Secret pain driving Smith in bid for perfect ending
Cameron Smith's father has opened up about the criticism driving his son and believes victory in Sunday night's NRL grand final could be the decisive moment that convinces the Storm champion to retire from rugby league.
On the eve of Smith's eighth grand final in the Melbourne-Penrith decider at Sydney's ANZ Stadium, his father Wayne has spoken of his dismay at social-media attacks and criticism of the Queensland Origin legend.
Smith plays his 430th first-grade game on Sunday night and while the off-contract Storm skipper is tight-lipped about his future, it is almost certain the grand final will represent his final game of rugby league.
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But for all his magnificent achievements, Smith has never quite won the public's hearts in the way of other Queensland footballing icons such as Wally Lewis, Johnathan Thurston, Darren Lockyer and Arthur Beetson.
The 37-year-old came under fire last year when then NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg gave Smith's wife Barbara a diamond ring at a private dinner in honour of Smith's record 400th game.
Despite the NRL giving rings to players who reach the 300-game milestone, Greenberg's act was viewed in some quarters as the governing body affording Smith preferential treatment.
The veteran of 42 Origin matches and 56 Tests for Australia has been accused of being selfish, but the man who knows Smith best - his father - says the future NRL Immortal is anything but that.
"I can never understand the criticism of Cameron," Wayne Smith said.
"All he has ever tried to do is give his all in the game he has loved as a child.
"Cam is usually last off the field after games because he wants to thank the fans. He understands what the game means to the kids because he was one of those kids who dreamt of making it.
"Some of the cyber-bulling Cam cops is over the top. It does get me down when people continually attack Cameron. Ask the players which player they want beside them in the trenches. To a man, they will back Cam Smith. Even Johnathan Thurston speaks with admiration for Cam and they have a great friendship.
"Rather than the footballer he is, I am proud of the man he has become.
"As a parent, you want your kids to grow up as a decent person and no one can take away the fact he is a decent man."
Smith senior said he was stunned by the backlash over Smith's wife receiving a diamond ring from the NRL.
"The diamond-ring stuff was ridiculous," he said.
"When players chalk up milestones like 300 games, they get a ring from the NRL.
"Cam said to Todd Greenberg, 'Mate I don't want a ring for my 400th game, I have enough rings. If anyone deserves a ring, it's my wife, because she is the one who has to have the burden of not having me at home and allowing me to play the game'.
"People want to bag Cam for his wife getting a ring. What's the big deal? So what do we do for a bloke who is the only player in NRL history to play 400 games? Give him or his family nothing?
"It was Barb's selflessness that enabled Cameron to have the career he's had."
For a Logan Brothers junior who dreamt of playing for the Broncos, it is remarkable that Smith has instead played all 430 games for Melbourne in AFL heartland.
Not that the Broncos didn't try to sign Smith. When he was 17, Smith met with Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, but chose the Storm because he feared his pathway to first grade could be blocked at Brisbane.
"Myself, Cam and his mum came along to the Broncos office and we sat down with Wayne Bennett. Wayne (a former policeman) was like a typical copper asking Cam all these questions," Smith snr recalls.
"Wayne said what team do you support? Cam said I love the Broncos. Wayne said who have you always wanted to play for? Cam said the Broncos. Wayne said OK, well let's give you the opportunity to do that.
"Wayne was very good, but there was never any major pressure from him. He never pushed Cam. People say the Broncos rejected Cam but that wasn't the case.
"The truth is Luke Priddis was at the Broncos and he was only 23 years old and potentially a 10-year hooker for the club, whereas Richard Swain was getting on at the Storm.
"It was really only Melbourne or the Broncos. The money from both clubs was the same. At the time, Melbourne had feeder-club ties with Norths Devils, so Cam chose the Storm because he was only 17 and could still live at home in Brisbane."
Wayne Smith says his son hasn't told him if he is retiring, but he suspects he will, saying the Storm champion would hate the thought of playing one year too long and failing.
"The thing that drives Cam more than anything is he can't handle letting people down," he said.
"Winning the grand final would be the fairytale ending wouldn't it?
"I can't see Cameron wanting to play against Craig Bellamy (Storm coach). He has played against him in the Origin arena but I don't think he could bring himself to do it at club level, not after everything they have achieved at the Storm together.
"It's going to be strange to think Cam may not be at the Storm next year. Cam playing footy for us is like the sun coming up every day.
"Cam never thought he would become an NRL legend. I remember we were having a Christmas celebration five years ago and for Boxing Day we decided to get some pizzas. So we're all tucking into this pizza and Cam refused to have any. He said I'm in my 30s now, I need to watch what I eat.
"He isn't ridiculous about his diet, but that piece of pizza could be the difference between Cam making or missing a tackle in a grand final."