Saying goodbye to NRL’s forgotten man
EVEN if Sam McKendry were given a farewell lap this Sunday, he wouldn't be able to walk it.
Or not easily.
No, not with his left knee currently wrapped in a brace.
The medial, likely stuffed.
And certainly not so bad as that right knee which, after three reconstructions in as many years, is so ruined that nobody, not even doctors, can predict exactly the type of lifestyle awaiting this ageing Penrith prop in retirement.
Although at 30, the likely guarantee is pain.
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Same deal for McKendry this week.
Especially after scans late on Tuesday revealed a Grade 2 medial tear will not only prevent him playing in Saturday's Canterbury Cup finals at Campbelltown, but likely again.
Sure, if his Cup side wins through to grand final day, the ageing prop remains a chance.
But if not?
Well, rugby league's forgotten man will then go empty his locker at Panthers HQ - effectively the only club, and life, he has ever known - before disappearing into the employ of whoever wants an old footballer with a new truck license.
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Which at a time of cruel farewells, is truly the unfairest of all.
Understanding that after 12 NRL seasons at the foot of the mountains, McKendry not only boasts more years than every player on the current roster, but also Panthers greats like Greg Alexander, Mark Geyer, Brad Fittler, even Royce Simmons.
Think about that.
And how McKendry, over those same dozen years, hasn't only outlasted a host of fellow debutants from 2008 - guys like Benny Barba, Jamal Idris, Akuila Uate, even Dave 'The Wolfman' Williams - but also married, had children, represented New Zealand, torn his ACL three times, had 16 pins and two titanium plates inserted into a broken jaw, been hailed the club's future, urged to retire, removed from the NRL squad, praised for persisting, shopped around, even played 14 minutes of a Monday Night Football match with his neck broken.
Indeed, if Dally M trophies were awarded for persistence, McKendry could fence his backyard with them.
But they aren't.
Which is why this forgotten hero gets no fireworks, no Waterford crystal and certainly no diamond ring for wife Kirsten.
Unlikely, even to get a game this Saturday arvo.
Instead, it now seems his NRL journey ended a week back at, of all places, Laybutt Field, Blacktown.
And on the type of afternoon where, apart from Penrith's reggies being thumped, so many game balls got stuck on the flat grandstand roof that, eventually, a canteen worker had to go grab spares from his car.
Which isn't how things were supposed to go for this West Australian product who, raised in the small, New Zealand timber town of Dargaville, was eventually signed to Penrith in 2006 by famed talent scout Peter Mulholland.
"One of my best signings," Mulholland would say of the schoolboy who, within a year, led Panthers Jersey Flegg to a premiership, scoring himself on grand final day. "He's going to be one of the best props in the NRL."
And early on, so it seemed for a kid whose first grade debut arrived at 18
Then by 20, a New Zealand Test jersey.
Soon enough, McKendry earning $800,000 per year as the highest-paid player on the Panthers' roster.
Better, this was the immovable bedrock, all 115kg of him, on which the club would build its future.
A truth confirmed in 2014 when GM Phil Gould extended the Mt Albert Lion on a deal spanning five years.
But then … well, imagine the sound of a dry, tree branch snapping in two.
Then imagine it again.
In League Land, tearing your ACL once is considered a travesty.
But three times?
Truly, men have gone mad over less.
But not McKendry.
No, despite knowing nothing outside the Panthers rehab rooms for three years, and despite a run of injuries so bad even the club urged him to retire - saying they would happily pay out his deal - this old school footballer continually maintained the only exit would be on his terms.
Even after returning to the game this year, albeit outside the Panthers' top 30, that's all McKendry wanted.
To call time rather than be ordered out by a knee the Footy Gods gave up on years ago.
Which is why Saturday, it's meant so much for so long.
But now, even that seems no chance.
Yet if he cannot have his game, McKendry still gets this story.
Not only one final tribute to a genuine rugby league warrior, but also as a reminder for him, as much as the rest of us, that fairytales finishes aren't ever what has defined heroes in rugby league.
Indeed, how many even exist?
Especially now as we prepare to farewell arguably the greatest group of NRL retirees in years, and have Matt Scott recovering from a stroke, Robbie Farah running on a broken leg, Paul Gallen talking the "embarrassment" of missing playoffs and Jimmy Maloney … well, his side is already out.
Only the second time ever that rugby league's greatest winner won't be in the playoffs.
Which still isn't so bad as, say, Tim Grant, the 2012 NSW Origin prop who terminated his own contract in June because of ongoing injury. Or cult Newcastle flyer Nathan Ross, who despite achieving an NRL career no less than Wayne Bennett said was impossible, then got forced out in April through troublesome groin and pelvis issues.
Spare a thought, too, for St George Illawarra star Gareth Widdop.
A fella whose final NRL season has involved a dislocated shoulder, a club engulfed in drama and, come Saturday night, the type of inglorious exit that is playing away against Gold Coast, a club whose own woes have saved him also departing with a wooden spoon.
That game, coincidentally, is where Titans fullback Michael Gordon says goodbye too. Ditto Dragons tough Jeremy Latimore.
While Parramatta favourite Tim Mannah, whose future remains undecided, will turn out for Wentworthville in week one of Canterbury Cup finals.
This Saturday afternoon, his Magpies face a Panthers squad with McKendry named on the bench, in jersey No. 16.
Still unlikely to play, sure.
But as you read this, know the ageing front-rower is icing that left knee, receiving physio, or simply stretching on yet another coloured theraband inside Panthers gym.
Desperate to get one more game from a body that seemed out of them years ago.
For more than what he knows, this is who Sam McKendry is.
Ensuring his final days in rugby league, they're the most fitting farewell of all.