Every week NRL star Luke Keary indulges his worries about the future. What will he do when his pro football career wraps up? Early preparation and the anonymity of campus life help quieten those doubts.
This is the guy Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary doesn’t want to be: the retired NRL player who, intoxicated by hangers-on and the afterglow of on-field success, expects employment opportunities to be showered upon him.
“I’ve seen friends (retire) and think they’ll just be handed a job somewhere. It doesn’t happen like that,” said Luke. “Footy can forget you pretty quickly. The next big thing is always around the corner and the game moves on without you.
“It’s like you’re playing a character for that chapter of your life and you need to move on to the next.”
Life appears rosy for the young Rooster. Luke, 26, is an established star in the NRL, good enough to have earned selection in the extended New South Wales squad for the second game of the State of Origin series in Sydney.
He is one of the code’s most marketable figures after representing two of rugby league’s highest profile clubs – the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs.
With one eye on the future, he is studying part-time for a Bachelor of Business Administration at ACU’s North Sydney Campus.
On the tools
Work-life balance didn’t always come so easily for the Ipswich-born footballer.
Although he represented the Australian Schoolboys rugby union team in 2010, Luke left school at the end of that year without a professional playing contract.
He moved to the Gold Coast in 2011 in search of an NRL contract and was juggling his time between playing for the Burleigh Bears, a half-hearted attempt at tertiary study, and work as a labourer on construction sites.
“I wasn’t getting paid to play footy so I was chasing that dream but also trying work and study,” Luke said. “I loved working outdoors, but it was hard doing all three early in my career. I understood what it was all for but it was still tough. I look back now, and I think ‘thank God I stuck at it’.”
Striking a balance between sport and study had eluded Luke for years.
Second semester, which coincided with the NRL off-season and end-of-season footy trips, was often pushed aside in favour of more exciting social opportunities.
Deferring was the easy option, but experience, and perhaps maturity, led to a penny-dropping moment.
“I realised I didn’t know how many years I had left in footy. I didn’t want to be stuck without anything,” he said. “So, I thought if I just commit for the next five or six years I’ll knock it over.
“The last three or four years I’ve started to enjoy uni and understand what I want to get out of it. It’s also coincided with me playing the best footy I’ve played.”
Finding his identity
According to the Rugby League Players’ Association, in 2017 Luke was one of 22 per cent of NRL players studying for a university degree.
While league remains a high priority, university education contributes to his sense of wellbeing by offering perspective.
“Not wanting to sound arrogant or anything, but when you’re a footballer at one of the bigger clubs, people know who you are,” he said. “Once you’re at uni, it’s back to reality. I’m starting to understand I can do something else.”
Luke has eight more subjects to complete before graduation – ample time to consider what a post-football career looks like.
At the Roosters he is exposed to numerous business mentors, including club board member, and former Wizard Home Loans executive chairman, Mark Bouris.
Countless networking opportunities and a tertiary degree are a sound base, but that doesn’t stop the young playmaker worrying about the future.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the future, that I didn’t think about it at least once a week,” he said. “You wonder what might happen if you miss out on a contract. You definitely think about it.
“If it all finished tomorrow I know (study) would help and doing something about it gives me peace of mind.”
A little help
Luke would be horrified if this article painted him as a model student.
Like most undergraduates he finds time management a constant challenge and, ultimately, being a highly-paid football star doesn’t cut him any slack at exam time. Being a member of ACU’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program, however, does provide support and accountability.
“I can’t count how many times I’ve forgotten to enrol in something and (EAPP) has organised to get me there,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d still be doing this without it.”