As is the way with epiphanies, the moment that changed Justin Peckett’s life could very easily have ended it. A head still foggy from the previous night’s excess, a car he shouldn’t have been driving, a missed red light, a Sunday morning brush with mortality.
That the scenario was a virtual mirror image of his father’s death, on the weekend of Peckett’s 18th birthday, is achingly poignant. Before then he’d enjoyed a happy, loving, picture-perfect childhood. In tragedy’s wake, he sought out danger’s flame.
“I guess I went off the rails a bit at that point,” he says of losing a man he hails as a supportive dad and incredibly hard worker, who died when he fell asleep at the wheel after a day spent drinking at St Kilda’s famed Esplanade Hotel. “I was pretty loose, didn’t worry too much about anyone else, just worried about myself.
“There were times when I didn’t care if I lived or died. I distinctly remember times driving home thinking, ‘What if I crash into a tree? I don’t really care.’”
The near-miss that saved him happened in 2000, when Peckett was 27 and hazily piloting his Chevy Bel Air towards pre-season training at Moorabbin. Rewind five years further and two markers on his journey glow like passing comets.
On a St Kilda pre-season camp at Lorne in January 1995, he first encountered Ray McLean and the Leading Teams program that would come to absorb him. It was peak holiday season, the coastal getaway was bursting at the seams, and he was among footballers who were up for training hard and partying harder.
“You were at the Lorne pub until all hours, would sneak back to camp, piff rocks on the tin roof of the basketball stadium we were staying in to wake up the blokes who’d done the right thing. I remember Ray saying years later he was thinking, ‘What the hell have I signed up to?’”
Despite the morning-after hangovers that weekend, something in McLean’s sessions left a mark that the kung-fu master, the meditation guru and the various other attitude-shifting ploys St Kilda had tried in his time at the club hadn’t. “I saw enough that I thought it could help me as a player and help us as a club,” Peckett says of the honesty and empowerment that remain at the core of the Leading Teams model. “I hadn’t thought of footy in that way before.”
The penny didn’t drop straight away. Around the same time, he and a couple of teammates featured in a video clip for the mask-wearing underground band TISM (aka This Is Serious Mum). Greg! The stop sign! was a morality tale of sorts, espousing that privileged kids can end up in the gutter just as easily as the next waster, and diligence and application will count for nowt if we’re all wiped out by a comet before end-of-year exams.
Peckett reckons he was the only bloke at St Kilda who’d even heard of TISM. “I used to see them all the time, go backstage and meet the band.” He didn’t think too deeply about the lyrics then. Now, just how close to home they were makes him shudder. “It could have been written for me.”
He puts where he is now — at 45 a happy and devoted husband and father of seven, challenged and enriched by his work as a Leading Teams director and facilitator, able to find time for surfing, skateboarding and the odd (more measured) beer with his mates — down to a range of choices he made. “Some were good choices, some were shithouse, but I take responsibility for all of them.”
Key in his learnings were the transformative experiences McLean opened him up to. After that rocky start in Lorne, Peckett was one of several St Kilda players (Robert Harvey, Tony Brown, Jason Cripps and Leading Teams colleague Daniel Healy among them) who volunteered to deliver a program called Start Me Up into schools. Peckett liked the engagement with at-risk kids, but it was a steep learning curve.
“We did a pilot program at Moorabbin High, hadn’t worked out who was going to run the session, so on the way in I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I ran through the day’s material in about 30 minutes, maybe less. Ray was at the back of the room, I looked at him and said, ‘Mate, I’ve got nothing left.’ He had to run the rest of the day.”
From schools he moved to prisons, and was struck by the apparent normality of the men he’d find himself asking, “You seem like a good guy, what’s gone wrong?” Their answers shook him; reading the newspaper one day, he discovered two inmates he’d been working with were the notorious Jason Roberts and Bandali Debs, convicted of killing two police officers.
“It was a massive let-down, and then you’d have to go back in and treat them with respect, as equals. I remember walking out with migraines, the sessions were so intense.”
After his drink-driving misdemeanour made headlines the boot was on the other foot; the next week Peckett had to take a session in Port Phillip Prison, and found himself asking McLean, “How do I front up to these blokes?” His mentor’s response was frank: if you don’t, every time you confront something difficult you’ll avoid it. He went in, put his hand up and admitted fault. “They made a bit of a joke about it, said they’d organise a cell for me and look after me if I came in there.”
The experience changed him for the better. “A lot of those blokes wouldn’t take responsibility, they were always coming back at you, ‘It’s someone else’s fault, I just happened to be walking past the bank …’ Put your hand up and say, ‘I chose to do it.’ Once you do that you can get through it.”
His accident prompted deep introspection, a period of counselling, and a life change built around structure. Sunday drinks were his weakness (“I’d spend all day at the Espy, watching bands, drinking”), but working as a tiler’s labourer with a 6am start provided an anchor point football had never fully pinned him to.
Within a year of his Dad’s death he’d become a father himself, 19 and yet to play his first senior game. Tiarn is 26 now, a mental health nurse with a leadership role who debriefs about her challenges over breakfast catch-ups. Peckett and wife Teresa met around 20 years ago and to Tiarn and her son, 21-year-old Sam, they’ve added Sunny (16), Jet (14), Elwood (11), Ace (9) and Frankie Coco (8). Teresa gave him a card listing their birthdays to keep in his wallet. “But I don’t carry a wallet.”
Work has never frightened him — bottle shops, warehouses, labouring all sat alongside football during his career — but he reflects that Teresa had concerns about how he’d fare post-footy. “Football’s a very selfish pursuit, and if you’re already a selfish person on top of that …”
He toyed with some promotional work for St Kilda, but gravitated to Leading Teams because he knew he could help people become better. “I wasn’t always someone who did their best. I’ve had experience inside a lot of teams, been exposed to a lot of leaders, I reckon I know what works and what doesn’t.”
Peckett is currently working with the Sydney Swans, who he regards as the benchmark for high performance, leadership, culture and performance, but estimates 95 percent of his clients are corporate. In the corporate world, relationships can be built without the stress of what the scoreboard says each weekend. He’s observed a shift from crisis management to providing a constant rudder. “Teams, businesses need help no matter whether they’re high-performing or dysfunctional.”
He’s yet to be left scratching his head for answers; “I’ve been part of the reason why it’s failed, and part of the reason why it’s worked.” If the leaders aren’t open to change, so be it; his shortest-ever session lasted five minutes. “I went for a surf.”
He surmises that he’s good at it because he believes in it. “It’s given me a means to build a career, help people, but also help myself.”
Given his time over he’d be a professional skater or surfer. Peckett laughs that he dresses like his 16-year-old son, “or he dresses like me”. He loves surf culture, the artistry of the boards, the way his boys regard a dip in the ocean as akin to a shower. He and Teresa have an open house, a big back yard with a half pipe, a man cave teenagers crash in on weekends.
Their children know his story, warts and all. As parents they implore them to surround themselves with good people, be honest about their mistakes, and have a crack. Sam didn’t do Year 12, and is currently travelling Europe managing a Melbourne-based eSports team called Order.
He’s proud of the changes he made in life, and of a football career that amounted to 15 years and 252 games despite all he did to derail it. “I should have played 300.”
He was back playing local footy before the final penny dropped, almost a decade ago when he turned 36, his father’s age when he died. “I thought, jeez, I’m still young. I’ve got two daughters and five sons, and I’m trying to role model behaviour for them around hard work, persistence.
“I decided to be the best Dad I can possibly be by leading a meaningful life and offering all I have to give, and I can’t be that if I’m hungover and lying on the couch. Or dead.”