Young Newcastle Knight Matt Soper-Lawler has always harboured a deep passion for rugby league.
That love of the game has intensified since he’s embraced his current role as a trainee NRL development officer.
The 19-year-old has played with both the Under 20s and reserve grade Knights in 2016 while working part-time with the NRL to roll out interactive programs in the community.
“Every day is different. Some days I go to schools and help out with coaching clinics and other days we will go to schools and do presentations on bullying and wellbeing,” Soper-Lawler said.
Members of the Under 20s competition are required to work or study in order to play, with his traineeship satisfying both requirements.
What he loves most about his job is the opportunity is gives him to meet new people, see enthusiasm and excitement beam from young students and form relationships with a wide range of people.
“When I was a kid, I loved more than anything when a Knights’ player came to the school,” the local junior said.
“You didn’t really care who they were, if they were under 20s or first grade, as long as they wore a red and blue jersey, it was something special.
“The most rewarding part is when you go to schools and there are kids with special needs. They love it and it’s really good to give back.”
Soper-Lawler reflects fondly on one of the highlights so far in his role, the Wheelchair Sports Day hosted at Newcastle University earlier this year.
Not only did the event give him a unique perspective into different types of sports but opened his eyes to how some people overcome overwhelming challenges to reach their dreams.
The day engaged with people who had lost their ability to play traditional sports and created pathways to wheelchair equivalent sports like tennis, basketball and even rugby league.
“I got to meet a guy who played in the World Cup for Australia,” he said.
“He was a really nice bloke and has been paralysed his entire life and started playing rugby league and now, unfortunately due to another injury, he can’t play.
“You don’t realise how lucky you really are until you see people who have had something taken away from them or people who haven’t even had a chance to walk.
“It puts things into perspective when you are having a bad day, you can always hold your head up and realise there are always people out there doing it a lot tougher than you.
“That’s a big thing for me as well. You see people everyday who are achieving things they were never meant to.
“They have bounced back and come back bigger and better and have made something out of themselves.”
That sentiment is something that’s stuck with the 19-year-old as he forges ahead with his own football career.
He began playing rugby league when he was eight years old for the Cessnock Goannas before moving to the Greta-Branxton Cults the Maitland Pickers.
Most recently he’s been promoted from the NYC to the Knights’ reserve grade side and has been working fastidiously to improve his game playing on the wing.
Knowing how much he has personally gained from playing rugby league, he finds it an enriching experience to encourage children to get involved in sport.
“When kids find out you’re local, their ears prick up a little and they think, if he can do it, I can do it too,” he said.
“I grew up never making a rep side. When you go to high schools and tell kids that, they go, well I haven’t made one either.
“They realise with hard work and dedication, anything is possible.”
The benefits of his role with the NRL have been far-reaching for Soper-Lawler who has gained confidence and a sense of purpose, often hard to come by for many his age.
“I have always been really petrified of speaking in front of people and have never been good at it,” he admitted.
“Some days I will sit their talking to more than 400 kids.
“It’s really helped me with communication.
“I’ve also learned how to deal with different types of people and know that different kids behave differently.
“One day I want to be a primary school teacher, especially with what I’m doing now and know what it’s like to work with kids everyday.”
While he knows there is a long road ahead if he is to one day make it to the NRL stage, he understands the importance of holding a positive attitude and is determined to have fun in everything he does.
“One of the main messages I say to kids is to have fun now and the rest will come later,” he said.
“Every kid wants to grow up to play in the NRL, but many forget to just have fun and enjoy themselves.
“When you get that message across, kids go out with a smile on their face, not caring about winning.”