In his words: Phil Dennis on record-breaking career

Phil Dennis is set to break the all-time record for most games played in the Intrust Super Cup, bringing up game number 271 when the Souths Logan Magpies host the Townsville Blackhawks at Davies Park, 3pm Sunday.

He sat down to reveal to QRL.com.au the untold motivations and factors that led to him reaching the historic mark.

 

When my father broke his neck, he had a cow bone fused to his vertebrae.

At the time I think he would have only been 23 or 24 years of age.

Everyone knows Dad as 'Lobby' – still to this day - even though his real name is Stephen.

He initially got called 'Lobby' because he was short and stocky and they reckon he used to run like a lobster.

It's one of those footy nicknames that stuck solid.

Back in his day it was a thriving local competition in Ayr and Home Hill. There were four senior clubs in the region where there is now only the Burdekin Roosters.

People say Dad was a tough footballer, not big, but one that'd grab the ball and run into the teeth of the defence as hard as he could.

Then one day he was spear tackled and that all came to an end.

All through my youth, my mother and father were never that keen on me playing footy, understandable when you consider Dad's injury.

I dabbled in rugby league a little in under-8s and under-9s, but my first love was always basketball and that was the sport I pursued most, although I tried all sorts of sports as a kid.

My aunty and my sister were both very good basketballers. Aunty Val got offered to play down south at the age of 16, while my sister Marie was playing against women at the age of 12, even though she was short in height.

Unbelievably, Dad actually made a comeback to rugby league around the age of 40, but by that time I was a teenager and partway through high school.

I also came back to footy shortly before that time and I guess it's fair to say that I contracted my love of the game from him primarily.

For Dad to want to return at that age after a broken neck is a sign of how much rugby league is in our blood.

Mum's brothers, Robert and Clive Ah Wong, were pretty handy footballers too, and I can't fail to mention them.

My parents split when I was 14 and I lived with Mum, but always kept in touch with Dad and used to catch up with him to go fishing in particular.

He was the local tyre fitter in town, did a bit of cane harvesting and knew a fair few people, then later on he went did earthmoving and worked in the mines, where he is to this day.

For most of my life I've grown up identifying as Aboriginal, and I have worked helping Indigenous people with housing and employment for the past few years.

It's only well into adulthood, and after I became a father myself, that we discovered my Mum's family also has roots in Vanuatu, so I'm partly South Sea Islander.

Mum's been pretty diligent doing research into the family tree and she's still trying to trace down more details about the history.

All through junior footy I was a chunky kid and I liked to use my body shape to my advantage.

To this day, I enjoy the defensive side of rugby league just as much, if not more, than the attacking side.

I'm not real tall in stature, so the bigger blokes have always tended to pick me out as someone to run at and, well, one of my favourite things to do is hit blokes as hard as I can.

You could say it works out well.

From the age of 13 I made the North Queensland representative team every year, right up until under-18s.

In under-14s I made the Queensland merit side, and that was something I was really proud of as a kid.

Just before I was due to finish school, my mate Johnny Nash and I switched from Ayr State High to Kirwan State High in Townsville, mostly because of their rugby league program.

They had guys like Sam Thaiday, Jacob Lillyman, Steve Goodhew, Brenton Bowen, Aaron Payne, Simon Phillips and Drew Donovan, just to name a few.

I was the only starting player that was not a current Queensland Schoolboys representative at the time.

It didn't give me a complex, but it would have been something that was nice to add to my belt.

The same thing could be said of the fact I didn't earn an NRL contract or scholarship when I left high school.

I've always thought of these things fairly pragmatically.

It's a case of: "Oh well that hasn't happened for me, move on to what is next."

There was some discussion that Wayne Bennett saw me play at a schoolboy game and liked what I did, but nothing ever came of it. There's a similar story about Brian Smith.

My high school coach was former North Queensland Cowboys coach Grant Bell and I still tell everyone he is arguably the most amazing mentor I've played under.

He was great at the technical side of football, was a really strong motivator, but also cared genuinely about his players, so he had the perfect combination of attributes.

When an NRL contract didn't come my way, Belly hooked me up with Wests Panthers in Brisbane.

I went there predominantly to play under 19s, but ended up getting a debut in the Intrust Super Cup in 2003, where I played just a handful of games.

From there I went over to Easts Tigers for two seasons, and had the chance to play alongside some legends I admired as a kid in Steve Renouf and Darren Smith.

One bloke I grew close to was Brandon Costin and I ended up following him across to Souths when he went there as captain-coach in 2006.

I guess, because of my background in Ayr, I've always been someone who valued the concepts of family and community.

For those reasons, I fell in love with Souths Logan.

Club stalwarts Jimmy McClelland and Barb McClelland were always a big help to me, whether it was football or my personal life.

It just felt like home. It was a good fit.

I've had a few personal issues along the road; namely a relationship break-up with the mother of my eldest son.

My former partner and I went to high school together and she'd moved to Brisbane to be with me, so it rocked me at the time, mainly the thought of having to share care of our son and not be with him every day.

When it was getting on top of me, I mentioned to the coach before a game that it might be best to make someone else captain. I had too much on my mind.

Before I knew, Jimmy heard about it and put in a phone call for me to go see someone for the appropriate help.

The club was very proactive and left nothing to chance.

It was never at the stage where I was considering self-harm though. At my lowest point, I always thought about my family and my son and doing what was best for him.

Jim and Barb have been continually supportive and now I'm in a better space personally, happy with a supportive girlfriend and a new little Dennis added to the mix.

I'd been at Souths Logan for just one season when I started looking at purchasing a house. Jimmy told me if I needed any assistance, he'd help where he could.

That was the difference between me being able to put down the deposit and not being able to.

I've never forgotten that gesture and I think it says a lot that Jim would do that for someone he'd only known one season.

We had some really lean seasons in 2006 and 2007. We came second-last both years from memory, and quite a few games were beltings.

To be able to win the grand final in 2008 – in the 100th year of the club, and on Barb's birthday – was one of the proudest moments of my life.

It'd been such a long time between premierships for the club, and to partially pay back Souths Logan and the McClellands for all they'd done for me – that was huge.

It was a reward for everyone who stuck by the club in tough times.

Since then, I've not particularly stuck around to beat Troy Lindsay's mark of 270 Intrust Super Cup games, but I will be proud of that too.

The way I see it, if I'd specifically set my sights on that record, I probably wouldn't have had the passion to achieve it.

Instead I just take one season as it comes and, if the body is feeling alright, I go around again.

I'm just somebody who loves playing rugby league, having the opportunity to do it in a quality competition like the Intrust Super Cup, and I don't know what I would have done without footy sometimes.

You don't play this many games and put your body through the weekly challenges unless you have a real passion for it.

I think I've learnt a lot about resilience and perseverance from the sport, my parents Isabel and 'Lobby', and from the McClellands too.

There have been times in my career that I've struggled with weight.

I'm playing at the moment at just a touch more than 91kg, but I was almost 105kg a few seasons back.

I used to always be the guy who would drop 10kg at the start of pre-season, take off Christmas and New Year, and then come back with that 10kg packed back on.

In order to prolong my career and keep playing the sport I love, the last few seasons I've returned from the holiday break weighing even less than when I went away.

I train smarter and more diligently now.

I'll see what the discussion is with the coaching staff at the end of the season, but right now I haven't officially said this year is my last year.

If my body feels okay at the end, who knows?

All I know is that a second premiership for Souths Logan would just about set a decision in stone.

 As told to Robert Burgin, QRL Media.