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Alex McKinnon

Never give up.

These are the three simple yet meaningful words that drive Alex McKinnon.

It’s a motto McKinnon has lived by his whole life and one that can be regularly seen written as a hashtag on his personal Instagram account.

From overcoming countless injury setbacks to proving he is good enough to cut it at the highest level, the  young back-rower always uses this saying as inspiration to outlast the tough times. 

Talk to those who know McKinnon best and they'll tell you it's this resilience under adversity that will ensure he gets through his current spinal injury.     

Just ask Knights trainer Dave Ballard, a bloke who has known Alex since he was a 16-year-old playing under 20s at St George Illawarra. 

Ballard's built a close friendship with McKinnon over the years and has seen first hand the dedication and desire the lad from Aberdeen showcases in everything he does.   

He says it's a trait Alex has displayed from the very beginning of his football career.

Ballard has fond memories of McKinnon's first ever session at the Dragons when he out ran everyone in the NYC squad, even though he was the youngest by three years.          

"I remember one training session they did and it was probably one of the toughest sessions I’ve ever seen," Ballard recalls.

"It was doing these two-minute efforts really hard and then wrestling for 30 seconds straight after it.

"They did that back-to-back forever until blokes were just dropping out.

"Alex ended up going through all the way to the last wrestle with another bloke who was in the Australian Schoolboys at the time and was one year older than him.

"They just competed so hard that they ended up throwing up by the end of the session, but Alex just didn’t want to give in."

Ballard reckons McKinnon is like that in every session he undertakes.

He is the ultimate professional, a guy who will go on a relaxing holiday yet still train to maintain his fitness. 

Like just last November when he travelled to America with teammates Robbie Rochow and Dane Gagai.

The trio spent a week in the USA seeing the sights, but they also made a visit to the Michael Johnson Performance-Athletic Training Center in a bid to improve their running technique.   

Ballard says this type of initiative is normal behaviour for McKinnon.

"Alex is happy to challenge himself," he says.

"Like when there is an easier session or a time when he is supposed to be having a lighter day, he’ll want to go hard.

"It isn’t always the best thing, but he always pushes himself and wants to improve.

"He isn’t one to be just happy with the status quo and he is keen to go past some boundaries a little bit.

"When it comes to the footy, he just loves it that much.

"He is driven to compete and if something goes wrong, he’ll want to improve and do everything he can to get that win." 

This dedication was on display again in McKinnon's maiden year at the Knights in 2012 - his first full season in the NRL.

He was still eligible to play NYC at the time, but was part of Wayne Bennett's top grade squad for every game.

It was an amazing achievement for McKinnon given he spent six months of that season with a serious bout of glandular fever. 

There were days when he would spend two days in bed before he came good, yet he still managed to pick himself up and play all 24 matches. 

McKinnon also had six bouts of tonsillitis that season, which required an operation to remove his tonsils two weeks before he played in a Junior Kangaroos Test in early October.

But again, he managed to push through the tough times to captain the Kangaroos to a comprehensive 48-16 victory over the Junior Kiwis in Townsville.  

McKinnon has repeatedly risen above setbacks throughout his career and it's why those close to him insist he'll do it again with this latest injury.     

It begs the question, where does this Knight get his positive mindset from? Well the man himself credits his father Scott for his never-say-die-attitude.  

"As a kid, Dad was always my coach but he never gave me any rewards - I was never good enough for him," McKinnon said in an interview in Rugby League Week back in 2012.

"But looking back, he knew what he was doing.

"These days, because of that, I don't settle for second best and I just don't want to let anyone down." 

McKinnon's mother Kate has also had a telling influence on him with her caring nature.

She attends every home game at Hunter Stadium alongside her husband, while she also makes homemade sweets like apple crumble for Alex to take to training on recovery days after matches and share with his teammates. 

Speak to Club people like Ballard and they'll tell you kind gestures like this from Mrs McKinnon explains why her son has grown up with the same good-natured values. 

"Alex will often come in with a couple of containers full of sweets some days," he grins.

"That's probably the best insight into his family and his whole caring mindset. "His family are keen to do that for the team and while it won't always be the best nutritionally for them, the boys love it." 

Combine McKinnon's loving ways with his approachable personality and unquestionable loyalty and it's easy to see why he is held in such high regard by every one that has had the pleasure of meeting him. 

It's why Willie Mason treats Alex like his little brother and coach Bennett considers him one of his own. 

Then there's McKinnon's junior club, the Aberdeen Tigers, who this week organised a signed card for Alex from all their registered juniors and coaches. 

The Tigers will also have 50 kids form a guard of honour before the start of today's game against Cronulla. 

McKinnon has received plenty of support this week following his tragic injury from not only the rugby league world, but also the wider community in general.  

From letters, phone calls, emails and texts, the Club has been inundated with goodwill messages for Alex and his family.   

McKinnon is loved across the game, but particularly by the Knights faithful because he always goes out of his way to connect with the local community. 

Talk to the Club's junior coaching staff and they'll tell you Alex is also fantastic with the kids. 

He regularly runs sessions with the Club's junior representative teams, talking to them about how to reach their goals and how everyone takes a different path to get there. 

McKinnon's effort with the lower grades has in turn inspired countless Hunter kids to chase their NRL dreams.

"If you ask Alex to do something, he’ll do it," Ballard adds.

"He doesn’t whinge.

"Even around the Club, he’ll always say thank you and please, which you don’t get from hardly anyone these days.

"He has probably got the best manners.

"But when he is out on the field he is completely different. He is one of the most competitive blokes out there and he gets filthy when he loses and takes that sort of thing to heart." 

McKinnon will be calling on all that heart in the coming months, but he won't be alone in his recovery.

He'll have his family, friends, teammates and the entire Newcastle community with him every step of the way.

This was proven this week when the Club’s members and supporters came up with the 'Rise for Alex' campaign, an extremely fitting acknowledgement given he has been rising above setbacks all his career.

It’s why you can guarantee no matter how tough times get, McKinnon will never give up.