Josh Kerr is currently one of the in-form props of the competition, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was winning player of the match awards as a fullback.
Kerr – who has played every game so far this year for St George Illawarra Dragons – has impressed throughout the season and last week claimed Queensland player of the week honours following his outstanding performance in the Round 15 win over Brisbane Broncos.
“I was pretty taken aback by it to be honest... I was really very happy (to be named),” Kerr said.
“(The game was) very close, we made it very hard on ourselves, it was just one of those ones that it was just a tough, gritty win.
“I feel we probably didn’t play our best … but it was bloody good to get the win.”
Kerr helped his team set a winning tone early, charging over for a try in just the second minute of the match to notch his second of the season.
“I couldn’t believe it – I am from up those ways, and I had all my family up there watching me, so I just couldn’t believe it," Kerr said.
“It was so good to have my family there; I haven’t been able to see them (due to the NRL bubble).
“I am very home-orientated, very family-orientated, so to be able to see my parents and some of my friends was just a good experience.
“And to get a try in a win like that made it pretty special just to be out there, could not have asked for more.”
After making his NRL debut last year, the former Queensland Under 20 representative set a number of goals to improve his football and while 2020 has been tough, he’s tried to turn the negatives into a positive.
“It’s weird, it’s been up-and-down this year obviously... I like getting back home every chance I get to be back with my family and my friends back home, but at the same time, I have used it as a way to really focus on footy and zero on my goals,” Kerr said.
“I have had some little goals that I have set myself at the start of the year, I wanted to play every single game this year, I wanted to get re-signed and by the end of the year, I wanted to be a starting middle, so I have got two of the three at the moment, which is crazy.
“They are just goals that you reach for so that you have something to keep aiming towards.
“(After the start of the year) we had the COVID break … I knew a few of the boys were coming back that were in my position, so I thought ‘I will train as hard as I can and hopefully in a few rounds if we do come back and play footy, they will pick me again’, and lucky enough, he (then coach Paul McGregor) actually picked me to play that following round against the Warriors.
"But it’s been a very strange year, a lot of stop-starting, put it that way.
“But I have enjoyed (being out there) massively because it’s rugby league and it’s NRL.
“I have been here for three years at the club; I debuted last year at the start of the year, I played seven games and every year I just want to play and you just want to be good enough and you just want to keep working hard and make sure you can make the other boys in the team proud of you, the older boys especially – Frizz (Tyson Frizell) and Cam (McInnes) and Vaughany (Paul Vaughan) and all those boys.”
One of the keys to Kerr’s good form has been simplifying his game, where he put his past as a ballplayer behind him to instead focus on doing the work needed by his team up front.
“Recently I have narrowed (my game) down … for me it’s about being the big man on the field and running hard, and … if I can get a quick play-the-ball, it sets up a try or something like that," Kerr said.
“(This week) I was very lucky, I did a quick play-the-ball that led to a try, so that’s a real reward … and I am just trying to do the best job I can do in my respective role that I can do.
“That’s a big thing that we talk about in training as well. I just want to win and it’s about taking that step back and getting rid of that ego.
“I used to be a ball-player, I used to do all this stuff – but since narrowing my focus with that, I think we have definitely gone a lot better.
“I think it’s only been the last weeks I have started to think like that, and I have started to play my best footy, funnily enough.
“It probably is a bit of a mix of that and being older, wiser, stronger as well.”
Kerr’s junior days were spent with Redcliffe Dolphins where he started out as a centre, dabbling on the wing and at fullback - a far cry from his role now.
However, it was his time with their Colts side that built the strong work ethic which he has drawn on during his NRL career to date.
“I played for Redcliffe in the Colts team and we had an unreal team … but I remember not actually making the team for most of the year, but I got to train with them and … it was the first sort of time that I wasn’t picked for a team,” Kerr said.
“I went back and played with the under 18s, and I still have mates from that team, and I’d go back and play pretty well there, and I still wasn’t getting a crack – but then one of the boys got injured and I was very lucky to get called up into the team onto the wing and luckily I stayed there for the rest of the year.
“I think I played 10 games there on the wing and I played one at fullback and I got man of the match, which was crazy.
“And we ended up going through and winning that grand final and that was sort of my first one.
“We played Burleigh Bears and that was a big grand final for me … that 20s grand final was with blokes I had known and grown up with and I always wanted to play in their team.
“It was one of those things that does stick out to me when I think about what my football was like up there.
“Growing up I was a big boy, but that was probably the first year that I had to work really hard to get into the starting team … a lot of teams picked me just because of my size, and I was really happy and grateful (but) I knew there was always going to be a day when everyone would catch up.
“I always tried to work hard, but I knew a lot of blokes there were very similar to me and when others were taking over and they thought, ‘that’s it, that’s done’, but I knew that I wanted to play football and play NRL.
“But it was more that I just wanted to play in this team, I just love sport so much, so I worked my backside off to get in and that was probably the first time I just chipped at it; even though it took a couple of months, it eventually came for me and I was very happy that I had actually done that, and that is probably what started this – a lot of hard work I guess.”
While he still considers himself to be a ‘new kid on the block’ and one of the young players in the squad, this year in particular, Kerr has stepped into a leadership role with the Dragons, especially with regards to Indigenous engagement.
Kerr made his first big impression on the NRL scene in the 2019 Indigenous All Stars team; and this year, he helped lead St George Illawarra’s NRL Indigenous Round advocacy.
“I don’t know about every other club, but the Dragons, I can’t thank them enough and give them enough praise in terms of all the efforts that they make in terms of Indigenous work they do around the club and helping me become that sort of leader,” Kerr said.
“I think that has helped me transfer that to the field and step up.
“As a football player, you go to these schools and talk to these kids and they don’t know how nervous you are, they just think you are a football player … you stand up straight, you have this demeanour and it’s weird, when you speak to these kids, they listen to you.
“It’s crazy and you think ‘oh my god, I can actually have a positive impact on these kids’ and so from there, it sort of grew and grew.
“As long as I can help educate and do the best job I can for the club and for my culture, it would be outstanding for me.”
It also been a chance for Kerr to reconnect with his own family history and culture.
“It’s definitely been more of a personal journey,” Kerr said.
“My mother was adopted when she was younger from her Indigenous family, she was put into a white family and it was illegal for my mum’s real mum to look her up and try and track her and try and see her.
“My mum doesn’t really like to speak about it – it’s only sort of come out these last few years.
“But the lady who adopted my mother … she’s legit like an angel, she’s the loveliest lady, she’s the loveliest person... so she actually kept all the records of my mum’s real mum and when it was time, my nanna who adopted my mother, she introduced her to her real mum and I am very blessed to have three families; three big beautiful families.
“It’s hitting a little bit different, because when I think about it, it is strange, I have three big families, but to me it’s been so normal.
“My mum has grown up and she’s been learning her Indigenous side all her life too... more and more all the time.
“When I was a kid, mum tried to get me into dancing, we did that when I was very young, but as you grow up, you grow out of it and I didn’t really understand what it meant to be super proud and super knowledgeable about my culture, I just knew I was Indigenous.
“I think a big thing (to help me) was Joel Thompson being at the club and the kind of guy he was and how proud he was of his culture and his family, and seeing him like that and seeing him talk at schools and workshops that we used to go to with the Dragons, I thought ‘oh wow!’ … it was awesome hearing him talk about it, so that really helped me to try and connect back with it.
“You speak to these kids and you tell them who you are as a person; where you are from, I am from Quandamooka, which is Stradbroke Island ways, and you talk to these kids and it might help inspire them to go ‘where am I from?’ … it’s crazy to be this kind of person because I never thought I would be, but it’s crazy to hopefully have that kind of impact on someone.
“But I am learning all the time too.”
Some of that learning also took place when Kerr was part of the Queensland Under 16 Murri representative side in 2012; playing as part of the NRL All Stars game day.
“Luckily got picked in that Queensland team and they said you are going to play before the All Stars match and I was like ‘how crazy is that?’ – that was insane to me, that was the first time ever I had ever been in that environment,” Kerr said of the experience.
“It’s funny, in my Dragons team I have Tyrell Fuimaono and he actually played against me in the Koori team and I didn’t even realise.
“It was a very good week I remember, and it was very special and I also did learn a lot culturally.”
As for learning about what it takes to be part of the forward pack, it wasn’t until Kerr signed with the Melbourne Storm’s under 20 side that he started to make the transition; reluctantly at first.
“In my last year of high school (they told me) that I was going to play back row, and I was a 93-kilogram centre / wing thing and I was the biggest looking stick figure thing ever, I was nothing but skin and bone, they wanted me to put on a bit of weight to play back row and I was like ‘okay, I understand’, but I was eating all the wrong things,” Kerr said.
“I headed down an did a pre-season, and that was technically my first ‘professional’ pre-season, and it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life with the shape I was in and the very first time doing it – it was a massive shock.
“Going down there, away from my family, I had no friends down there … it was a massive change for me. Everything was so different.
“And then, before our very first trial game, we were playing the Bulldogs, my coach goes – ‘we might just chuck you in the front row and see how you go’ and I was just thinking ‘what the hell?’ – you have given me no indication – like I am a big stress head and I am thinking ‘what do I do?’
“I am stressing to the boys and the boys are having a laugh with me going ‘mate, it’s easy, you just have to run hard and tackle hard’ – and I am like, ‘oh yeah, no sh*t, but are there any other plays I need to know?’
“Anyways, the game came and I thought no matter what, I’ll just get it off the kick off and I will just run it as straight and as hard as I can and I did that; and I sort of when through the line a little bit and found my front and got a quick play-the-ball.
“All the boys were having a laugh and they were like, ‘well he’s not moving out of that position’, and I just went, ‘oh sh*t!’”