Freddy: I am still shattered over Ben
BRAD Fittler can still see his Australian captain Mal Meninga, schooner in hand, walking toward him inside that Sydney nightclub.
The year was 1992.
And Freddy, still a Kangaroo newbie, a kid only months on from both his teens and a Winfield Cup premiership with Penrith, was preparing for what must surely be another round of beers from his captain.
"But then," Fittler says, recalling the moment a hulking right arm came up and over his shoulder, "Mal told me how Ben Alexander had just died."
And from there, well, Freddy struggles to find the words. "I was … ahh … stunned," he says, softly.
"Completely stunned. I'm standing there among all my Australian teammates in this eastern suburbs nightclub … It was late, too - well after midnight - and I was just in shock.
"Over the next couple of days, it really felt like someone picked up our little community of Penrith and shook it." It still does.
It has been 26 years since a car accident tragically took the life of his great mate Ben ''Boods'' Alexander, a rising Penrith footballer and younger brother of premiership hero Greg Alexander. And Fittler's pain is still an unseen, permanent scar.
Which is why the NSW Origin coach has agreed to front the Knock-On Effect - a State Government initiative highlighting not only the worrying spate of deaths on country roads, but the heavy impact each loss has on its community.
This is a pain Fittler still lives. Same deal for fellow league legends such as Greg Alexander, Mark Geyer, even Panthers GM Phil Gould, who coached Penrith to that premiership only months before Alexander, aged 20, was killed.
"I remember at that particular time, we all felt bullet proof," Fittler recalls.
"As a group, we'd never dealt with loss like that.
"Ben's death, it really shook us. I know personally, Ben and I, we … umm … we used to drive around a lot together. We were just two youngs blokes driving to training, the movies, bowling, whatever.
"We spent a lot of time together in the car."
All of which leaves Fittler carrying both pain, and questions. Like would he have been riding shotgun that night his mate, after a few beers at Penrith Leagues, took off for another party? "If I wasn't with the Australian team, we would've been hanging out together, yeah," Fittler says.
"But that's not the reality, is it? I was away with the Kangaroos, so it is what it is. It's just tragic.''
And that's why Fittler is now encouraging all drivers to spend a few seconds thinking about every action they will make.
"There are people far more qualified to speak on this than me, but I do know first-hand that when somebody passes away on our roads, there's a good friend left behind feeling like I did," he said. "And that pain, there's no tablet for it. There's nothing."