Jamal Idris is off contract and on crutches.
Idris has previously proven these obstacles are not insurmountable but, having hauled himself back into the NRL after a long sabbatical, there are fresh questions over whether he will have the desire to do so again. Whether his latest season-ending ACL injury will also be a career-ending one? If the giant centre, having once walked away from the greatest game of all, will do so again?
Idris leans in, looks you in the eye and leaves you in no doubt about what his future holds.
“You want to talk about obstacles?” Idris offers.
“The biggest obstacle was when I did my ACL, took a year off and travelled. That’s two years off right there. And then I came back, not knowing if I still had it. I came back to the NRL and slid straight in.
“I’d done the hard work. That’s an obstacle.
“Especially after my nan and pop and uncle died within three months of each other. They’re obstacles. This is not an obstacle.
“This is a challenge. A bit of fun.”
It’s not to say there haven’t been dark days. Idris returned to the NRL this season after taking a “gap year” to discover the world and himself. When he ran out for Wests Tigers in a trial during the off-season, it was his first game of professional football in 672 days. He subsequently made five first-grade appearances in the black, white and orange, showing glimpses of the form that earned him NSW and Australian honours. But just as he was warming to his work, his knee gave way again.
Armed with a new perspective on life after his backpacking odyssey, in which he traversed 12 countries in as many months, Idris believes he is better equipped to deal with the “isolation” and “white noise” that goes with yet another stint in the rehab group.
“The last time I went down this path, there was a lot more going wrong in my life,” Idris explains.
“I say ‘in my life’, but it’s stuff in other people’s lives that went wrong and affected me because I love them so much.
“At the moment I’m seeing a lot more positives than negatives than before.
“It is heartbreaking. Your mind says yes, you’ve only started to warm up and getting back into it. The last few games, I’d been playing well and that was just building up after two years off.
“I was like, ‘sweet, let’s put the throttles down and go for it’ and then this happens.
“From when I’ve travelled, I was lucky enough to learn about myself and live with white noise. This is a different type of isolation, a different type of head noise.
“All the little things I’ve learned in my travels will help me through that process.”
Nobody saw Idris’ layoff coming. Even the man himself was in denial. News of the season-ending ACL injury came a day after the former Bulldogs, Titans and Panthers star attended a media opportunity to help spruik the NRL’s Indigenous round. He spoke of his hope of taking on South Sydney that weekend, clinging to the slim chance the injury wasn’t as bad as the initial prognosis. The next day he got the news he was dreading.
It’s only after learning about Idris’ family history that you realise why he was so keen to play that weekend.
“Indigenous round, that’s massive for my pop, he’s from the stolen generation,” Idris explains.
“That burns in me, that game you want to play.
“Before my pop died, we sat in my mum’s backyard and he goes: ‘You know the worst thing that ever happened to me? I’ve been to a lot of different prisons, a lot of different jails, I’ve spent more time in jail than out of it throughout my life. The worst thing was when they took me from Kinchela Boys Home. That’s the worst because they institutionalised me. Worse than any prison. You would get out and think you could survive or even thrive in this world you know nothing about.'”
The Kinchela Boys Home, run by the NSW government up until 1970, housed Aboriginal boys forcibly removed from their families. The children, referred to by number rather than name, were the victims of physical, psychological and cultural abuse. Idris’ pop was known only as “number nine”.
It is part of the reason why Idris’ All Stars and Indigenous round jerseys mean more to him than his Blues and Kangaroos jumpers.
“No one wants to hear about the history of Australia because it hurts them,” Idris says.
“Well, I’m sorry if it hurts you to hear about it, but I’ve grown up with it. My grandfather lived it. That’s why rounds like that mean so much, because of how much my family means to me.
“We got to the point where, as soon as they passed, I couldn’t handle it any more. So I left.”
Aspects of Australia’s history make for uncomfortable conversations, but Idris doesn’t shy away from them.
“People don’t realise that it was only in 1967 that Aboriginals were classed as Australian citizens. 1967!” he says.
“In the mid-70s they were still talking about poisoning the water they give to Aboriginals to sterilise them. It’s 1970! You’re kidding me. And people still have the audacity to sit there and say to someone like me that racism doesn’t exist in Australia.
“One hundred per cent it does, you still encounter it. Me even saying that will make people upset because they’ll say ‘no, there’s no racism in Australia’.
“But who are you saying it to. I’m sorry, I live it and it’s different. You may not feel it, but I feel it.
“People like to play dumb, ignorance is bliss. But I’ll be honest, I’ll say it as I see it.”
Idris lost three of his closest family members around the time he did his ACL at Penrith. He is leaning on those who remain to help him get through the latest setback.
Wests Tigers also are playing their part. The journeyman three-quarter made particular mention of chief executive Justin Pascoe, coach Ivan Cleary, head of football Kelly Egan and physio Peter Moussa for constantly checking in on his welfare.
“People think I’m upset if they want to walk out of my life,” Idris says. “I’ve had people in my life that I’ve lost, that didn’t want to leave and I’m still OK.
“I’ve lost things that I’ve never wanted to lose and I’m still here. I’m still OK.”