should be a household name. He's done it all. But he's not a household name and that's because he always undersold himself. But that doesn't worry him.

He's different from any other footballer I've coached. He wasn't the rough, tough guy who would go out and want to tear the football field up and settle scores with blokes. That wasn't him. He wanted to be a footballer and he did it in a different way from most.

I don't know what Darius would have become if he wasn't a rugby league player. That's what I love about our game. He had a great teacher at his school in Rod Patison who helped him immensely.

Darius came to the Broncos and he had players like Shane Webcke, Brad Thorn, Petero Civoniceva and Locky who were all very good men. He had some bad luck in his young days but he also had some good luck too getting around blokes like them. The right people helped him enormously and he's such a good observer that he took it all in.

Darius is still learning now. He's still growing as a person. He has got the most out of his playing career but there is a lot more to life after that. And that's what matters the most. Football is good but I want my players to have good lives.

Darius and Kayla Boyd with children Romi and Willow.
Darius and Kayla Boyd with children Romi and Willow.

Parenting has been a big game-changer for him and he's handled it beautifully. He was happy and proud to be a dad and to be a husband to Kayla. To see him with his daughters now is a wonderful thing. The love and affection he has for those girls is a special thing.

After football, Darius will do anything that he wants to do. He's a pretty special guy in that way. He'll make it work in ways that others can't.

When I left the Broncos at the end of 2018, I left Darius in the NRL for the first time. I felt good about that because I knew he didn't need me anymore. He had grown up.

The American football coach Vince Lombardi said many great things, including this: 'If you will not settle for anything less than your best, you will be amazed at what you can achieve in your life.'

Darius Boyd has never settled for anything less than his best. He's authentic. He's committed. That's what makes him. He's definitely one of a kind.

Wayne Bennett, July 2020

Darius Boyd’s new book, Battling the Blues.
Darius Boyd’s new book, Battling the Blues.

This is an extract of the foreword to Battling the Blues by Darius Boyd, Hachette, $33, out Tuesday (August 25).