Bright star rises in the west
The professional rugby league has come in for more hard knocks in the media than on the playing field in recent times. Little wonder then that the Bulldogs, struggling with their reputation as the NRL competition’s bad boys, took a shine to Corey Payne and have signed him for their 2010 season.
Payne, you see, is not your average NRL player. Known for the speed and aggression on field he exhibited in 47 first grade matches for the St George-Illawarra Dragons from 2005 to 2007, and 41 first grade games for Wests Tigers in the past two seasons, Payne, 25, is also studying at the University for his Master of Commerce, having attained his Bachelor of Commerce in 2007, majoring in Accounting and Commercial Law.
And if that’s not enough to differentiate Payne from his more hedonistic confr`eres, he also devotes much of his spare time to raising awareness for Call to Arms, a men’s cancer campaign; visiting and raising funds for sick children in hospital; and speaking to high school students in Sydney’s west about the importance of a university education. He is also a board member of the Rugby League Players Association.
And all this he does very quietly. It’s not a one-man attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the professional rugby league
player, or the desire to become the code’s “poster boy”. It’s just Corey Payne being himself.
“It comes from my parents, really,” says Payne. “They taught me and my brother and sister to aim high, no matter what we decided to do. They didn’t have the same opportunities when they left school. They went straight into work and they have
operated a family fruit and veg business for the past 40 years.”
Payne says that far from competing with each other, his on-field and off-field pursuits “complement each other very well”.
“I actually think there’s no reason why you can’t maintain a sporting career and study at the same time,” he says. “If you have the opportunity and the willpower to do it, it’s not that hard.”
Besides, says Payne, his parents wouldn’t have had it any other way. “When I signed with the Dragons, it was quite a healthy contract for someone my age and I’d had a fair bit of success that year. I remember I started to wonder if I should defer my studies but my parents very quickly knocked that on the head.”
Immersed in rugby culture for much of his life, Payne also understood the critical importance of forging a career path independent of the vicissitudes of game. A professional league player’s on-field career is a short one, he says.
“Sports people often sacrifice their education. They put all their eggs in the one basket and so many things can go wrong. In rugby, you last until you’re about 30, give or take a couple of years. You spend years building yourself up to play professionally, sacrifice so much, and then you find the average length of your NRL career is about three years.“My parents were always really conscious of that, too. They wanted me to have something more than just a fallback position. It had to be something credible and interesting that would sustain me in every way – financially, mentally – once my sporting career was over.”
Payne smiles when he recalls his first semester at the University of Sydney. While he wasn’t exactly the odd man out, being a
186 centimetre tall, 101 kilogram professional sportsman from the western suburbs certainly placed him in a minority.
“I was a bit of an anomaly,” he says. “There weren’t many kids from the area I grew up in who went on to university, let alone to Sydney University. And a lot of people on my course didn’t even know where St John’s Park was. I described it as somewhere between Parramatta and Liverpool – and that didn’t help many people either.”
Payne’s passion for education was quickly recognised by another St John’s Park boy, Chris Bowen MP (BEc ’94), Minister for Human Services, and Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law. He is also the federal member for the Western Sydney seat of Prospect. Payne wrote to him after Bowen published a newspaper column on the importance of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds gaining access to the best the tertiary education system could offer.
“Chris invited me to take part in a schools panel program to talk to high school students from South West Sydney about my own
experiences in further study,” explains Payne.
“A lot of kids in the West have come to think that a place like Sydney University is for other people, not for them. It’s not that there isn’t the talent or the ability, it’s just that the aspiration has to be developed quite young and if they are from families without any kind of background in further study, that can be really difficult.”
Children of recent migrants face even more hurdles, says Payne, often from within their own family.
“The natural progression is to leave school, get a job and start contributing to the family,” says Payne. “But that’s a shortterm gain. We’re so lucky here. There are support networks available, scholarships available. And that’s where the University of Sydney’s disadvantaged students alumni funds really help.”
Payne donates to the scholarship every month. Disbursements from the fund go directly to students facing extreme economic pressure to assist them with rent, textbooks, transport and food, leaving recipients free to study more and focus on academic achievement. The scholarship is also an important validation of a student’s ability, which encourages greater selfconfidence and a genuine determination to strive for excellence.
“It is my belief that society is diminished when anyone of us is denied a proper education,” says Payne. “That’s why the scholarship fund is so important. For me it’s a chance to give something back to the community that gave me so much and I hope to continue it for the rest of my life.”
Payne’s philanthropic instincts raised eyebrows among his team mates and trainers in October last year when he decided to help raise $160,000 for seriously ill children by joining a 1200-kilometre bike ride from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane to the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick.
“It almost killed me!” he laughs. “I thought I’d help out a bit, you know, do something positive. I thought I’d just ride one or two of the legs, perhaps, because at that time I didn’t know if I was going to be up for some surgery. Anyway, we didn’t make the final eight, and I didn’t end up needing surgery and one thing led to another and I ended up riding the whole thing.
“When I presented the cheque at the end of it I got a little emotional you know, when you’ve made a journey like that and met lots of people and you think about the kids who will benefit from the money, you really appreciate how lucky you are.”
Payne believes his experience at the University of Sydney also helps him in his role as a board member of the Rugby League Players Association.
“There’s a lot more emphasis on guiding players through their retirement now, it’s part of the new level of professionalism throughout the sport. There’s a lot more money in the game now, and with that comes a lot more opportunity. But at the same time, there’s a lot more at risk. Player education issues are becoming really important and I’m passionate about education because I understand the value of it.”
Words: Jason Blake