‘THE greatest game ever” is how Tenterfield’s Damian Petrie describes rugby league.
For a man who has devoted much of his life to this game and many other sports, this is an important assessment.
The middle son of Tenterfield’s Peter and Vicki Petrie, Damian can trace his love of rugby league back to his childhood.
“I remember Dad taking me to junior soccer in Glen Innes. I think I was about six or seven at the time and we were living in Deepwater,” he says.
“I don’t know why, I just didn’t like the game and I think I must have tried to chuck a sickie so I couldn’t go to the next week and Dad said to me ‘do you want to go to Tenterfield and have a game of footy?’ and I don’t remember what it was I just remember loving it.
“I loved running, kicking, tackling, the whole business. I just loved it.”
More than 20 years later, little has changed, although Damian now balances football, coaching and playing with a full-time job as a personal development, health and physical education (PDHPE) teacher at Stanthorpe High School as well as helping to raise a family with his wife Karen.
At just over six-foot-four (196cm) Damian’s skills were not only confined to the football field. Growing up, he and his two brothers Brett and Anthony were also involved in cricket and basketball.
His younger brother Anthony now plays for the Gold Coast Blaze in the Australian Basketball League and Damian says there has always been a strong competitive streak between them.
“Anthony seems to credit me with helping to make him a professional basketball player, he says I used to push him around a lot as a kid,” Damian laughs.
“He says that if I wasn’t as hard on him and hadn’t pushed him around as much he might not have gotten to where he is now… I’m happy to take some of the credit!”
After countless games of football there are two teams and two seasons in particular that are stuck in his mind.
The first was the 2001 Tenterfield Tigers grand final win. Damian says he was called in to play for the side while he was living in Brisbane.
“I had been pretty laid back about the whole thing and then it came to grand final day and it just hit me how big it was, for everyone,” he says.
“I think everyone in Tenterfield and anywhere in between had come out to watch us and when we won it was just incredible.”
Like many other coaches and players, Damian is very passionate about the important role sport and sporting teams can play, particularly in small towns like Tenterfield.
“For me it is more than just football because in a town like Tenterfield I think everybody is interested,” he explains.
“If you go down the street, everybody wants to know, ‘how did the football go?’. Everyone knows you or someone’s brother or uncle who was playing. It’s a real community thing… I think that’s the thing I love about it, everybody tends to get behind it and it becomes a real big social event.”
The second biggest highlight for Damian was when he was selected to play and captain the NSW Country Team last year.
“Me and my brother had always had NSW Country jerseys as kids and always thought how great it would be to have one of our own so when I did it was a really great honour.
“I was chuffed actually.”
The achievement was also a historic moment for Tenterfield. Damian was only the second person since former State of Origin great Billy Moore to play for the side and the first Tenterfield Tiger to captain the side.
While sport was always important. Damian admits that both his parents, particularly his father Peter, encouraged him to explore other avenues.
“I love sport and I thought, if I can’t be a professional sportsperson what’s a job I can do that allows me to play sport all day long? P.E. teaching was the closest I came to it.”
Damian first studied human movement at Southern Cross University in Lismore and then went on to Griffith University in Queensland to complete a Diploma in Education.
It was during his final year of university he was selected to coordinate and teach what he describes as “a rugby league subject” at Sunnybank High School in Brisbane.
“A teaching mentor of mine recommended me. At the time I was still playing in the Queensland Cup competition, but that was the dream job, absolutely. The dream job.”
Damian had been playing in the Queensland Cup competition shortly after moving to Brisbane and admits it was a big learning curve for him.
“When I look back now I know that my biggest problem was probably self-confidence,” he recalls.
“As a young fella, when you come from the country and go to the city, I was playing with fellas and against fellas that I’d watched on TV.
“It was very daunting. I remember one game I was playing with Scott Prince and Corey Parker and I honestly didn’t probably believe in myself and couldn’t believe I was playing with guys I’d watched as a kid.”
It was perhaps this experience that prompted Damian to establish a scholarship program with Eastern Suburbs in Brisbane which is one of the feeder clubs for the Melbourne Storm.
The program aims to give young players in Tenterfield the chance to train and play in the city clubs before they finish school.
“Three young boys have already got a scholarship and they go up there and are exposed to the training, given diet tips, strength and conditioning programs and to me that’s what I think it’s all about. It was one of my big reasons for moving back here, to give these kids an opportunity because I know they’ve got the ability to do it.”
Another big reason Damian and Karen made the decision to move back to Tenterfield was to raise their family.
With their son Thomas, 2, and twins, Hannah and Georgia, 18 months, the pair have their hands fairly full but Damian says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love Tenterfield. It is a great place to grow up.”
And while Damian admits Thomas is a bit young to pick up a football yet, he’d be happy for him to play.
“If he’s smart he won’t. If he doesn’t want hips, shoulders and knees like mine he won’t, but even after all that if he still wants to I’d be happy for him.”