Thompson’s trip of a lifetime
Eighteen games in the past three years, in a career that’s featured three shoulder reconstructions, broken jaws, ankles and 18th man duties for a historic grand final win.
You best take your chances in this life. Ray Thompson didn’t need a trip to the Land of Opportunity to crack that one.
Sitting poolside at the Beverley Hills Hotel with Oscar winner Russell Crowe and footballing great Steven Gerrard six months ago, the Cowboys utility deserved every decadent second of that moment.
On Thursday night, the Indigenous ambassador wears Johnathan Thurston’s No.7 jersey, subbing in for arguably the greatest Aboriginal footballer this game has seen.
He deserves every second of his umpteenth first grade coming too.
LIVING LARGE WITH THE GLADIATOR
Last September, Thompson’s tireless community work was acknowledged with the RLPA’s Indigenous Leadership and Excellence Award.
Dane Gagai picked up the same gong. Cronulla’s Sam Tagataese and recently retired Warrior Ben Henry were awarded the Pasifika equivalents.
A month later, they were Los Angeles-bound for an eye-opening stay on the famed UCLA campus, NRL welfare officers Nigel Vagana and Dean Widders their official guides.
Souths owner (cough, tragic) Russell Crowe soon stepped in as unofficial chaperone through the City of Angels.
We’re not in Townsville anymore, Toto.
“We spent an afternoon with him at Beverly Hills Hotel,” Thompson says of his first meeting with one of the silver screen’s biggest stars.
“It was surreal, we’re sitting there having beers and pizzas poolside with this Oscar winner.
“He gave us a tour of the hotel, we met Steven Gerrard and Deano’s a big fan of Liverpool, so we got to hang out with him too.
“(Crowe) often goes on early morning bike rides around LA, so a couple of days later we met up again and hired a few pushbikes for the boys.
“We went from Beverly Hills down to Santa Monica at 5am and watched the sunrise, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
“I was just in awe, we’re riding around LA with the Gladiator. He was wearing all black like he does all the time and it’s funny, no one really noticed him or bothered him.”
SKID ROW: A SCARY, SLIPPERY SLOPE
With an all-access pass to the most glamorous town in the world, Crowe could’ve taken his troupe anywhere.
So the star and his entourage lobbed in the city’s infamous underbelly, Skid Row. At its darkest and most confronting hour.
A 54-block ‘homeless neighbourhood’ where anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 men, women and families reside in America’s single largest unsheltered population.
Squalor, drugs, violence and prostitution make for confronting sights and an overwhelming stench.
It’s not for the faint of heart, nor easily forgotten. Especially when the NRL boys have been staying on UCLA’s Westwood campus, just two streets from the exorbitance of Bel Air.
“On the ride around at five o’clock in the morning, we hit Skid Row and Russell showed us a little bit. But didn’t venture too far down it, it’s basically off limits to tourists,” Thompson says.
“But we were on Santa Monica pier along the beach, it was crazy how many homeless people had slept rough out there.
“There would’ve been 30 or 40 pretty easily, some with kids, which was really scary.
“The first thing that pops up is a level of gratitude — living in Townsville, it’s beautiful up here, and then you’re reflecting on your own upbringing too and you can’t help but be thankful for how things are turning out.
“Seeing those struggles, it brought back to what the UCLA students had been telling us, too.
“Nothing’s guaranteed. There’s so much competition for everything in the States, jobs and opportunities. It’s really quite confronting.”
CELEBRATING OUR DIFFERENCES
The UCLA students Thompson speaks of were the reason he and rugby league’s representatives were Stateside in the first place.
The Indigenous and Polynesian players met with a number of student athletes and discussed their experiences in trying to crack a sporting profession.
The takeaway for Thompson was stark.
“One mould fits all over there in terms of playing college ball or going pro,” he says.
“If you don’t fit the system, there’s thousands of others lining up to go to what is quite a prestigious college.
“They didn’t have the comfort and support to bring their culture to the place. They had to leave that behind to fit the UCLA mould, so to speak.
“That was an eye-opener, because in rugby league we celebrate our differences.
“We bring our traditions and heritage to the game and we’re proud of Indigenous players, our Polynesian boys.
“The lack of support for them, compared to how the NRL are doing great things supporting our different minorities and cultures, was massive.
“It’s a credit to the NRL really. You don’t have to be Indigenous to celebrate this weekend, this is part of Australia’s history and rugby league history in general and the game is a great vehicle for change.”
CAN’T KEEP A GOOD COWBOY DOWN
Apologies. The real reason Thompson ended up traipsing about LA with all walks life is the same force driving him into Thurston’s hallowed shoes.
Good things come to those who work rather than wait, and Thompson is tireless.
Through three shoulder reconstructions in his first four years in North Queensland’s top squad, he worked.
Earned himself a crack as Thurston’s long-term halves partner, only to find himself pushed to regular 18th man duties during their 2015 premiership run.
So he poured himself into his young family and his community work.
Pushing the 25 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids residing in NRL Cowboys House that houses rural students studying in Townsville to seize their opportunity.
“There’s a range of different kids that I’ve been able to come into contact with and help settle in and keep on track,” Thompson says.
“The Cowboys have a great history of community work up here that we’re rightfully proud of and it’s sparked a serious interest for me.
“I got the award for the work I do in the community and (the US trip) just reiterated why we’re doing these programs.
“It motivated me do more around the community and I’ve started the process of studying for an education degree.”
A busted ankle in last year’s Indigenous All Stars week, then a knee injury that has plagued him again into 2017, have kept Thompson sidelined again until the last few weeks.
Off-contract and with the club feeling a salary cap squeeze, the 27-year-old father needs every opportunity he can get.
Thurston’s own calf complaint has given him his crack, in the Indigenous jersey he’s honoured to wear.
“I can’t lie, it’s been tough, and an uncertain future, it is always there in the back of your mind,” Thompson said.
“I’ve got a daughter, a wife and a mortgage to think about and make sure they’re provided for.
“I definitely want to stay here. The Cowboys are home, Townsville is my home and negotiations are ongoing.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’m a big believer in everything the club stands for.”
In a week where rugby league has fallen to a not uncommon but unacceptable stature, Thompson stands tall.
In a round celebrating the proud contribution of his people to our game, he deserves his opportunity as much as any.
First published on foxsports.com.au as "Russell Crowe and Skid Row to an Indigenous round resurrection: Ray Thompson’s trip of a lifetime".