Not even an unprecedented season including life inside a restrictive "bubble" could stop countless NRL players from making a big difference in their communities in 2020.
And the extensive work of 14 players has been deservedly recognised by their clubs with a nomination for the Ken Stephen Medal, won by Raiders veteran Sia Soliola last year, as part of the NRL Kayo Community Awards.
The candidates for this year's prestigious honour, proudly brought to you by My Property Consultants, are:
- Adam Elliott
- Kyle Feldt
- Reed Mahoney
- Connor Watson
- Martin Taupau
- James Tamou
- Cody Walker
- Angus Crichton
- Jarrod Croker
- Ronaldo Mulitalo
- Dale Finucane
- Chris Lawrence
- Dale Copley
- Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
"I've been really impressed by the ongoing willingness to contribute and give back to the communities that cheer them on," NRL head of government and community relations Jaymes Boland-Rudder said.
A panel featuring inaugural 1988 Ken Stephen Medallist and ARL Commissioner Wayne Pearce will decide three finalists, with fans to determine the fourth through an NRL.com poll.
Voting is open until Sunday, September 20. The finalists for the Ken Stephen Medal, proudly brought to you by My Property Consultants, will be announced as part of the Telstra Premiership finals series.
The winner will be revealed on grand final day along with the Veronica White Medal (NRLW) recipient.
"When I think about this year, it's been a year marked by things that we've never experienced before," Boland-Rudder said.
"Whether it be the terrible drought and bushfires over that off-season break and the way our players stood up, giving up their time.
"Whether it be a James Tamou who was personally on the frontline fighting fires or a Dale Finucane who was gathering together players to go and rebuild fences up around his home town of Bega.
"They were just remarkable individuals who were willing to step up. And then we were hit by the global [COVID-19] pandemic.
"Rather than say, 'Oh, I'm not going to do any community work', the players thought really creatively about, 'How can I continue to engage? How can I continue to inspire and be the positive change in the community?'
"In that respect, someone like a Connor Watson, who has been building his boot-painting initiative and making sure we're engaging with young Aboriginal men and giving them an opportunity to learn, share and highlight their culture and raise some funds to give them better opportunities and education, I think is absolutely terrific.
"This is an opportunity for our fans to celebrate what's great about their favourite team or favourite player, but not for their on-field performance - it's about the off-field performance.
"I encourage every fan to get on, vote early and vote often. But make sure that you read about the players' incredible feats off the field, reflect on that and celebrate that off-field success."
2020 Ken Stephen Medal nominee profiles
Angus Crichton – Roosters
Launched his First People Project charity in late 2019, aiming to educate the broader Australian community about Indigenous ways through film.
Crichton is always willing to participate in club programs including Roosters Respect, Little Chooks Get Healthy and Love Bites delivered to more than 15 primary schools across the Eastern Suburbs.
A State of Mind advocate since 2018, Crichton played a vital role in this year's Community Carnival programs in February, delivering the new League Stars Inspire Respect program to schools across the Central Coast and Eastern Suburbs.
Connor Watson - Knights
Sparked by losing his 17-year-old cousin Parker to suicide, Watson, his parents Mark and Jodie and their Cultural Choice Association (CCA) have worked to make Boots for Brighter Futures a hallmark of Indigenous Round and a catalyst for important conversations in the Indigenous and broader community.
Watson’s ‘Boots for Brighter Futures’ charity an outlet for Indigenous youth
Several Youth Justice Centres were involved in creating artwork across 56 pairs of boots for various teams in 2020. The match-worn boots were auctioned online, raising $24,000 and bringing the total raised to $51,000 since inception.
On top of his club commitments, Watson was making regular fortnightly visits to Indigenous boys at the Kirinari hostel.
Cody Walker – Rabbitohs
Continually supporting and championing South Sydney Rabbitohs, Souths Cares and NRL Community initiatives.
Walker has been a fearless and articulate campaigner against racism and bullying while promoting awareness around mental health and the inequalities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
The five-eighth has consistently gone above and beyond his normal club commitments to make a significant contribution to supporting various community initiatives and promoting social justice issues to a broader Australian audience.
Chris Lawrence – Wests Tigers
As a Beyond Blue ambassador, Lawrence has worked tirelessly for players and fans alike to promote a healthy and positive lifestyle with a focus on mental health.
Lawrence opened his own online wellbeing platform called Synergy to all Wests Tigers players and staff, organising challenges and goals for everyone to set.
This inclusiveness was an incredible gesture as it came at a financial cost to him and his family.
Lawrence content with NRL departure
Jarrod Croker – Raiders
A natural leader, Croker shows the way in his efforts to fulfil obligations to Raiders sponsors, supporters and the wider community.
He has taken part in countless community programs while interacting with fans in any shape or form, whether it be with the gifting of his headgear, jersey partnership promotions or undertaking requests for personalised birthday messages.
Earned the 2019 Fred Daly Clubman of the Year award, one of the most prestigious honours a person can receive at Canberra.
Martin Taupau - Sea Eagles
Highly active in the Northern Beaches community, with involvement in Junior League "Come and Try" clinics and Manly's wellbeing program, The Boomerang Effect.
Worked with Puma to donate boot bags to frontline medical staff at the Sydney Children’s Hospital to assist with health contamination risks from scrubs.
Taupau tackles measles in Samoa
The Samoan Measles Christmas Relief was an initiative close to Taupau's heart and he sought out multiple partners such as Samoan Airways, Red Cross, Rugby League Samoa and notable Samoan figures Ma’a Nonu and Tofiga to assist in the delivery of the campaign.
He also encouraged the general community to donate Christmas presents to be delivered to Samoan families affected by the pandemic.
Reed Mahoney - Eels
Always among the first players to volunteer and partake in any club community events, Mahoney has been heavily involved with initiatives like the Eels Community School Blitz, the bushfire appeal in Bega and Ronald McDonald House and Westmead Children’s Hospital visits.
Becoming an ambassador for Giant Steps during his time in the under-20s squad, the hooker worked as a teacher's aide before signing full-time with the Eels. He continues to use social media to encourage donations and contributes his own donations and experience to various events to increase the money raised.
Dale Copley – Titans
Copley has been the perfect role model for younger Titans players, juggling the demands of completing a Bachelor of Law at QUT, his NRL commitments, active RLPA membership and ambassador roles for the NRL State of Mind and Voice Against Violence programs along with becoming a proud father in 2019.
Copley is never one to turn down a player request, even if it means travelling two-plus hours to attend an appearance on a weekend.
Copley recently presented a Wellbeing and Education workshop to Titans, Burleigh Bears and Tweed Heads Seagulls under-18s players on how to represent your personal and club brand in the community.
Ronaldo Mulitalo – Sharks
Even before being a contracted player, Mulitalo was a regular at Sharks community events and initiatives.
At one of his first school visits, the winger made sure he spent time with an autistic student - giving him the polo off his own back after seeing him distressed at missing out on gear.
Mulitalo double locks in finals spot for Cronulla
Mulitalo has been a leader for community appearances, taking time in the off-season to travel to Papua New Guinea to assist in building a community hall and install a rainwater collection system.
He also championed the Give 5, Get 5 campaign to help transform the lives of Sydney's homeless youth.
Dale Finucane - Storm
Finucane is the first to volunteer to serve meals and meet those at the annual Salvation Army Christmas Lunch which Storm players and staff attend. The lock is also a regular participant in activities and appearances for the club's charity partner, the Starlight Foundation.
Most notably, Finucane was instrumental in Melbourne's response to the bushfires which devastated much of NSW and Victoria, leading a group of players to his hometown of Bega and the surrounding area in late February to boost spirits, help build fences and run a junior clinic.
James Tamou – Panthers
Tamou has a long list of rugby league achievements, but his actions during the most recent bushfires earned him high praise from all.
Tamou's personal tale amid bushfire tragedy
He travelled from Sydney's west to Braidwood, about 60 kilometres inland from Bateman's Bay, to help his in-laws defend their home against a bushfire in the area by joining forces with the Rural Fire Service and saving many properties.
Adam Elliott – Bulldogs
Elliott advocates for the Autism Community Network (ACN), motivated by a strong desire to decrease the stigma for people living with autism. In 2018, he partnered with ACN and would regularly dedicate time slots to the network and their events.
In 2019, the Bulldogs delivered a community-minded kids program directed at year-three students. Elliott fought for the program to be delivered in non-mainstream schools and through this the club was able to form a partnership with Chalmers Road School, which is targeted at students living with moderate-to-severe intellectual disabilities.
The lock led an online fundraiser and awareness piece for the charity by dying his hair blue. He was able to raise over $10k for ACN which assisted the service as they were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kyle Feldt – Cowboys
An affable North Queensland native, Feldt goes above and beyond to give back to the community. When COVID-19 forced the shutdown of the Townsville & District Junior Rugby League competition, he helped create and launch the Kyle Feldt Footy Throw Bin Challenge.
Feldt has built a strong connection with Good Shepherd Catholic School over eight years of Adopt-a-School visits, usually visiting each term to join in with students and staff in a variety of activities. Keeping in touch during COVID-19 has been a big priority, with video calls in terms two and three ensuring he can still contribute.
Feldt has also become a role model for the club's Try for 5! school attendance challenge, motivating and rewarding students to come to school on time, every day.
Leaping Feldt collects a Drinkwater kick
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – Warriors
In a season of uncertainty, Tuivasa-Sheck's personal qualities have shone through as he has galvanised those around him and, even more significantly, society at large.
The Warriors captain supported a junior rugby league club's initiative at the Otahuhu Leopards. He took the lead in a special way by turning up at one of the player’s homes to drive him to training.
Before departing for Australia, the fullback attended a Ronald McDonald House visit where he connected and interacted with patients and families. At an earlier visit he helped to prepare, cook and serve a roast meal while engaging with the many families who are doing it tough.
Soon after arriving in Australia, Tuivasa-Sheck again connected with junior rugby league players through a personal approach by the Erina Eagles. He jumped online to chat to an under-14s team about his journey.