Nick fully embraced me right from the start when I took over as senior coach leading into the 2007 season.
It was an interesting period for the club, because they had made the finals three years in a row, but there had been some upheaval with Grant Thomas departing.
Clearly, I didn’t know Nick when I joined the Saints, and I think the outside perception of him was that he’s very reserved and not tactile, but he’s very tactile, very welcoming and a very warm person.
To be brutally honest, I didn’t coach that well early on in my tenure, but even when we were struggling Nick was incredibly supportive of me and what we were trying to do.
We quickly forged our own relationship and our own strong bond.
Prior to coaching him, there was one act that stood out to me. I had a pretty remarkable vantage point when Nick ran back with the flight and grabbed that special mark against the Swans. Sitting in the opposition coach’s box, I was able to see his reckless fearlessness firsthand.
We had rotating captains in 2007, with Nick, Lenny Hayes and Luke Ball all tasked with leading the club, and they were all clear standouts and they could all captain AFL clubs in their own right.
But as the year unfolded, the group was unanimous leading into the next year — including Lenny and Luke — that Nick was the ultimate leader of that team. He commanded everyone’s respect on and off the field. He emerged as the dominant leader, regardless of how good Luke and Lenny were.
His preparation, his driving of others and his relentless commitment is unmatched, but within that, he had genuine care for his teammates. He evolved out of looking after his own game to being able to bring a group with him.
His ability to play with injury and ability to push himself beyond fatigue and give everything is legendary. It sets an incredibly high standard and he drags everyone with him. How he was able to never give up is truly remarkable, and unless you witness it firsthand, it’s hard to describe.
In 2010, when he came back off that torn hamstring tendon after a 16-week layoff, and leading into a finals series, and still managed to play well, it spoke volumes.
The team did the right thing by him by winning all of those games and putting us in a position to contend.
It gave Nick an opportunity to impact, and he did. He worked so hard with Rob Jackson who did the one-to-one rehab, which was overseen by Dave Misson. His ability to dedicate himself to return is something I haven’t seen before. It wasn’t just about getting back, it was about returning and not missing a beat.
Leadership is about setting standards, it’s about being inclusive, it’s about standing up when things get tough. We played in a lot of close games so I just knew that our core group of leaders, and specifically Nick, would stand up.
All I had to say was, ‘Nick, get up the ground and get to work’. It was easy coaching, he just made it happen.
Nick’s 2011 season is something that stands out to me. What’s forgotten in it all is that we lost a close one to the Cats in Round 1, then in Round 2 we had a draw with Richmond and Lenny Hayes did his ACL.
After the first eight rounds we won one game and had a draw, and similar to Sydney last year, won 10 out of the remaining 15 games to make the finals.
He dragged a group and led them with him, when they needed a cuddle he gave them one, and when he needed to give direct feedback he gave it.
But you can’t isolate his career into a season or two, you have to look through the lens of his entire body of work. That’s where he is exceptional.
Nick is a deep thinker. If you’ve read his book it provided a tremendous insight. He’s more than just a footballer, he’s got a great intellect. He loves reading. He has a purpose and he is close with his family. His friendships are deep and he’s very loyal.
Losing a loved one is the toughest thing to go through, but he used that sadness and turned it into a legacy.
Throwing himself in to chair Maddie Riewoldt’s Vision and raising more than $2.6 million as a non-profit, it just shows that anything he turns his mind to, he can accomplish.
To this day, we have a close friendship. I was fortunate enough to go to his wedding and took my family over. We’re in regular contact when we need it. In September last year, all 22 of us got together for a steak because we’re a tight bunch to this day. Nick engenders that because of his inclusiveness.
I was asked to describe Nick in a few words, and that’s a tough thing to do.
He’s quintessential, he’s everything you could hope for in a player and a person. That’s my view, but I guess you could say I’m biased.
As a leader, he’s prepared to show his vulnerability and his commitment. He embodies everything that you would want.
You’d be proud to call him your friend, and I’m fortunate and privileged to have coached him.