Panthers rookie Brent Naden thought his chances of ever playing in the NRL were done and dusted before a surprise mid-season call-up changed his life forever.
To his own admission, a bad diet of McDonald’s, KFC and Krispy Kreme prevented him from reaching his peak earlier but now a refreshed outlook on life is proving wonders for the talented 23-year-old.
Before kick-off against the Titans last Friday night, it was announced to the crowd that Naden would be remaining at the foot of the Mountains for a further two seasons – a huge reward for six months of hard work and discipline.
But how did the Wellington-born centre and proud Indigenous man get to where he is today?
While his face may be new to most rugby league fans, Naden first joined Penrith in 2013 as a member of the club’s SG Ball squad.
Two years later he captained Penrith’s Holden Cup side to a premiership before departing to pursue opportunities at Canberra and Newcastle.
While Naden came close to playing first grade at both the Raiders and Knights, it wasn’t until he returned to Penrith this year on a part-time contract that things really started to take-off.
“Cameron Ciraldo got me back to the club, he was my U20s coach and my mentor at the same time,” Naden revealed to the Weekender.
“My manager asked me if I wanted to come back to Penrith and Ciro rang me to see if I was excited to return, I replied ‘of course’.”
Naden returned to the Panthers alongside his younger brother Brock, who tried to secure a contract with the club’s Jersey Flegg team before home sickness got the better of him and he returned to the state’s Central West.
That moment, Naden admits, changed everything.
“I couldn’t convince my brother to stay here and give it a better crack because I wasn’t giving it a real crack at the time either – I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” he said.
“So, I thought I’d knuckle down and try and live my dream of playing in the NRL, so I have a leg to stand on in the future and be a good role model to my family.”
Naden trained during the pre-season with Penrith’s NRL squad before beginning the season proper in Canterbury Cup. Following injuries to experienced centres Dean Whare and Waqa Blake in first grade, Naden won a surprise call-up to the NRL in Round 12 against Manly.
Five games in, Naden has already scored four NRL tries including a match winner, and is yet to experience a loss.
Naden admitted he thought his ship of playing in the NRL had sailed but was proud to make his debut.
“It’s funny how rugby league works, six months ago I was working on the NBN,” Naden said.
“It may seem like everything has happened so quickly but I’ve been working a long time for it.
“I started my junior footy here, played U20s and then moved away and came back. As a black fella would say ‘he went walkabout and found his way back home’. I’m proud to call Penrith my home for the next two seasons.”
Fortunately for Panthers supporters, the best of Naden is still to come. If he continues to remain disciplined and manages to lay off the cheeseburgers, popcorn chicken and Original Glazed, the sky’s well and truly the limit.
Nathan Taylor is the Weekender’s Deputy Editor and Senior Sports Writer. He also compiles the weekly Chatter on the Box TV column. Nathan is an award-winning journalist, who has worked at the Weekender for nearly a decade.