JUST 12 months ago, Brenko Lee had decided to quit the NRL after reaching the low point of his career.
One year later, Lee is literally living the dream as a premiership winner with the Melbourne Storm and a State of Origin debutant for Queensland in the series opener against NSW in Adelaide.
Queensland coach Wayne Bennett has named Lee in his squad for Origin I as one of eight new faces, alongside AJ Brimson, Jake Friend, Lindsay Collins, Jaydn Su’A, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Xavier Coates and Phil Sami.
In a stunning resurrection, Lee has gone from a discard at last year’s wooden spooners the Titans to a premiership ring and a Maroon jersey in 12 months.
As redemption stories go, few can match this rags-to-riches resurrection.
Unwanted by even the last-placed Titans, Lee tried to pick up the pieces by making a surprise defection to rugby union.
But after two disastrous weeks training at the Melbourne Rebels, he walked out, literally in tears as his sporting world caved in.
“I was close to pulling the pin completely,” he says.
“Coming to the Storm has been a life-changing experience mentally and physically.
“I nearly gave it away after the Titans told me it was best for us to part ways and go in a different direction. I hold no grudges against anyone. They finished last and some guys had to go.”
Believing his NRL career was in the trash can, Lee found his way to the Rebels. His code defection was a debacle.
“After two weeks of trying union, I didn’t understand the sport and felt useless,” he recalls.
“After every training session, I would go home and be in tears at how useless I felt. I was so uncoordinated, I didn’t know how to place the ball back and kept giving away penalties in opposed sessions.
“I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ That was a blow to me.
“I thought maybe I should work, so I went back to Logan (in Brisbane).”
Then came the sliding doors moment: His former assistant coach at the Titans, Craig Hodges, had taken charge of Intrust Super Cup side Easts Tigers.
Perhaps more importantly, the Tigers had feeder-club ties with the Storm, putting him on the doorstep of the NRL’s best club.
“Craig knew me from the Titans and when he went to coach the Tigers, his call to me changed my life,” Lee said.
With Storm and Origin star Will Chambers having left the club over summer, Melbourne were on the lookout for centres and offered Lee a train-and-trial contract.
Kicked into gear by Melbourne’s relentless approach to training, Lee went on to play 14 games this season, including his first grand final against Penrith.
Aside from not wanting to let down Bellamy, there is another driving force for Lee.
As if being cut by the Titans wasn’t painful enough, he was left devastated by the death of his grandmother Loyla, who died last year after a long battle with diabetes, capping a horror 2019 season for the Logan Brothers junior.
“I was at rock bottom then,” he said.
“My weight blew out to about 110kg or 111kg and I was super unfit last year. I had some time off playing because my nan had passed away.
“She was my best mate and I took it pretty hard.
“She was on pills and injections, she would have insulin. I remember coming back after a hard day of Bulldogs training and she would be calling me upstairs and I would have to get her pills ready.
“I took it tough when she passed away and every game I play now I just remember her saying she wishes I could get the best out of myself because she could see how much talent I’ve got.
“I wish she was still alive to see what I am achieving now.”
MAROONS GAME 1: AJ Brimson, Xavier Coates, Brenko Lee, Dane Gagai, Phillip Sami, Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans (c), Christian Welch, Jake Friend, Josh Papalii, Felise Kaufusi, Coen Hess, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui. INTERCHANGE: Ben Hunt, Lindsay Collins, Jai Arrow, Jaydn Su’A.