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Family matters: The inspiration behind big-hearted Naden's rise

Brent Naden's mother Julie Blackhall "cried for two days straight" after his NRL debut last year and she expects the tears to flow again during Sunday's grand final.

As she prepares to watch her boy, who has been named to start at centre for Penrith against Melbourne at ANZ Stadium, the sacrifices he's made to get there will run through her mind.

Like the countless milestone events the 24-year-old country kid has forgone after leaving Wellington in NSW's Central West to play junior representative football for the Panthers as a teenager. 

"We're a very close-knit family, so he's missed out on a lot of birthdays and celebrations," Blackhall told NRL.com.

Or how he constantly warded away the temptation to quit when he desperately wanted to return home.

"We are very emotional at the moment," she said.

"But I think we're riding this rollercoaster of him last year nearly finishing it all and coming back and having the arguments: 'No, you're staying down there'."

Brent Naden after his NRL debut in 2019 with grandparents Ron and Monica Blackhall, his grandfather Ralph Naden, mother Julie and father Geoff.
Brent Naden after his NRL debut in 2019 with grandparents Ron and Monica Blackhall, his grandfather Ralph Naden, mother Julie and father Geoff. ©Julie Blackhall

'Nan and Pop's boy'

Naden has an incredibly tight bond with his grandmother, Monica, and grandfather, Ron - Nan and Pop.

Monica turned 70 on Thursday and the perfect gift would be seeing him lift the Provan-Summons trophy a few days later.

But Nan won't be among the 11 family members who are making the four-hour trek to Homebush Bay to watch the big match.

"She sort of can't handle the emotions. She talks to him and as soon as he hangs up she has a bit of a cry," Blackhall said of her mother.

"We always say he's Nan's boy, Nan and Pop's boy. He's the first grandchild, so as you could imagine was spoilt.

"And then he was followed by his sister [Brittany] one year later, so he had to share a bit of the limelight.

"But he's very close to his Pop and Nan. When he comes home that's the first place he goes to and nine times out of 10 you'll find him crashed at Nan and Pop's rather than coming home.

"But that's just the nature of Brent. He's very connected ... Pop has a nickname for every one of his grandkids, so you know when you're in trouble when you get called your proper name and not your nickname. Brent is affectionately known as Bruv."

One of the hardest parts of being in a COVID bubble for Naden has been missing out on regular Monday night roast dinners and fish-and-chips on Fridays at his grandparents' house.

It will be among the first places he heads after the season.

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A character with a heart of gold

One core piece of advice has been drummed into Naden: never forget where you come from.

"And I think that's always been his mantra," Blackhall said.

"He might be Brent Naden [from the] Penrith Panthers, but he's just Brent Naden, a local kid from Wellington who's doing the community and the family proud.

"I think what epitomises him is he's just a character. He's the biggest pest in the team, we understand. Him and Liam Martin ... But that's just Brent. No airs and graces, hates us saying that I'm Brent Naden's mum: 'Mum just shut up, I'm just Brent Naden'.

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"When he comes back, everyone wants a piece of him and he always does it ... He's always giving. I always have to fight him for the first guernsey or the first of everything because he's just a humble guy.

"He never thinks he's bigger than anyone."

Blackhall reckons the "whole of Wellington, Gilgandra and the Central West probably will be glued to their TVs" come Sunday.

And no matter if Penrith win or lose, there's one thing she wants from her son more than anything else - a hug.

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"I'm just so proud of him this year as well," she said.

Naden received widespread support after pointing out a bunch of supporters who were verbally abusing him during a match against the Warriors in August. 

"Being a proud Aboriginal young fella, I think the hardest thing for me was seeing what he went through with that," his mother said, "not being able to hop in the car and go and give him a cuddle.

"Even last week when he didn't get game time, not to be able to reach over - we were so close - and give him a cuddle.

"That'll be the one thing I'm looking forward to. Once the bubble ends, regardless of whether they win, lose or draw, just to get a cuddle.

"We might look tough but we're a bunch of sooks. Just like he is. He's got a heart of gold."

Naden, who has played 18 games in 2020 without a loss and scored 12 tries, recalled a childhood of having his extended family gather at someone's house to watch the grand final.

"Sometimes they'd pull the TV through the back window, big extension cord, and sit around having a beer while we ran around the backyard playing tips or something," he said.

This year, the focus will firmly be on him.

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'I was just ready to come home'

The outside back joked Monica never "would have spoken to me for the rest of my life" if he had given up on his NRL dream.

After a successful junior career with the Panthers, including captaining the NYC under-20 team to a premiership in 2015, Naden had fruitless stints at the Raiders and Knights.

He rejoined Penrith last season, initially on a train-and-trial deal while he laid cable for the NBN.

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But when his brother Brock, an under-20s prospect, left the club due to homesickness, Naden was set to pack it in.

"I was like, 'I'd only come down for my brother, really. There's no real point in me being here'," Naden said.

So he made a decision. He'd play for the club's reserve-grade team that weekend, then "just let them know that I'm not coming back".

But fate stepped in when he arrived for what he thought would be his final captain's run training session.

"[Coach] Guy Missio goes, 'Nado, you're not playing'. And I've sort of shit myself and gone, 'What have I done? Why am I not playing?'"

Brent Naden and coach Cameron Ciraldo get an early shower after the under-20 grand final win in 2015.
Brent Naden and coach Cameron Ciraldo get an early shower after the under-20 grand final win in 2015. ©NRL Photos

It was good news: he'd been called up to the NRL squad and promptly made his Telstra Premiership debut against Manly in round 12 of 2019.

Monica's constant support and tough love was a huge help.

"She was adamant that she didn't want me to [quit]. Her and Mum were both pretty much saying, 'Stay down, stay down'," he said.

"Then they said, 'We want you to stay down there, but at the end of the day you're our flesh and blood. We'll respect your decision'.

"It was not a blow-up speech, it was more, 'I'm disappointed in you'. I was like, 'Aw, shit'. I was just ready to come home."

And that was far from a fleeting feeling for Naden.

"Quite a few times his father [Geoff] would say, 'Go and get him'," Blackhall said.

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"But I probably would be the hard one and say no because I knew he had what it took. He's got a brother who's five years younger than him. Brock went down there to Sydney but just didn't like it.

"All my children are different but quite good sportspeople in their own rights. But Brent went down as a 16-, 17-year-old, went to St Patrician Brothers.

"And I think that's just who Brent is: he needs people around him, he needs that companionship. And I think that, for me, is why he's doing so well at Penrith.

"Because he went to school with the majority of these boys, he's played all his junior rep in the under 18s with them all.

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"They're just a good bunch of kids. There's no egos amongst all of them. There were many times [where he'd say]: 'No Mum, I'm coming home'. And we'd be fighting on the phone saying, 'No, you're not'."

"I remember when he first started going down and he was staying with a family. They would go and pick him up on the Friday, if he wasn't playing they'd drop him back on Sunday night and the fights we'd have that he was going to throw it all away."

Mum and Nan were right: Naden had what it took to reach the top. Now, he can repay their faith with the ultimate prize - a premiership.

Regardless of the result or whether he sees much action, his family will be bursting with pride.