The private anguish behind Maroons star’s rise to top
Maroons debutant AJ Brimson has opened up about the emotional pain which inspired his rise to the State of Origin arena.
Brimson will cap a remarkable season when he makes his Origin debut for Queensland in Wednesday night's series-opener against NSW at the Adelaide Oval.
It will be a touching moment for the Brimson family following the death of AJ's father Ian Brimson in 2011.
Catch Fox League's news, views and analysis on Kayo. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
Brimson credits his father, who played for a Queensland Schoolboys team in a 1966 curtain raiser to an Australia-Great Britain Test at Lang Park, for inspiring his love of the game.
"Dad played quite a while back, he told us he was a good player," Brimson told News Corp.
"He told us they didn't have mouthguards when he was playing and everyone was losing teeth so he decided to stop playing.
"It was definitely dad that got us into footy. He was very proud and yelled loudly from the sidelines. He'd spray us and tell us we couldn't tackle (laughs). Car rides home weren't very fun.
"It was a tough time (when he died). We were close like most families are. It definitely wasn't ideal."
The youngest of three brothers, Brimson grew up in Brisbane as a mad Broncos' fan.
He was eight when the Broncos won the 2006 NRL premiership and once led the team on to Suncorp Stadium after his mother, Vanessa Brimson, won an auction prize as a birthday present.
Vanessa said Ian's death shocked the Brimson family but her three sons had developed a tight bond with their stepfather and league lover Kerry Knight.
"AJ was very young when Ian passed," she said.
"We had longer with him than we thought, which was a bonus.
"I know you can never replace your own father, but if the boys got to pick one they would definitely pick Kerry. They have a wonderful relationship with him."
Vanessa and Ian met in the United Kingdom where they welcomed sons Charlie and Will before deciding to move to Australia in 1996.
Alexander James (AJ) was born in Brisbane in 1998 and became a star touch footy player with a love for the NRL and Broncos.
Will Brimson was picked up by the Broncos' under-20s and was a role model for AJ to look up to as he pursued his league dreams.
"I did look up to him, but I would never tell him that," AJ said.
"When he first got a contract at the Broncos, it was a massive deal. He was contracted at an NRL club."
The Brimsons moved to the Gold Coast when AJ was in high school, with the speedy playmaker featuring for Runaway Bay in the local league.
But it was a move to renowned league school Keebra Park which put Brimson on the path towards the NRL and a contract with the Gold Coast Titans.
"The Broncos were the team the boys followed - AJ loved the Broncos," Vanessa said.
"When he came down to the coast he became a Titans fan. We saw Greg Bird at Pacific Fair once and AJ was in complete awe.
"AJ was playing for Runaway Bay and showing some promise. He got to Keebra Park and had to work hard to get into the team.
"Keebra Park was an excellent school because he used to go at 6am and train. They had a really good training regimen which helped me immensely going to the Titans.
"We had already been through one pre-season with Will at the Broncos and I was quite concerned because I'd been told by different mums how hard the pre-seasons were.
"AJ was worked hard at Keebra, so when it came to his turn at a pre-season he was used to vigorous training. We have a lot to thank Keebra Park for."
Brimson, 22, made his NRL debut for the Titans in 2018 and was set for a big season in 2020 before sustaining a rare injury in the Perth Nines tournament in February.
A stress fracture was located in Brimson's spine and when the injury failed to improve it was discovered to have progressed to a full fracture.
The Brimsons didn't use the term "broken back", but he was sidelined until August as the Titans tread carefully with their star fullback.
The COVID-19 pandemic extended the NRL season for a further month and allowed Brimson to return with blistering form that saw him clinch a maiden Queensland Origin jersey as Kalyn Ponga's replacement at fullback.
"We never used the term 'broken back' but when I heard that it sent shivers down my spine," Vanessa said.
"The first game back was a little bit worrying as a mum. By the next few games you've almost forgotten about it.
"Oh, it was unbelievable (the way he finished the year). He scored a runaway try at Cbus and everyone was up out of their seats, chanting and saying his name. As a mum, it was quite a surreal moment.
"He will handle Origin absolutely fine. He is a very chilled chap. He will have a certain amount of nerves like all of them, but he is excited and confident in the way he plays.
"He is looking forward to playing with the best of the best. He will really excel."
Originally published as The private anguish behind Maroons star's rise to top