Marshall ready for milestone
THIS is the Benji Marshall you don't see on the footy field. But it's every bit as magical as watching the player widely regarded as rugby league's greatest entertainer of the 21st century at his most brilliant - because it goes to the heart of what drives the legend.
Every Tuesday night, like clockwork, we'll be sitting around the table at Fox Sports debating topics for NRL 360 when Benji's phone will light up.
On the other end is a little boy staring down the barrel at his dad on FaceTime. Without a hint of embarrassment, Benji does his routine with his son before returning to the conversation.
"I usually put him to bed every night when I am home," Benji says.
"So when I am not at home, my wife will call and let me say goodnight."
To this day, Benji has never met his own father, yet he holds no regrets about his upbringing.
"My mum had me when she was 15," he says.
"So it was tough in that way, financially. But what we lacked in money got made up with love.
"And all the things I learned back then have probably helped me get to this point.
"I didn't get officially adopted but in New Zealand it was quite common to get looked after by other families.
"So I had another set of parents who were a bit older who I call Mum and Dad as well. And I was taught discipline at a young age, and respect."
THE MAKING OF BENJI
From a scrawny 17-year-old who made his debut for Wests Tigers in July, 2003, 17 seasons have passed in the blink of an eye.
Everyone has their own thoughts on who has been the best of this generation, but what can't be disputed is that no one has put more bums on seats than Benji.
Which is a monumental achievement when you consider as a young boy he was never classed as an athlete.
"Back in New Zealand when we were growing up everyone used to practise their side step," he says.
"And when I was young I was always small and slow, so I had to try and find a way to fit in."
So Benji practised his step every day for hours on end until it landed him on the Gold Coast. And without ever playing a game of competitive rugby league he was thrown into a trial game at famous Keebra Park High. And after a dazzling performance, they offered to pay for his schooling.
"For Mum that was a pretty big deal," he says.
"So she sort of kicked my arse and said, 'Get on the plane'."
Within two years, Benji got another phone call that changed his world forever.
"I will never forget that day, I was 17," he says.
"The man on the other end said, 'Hey mate, it's Tim Sheens here. I am going to use you this week against Newcastle. You will be playing against Andrew Johns'. But I thought it was one of my mates playing a prank, so I hung up. Sheensie rang straight back and said, 'Don't hang up or you won't be playing first grade'. I was like, 'shit'.
"Looking back, I don't know if I had any other coach if I would have been as successful because he actually embraced my style. He saw something that a lot of people were turned off by. He encouraged me to do flick passes and sidesteps and play sideways. He just encouraged me to be the player that I was."
It was also Sheens' revolutionary coaching that ultimately delivered Benji's most celebrated moment. That 2005 grand final flick pass that will be forever remembered in rugby league folklore.
"I played 11 games in 2004 before I did my shoulder the first time," he said.
"I think I had five weeks out and I tried to come back and did it again. So I missed the rest of the season. Then I did my shoulder again in a trial the following year.
"So Tim came up with a plan to defend me on the wing and in the grand final with the flick pass, that was where I was defending. I wouldn't have been in the position to do that had Tim not come up with that plan."
'I'M GIVING IT AWAY'
"My uncles used to have a saying, 'Go hard or go home'," Benji says, reflecting on some of his darkest times.
But at the end of 2007, after five shoulder surgeries, Benji was ready to go home.
"I actually disappeared and didn't tell anyone," he says.
"I headed back to New Zealand. I had given up. I was just sick of the constant injuries and let-downs and I said to my adopted dad, 'I'm giving it away'.
"But he made me promise I would go back and give it one more crack and thank God I did because I wouldn't be here now."
From there, Benji helped inspire New Zealand to a World Cup victory in 2008 and in those next few years was regarded as the game's best player, culminating in the 2010 Golden Boot award.
'I GOT PUSHED OUT'
But from 2013 through to when he turned up at Brisbane in 2017, Benji's career looked finished.
After leaving the Tigers, he had a brief stint in Super Rugby before returning to play for St George Illawarra.
Ultimately it was a phone call to Wayne Bennett that again changed the course of his career.
"It is disappointing that I had to leave the Tigers in the first place but everything happens for a reason," he says.
"If it was up to me I wouldn't have left but there are so many details that a lot of people don't know. They just assume I wanted to leave. I actually got pushed out. For sure, there were a few tough years.
"I really enjoyed my time at the Dragons but when I got to Brisbane something clicked. No clubs wanted me and I had to make my own calls to Wayne. I was asking for advice and he sort of said, 'Why don't you just come here and enjoy yourself?'
"Even though I wasn't playing much first grade, it just helped me find that hunger and passion again.
"That gave me the opportunity to meet up with Ivan (Cleary) and make my way back to the Tigers.
"When I signed I said to Ivan, 'Look, I know there are no guarantees of playing first grade but I am going to convince you through my actions.
"I don't know if he believed me but I got to that point and then Madge (Michael Maguire) came along.
"I think what I have got from Madge this year is probably the most I have learned in the last six years about myself, about leadership and where it can take me.
"I just feel like I can still take my game to another level."
IS THIS THE END?
Even though Benji is still to make up his mind about next year, it sounds like he's not ready to retire.
"I don't know," he says.
"Obviously that conversation has to come soon. But I just want to get through this week and I want to make the semi-finals this year.
"And getting another chance to play for New Zealand this year, it was a dream come true.
"I feel like I am a different player to when I was younger. I feel like I am contributing more to the outcomes of games now than ever before.
"I am very lucky. Without rugby league, I would be nowhere. It has just given me everything and I have tried to give everything back."
BENJI MARSHALL Q&A
Winning the grand final, for sure. The World Cup (in 2008) was big, too. But 2005 was crazy. The thing was, that year, the chances of me dislocating my shoulder again were high (Benji had suffered three shoulder injuries in the previous 12 months). So Tim (Sheens) came up with the plan to defend me on the wing and in the grand final with the flick pass, that was where I was defending, on the wing. So without that I wouldn't have been in the position to actually do what I did.
I would say Preston Campbell. Not all is determined by how big you are. Tough can be defined in many ways but the way Preston fought for his size and how much heart he showed, to me that is tough. He used to make the big tackles and have the courageous runs.
Most influential teammate?
Robbie Farah. We have always challenged each other at training and in the games to want to be better. Whenever we played together I always thought we were a better team.
Hardest to tackle?
There are some guys who when you tackle just leave bruises on you. I did my shoulder on Paul Rauhihi (former North Queensland prop) once but there are so many athletes these days and they are getting bigger and stronger. (Viliame) Kikau is also up there as one of the hardest.
Most influential person on career?
Tim Sheens. I don't know if I had any other coach if I would have been as successful as I am today because he embraced my style. He saw something in me when I was 16 or 17 that a lot of people were turned off by. He encouraged me to do flick passes and sidesteps and play sideways. He just encouraged me to be the player I was.
When I started supporting rugby league it was Stacey Jones. He was the biggest star out of New Zealand at the time and just how small he was and the way he influenced games made me want to be like him.
Most admired opponent?
I have played against so many but I will say Darren Lockyer. I took a lot of things from him, especially as he got older, just how he influenced games. I thought he was more influential late in his career without actually even getting tackled than he was back in his prime. I took a lot from that in what I am doing now.
Is the game better now than when you came through?
It is very different. I won't say tougher but the defence is a lot more organised and structured and tactical. The professionalism is also at another level.