From the outside Cooper Cronk is one lucky man.
Elite footballer, millionaire, handsome with a glamorous girlfriend by his side.
But Cronk is a walking example of the old adage that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
The 32-year-old Melbourne halfback will play his 300th NRL game in their preliminary final against Canberra on Saturday night, becoming just the 25th player to do so.
Cronk says if it wasn’t for the Storm and his long-time coach Craig Bellamy he would be lucky to have played half that amount of games.
“No disrespect to any other football club but I’m probably a 100-150 game player somewhere else if it wasn’t for the influence of Craig,” Cronk said.
“For him to give me the opportunity and the environment, atmosphere and resources I’ve had, I’m pretty fortunate.”
Bellamy can’t disagree, saying Cronk has made the most of his talent.
He says Cronk is mostly self-taught – driven by the want to succeed – and he’s never coached a player who has worked harder.
“Some people do go a long way on their talent; Cooper has gone a long way on the talent he’s been given through hard work,” Bellamy said this week.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone work as hard on his game, especially in his first 18 months.
“He still continues to work really hard but it was quite remarkable the amount of work he put into his knowledge of the game.”
Ahead of the grand final qualifer, Cronk said that passing on that knowledge gave him as much joy as winning.
“I’ve had some remarkable moments on the football field and I suppose my inspiration these days is to make sure other guys get to experience moments like that because when you’re 50 and retired you can sit back and cherish that,” he said.
“That would make me super proud.”
In the early days Cronk came across, at least to the public, as somewhat aloof. He’s been called eccentric, an enigma and most certainly an independent thinker.
Rather than head off on booze-filled end of season boys’ trips, he preferred to travel solo, soaking up the mystery of Peru.
He’s well-spoken and well-read, naming American conservative political and cultural commentator David Brooks as a favourite author.
He’s not on Facebook and he doesn’t tweet although he has recently been urged into setting up an Instagram page.
While it no longer exists, he did launch his own website that offered his reflections on his journey.
He talked of challenging himself as a youngster, not permitting himself to go home until he’d kicked 10 goals straight, which often happened after dark.
Who could forget his quote following the Storm’s 2010 salary cap scandal when he talked of it taking a “small fire in your village to realise your personal character was made of hay”.
Cronk said that career-defining setback had led him to seek professional help and guidance to help him “structure a life worth living”.
And that he has.
In 14 years he’s played 299 games, reached five grand finals, won a Dally M medal and a Clive Churchill Medal.
He’s also played 28 games for Australia including a World Cup win and six State of Origin triumphs in seven years with Queensland.
Bellamy says he’s in awe of the resilience of Cronk.
“I’ve coached a lot of players and he’s right up there,” Bellamy said.
“His reliability and his resilience to play as many games as he has and he certainly doesn’t play in a dinner suit.
“He’s only a small guy and he cops some late hits as all halfbacks do but he just keeps getting up.”
For all his skills, his toughness – both mentally and physically – Bellamy says Cronk means just as much to the Storm off the field.
“It’s not just what everybody sees and everybody knows; Cooper is really good with a lot of our younger blokes.
“Especially blokes who might be going through a tough time, whether they’re struggling to get into first grade or they’ve been injured or they’ve got a few financial problems off the field.
“Whatever it is, when Coops hears of that, he’s the first one to go and help them.
“He’s not just a great footy player, he’s a really good person and this club has been lucky to have him.”
Cronk and Cameron Smith will become the first 300-gamers to play in the same team, with the Melbourne skipper reaching the milestone last season.
Their history goes back to teenage years, when Smith would drive the unlicensed Cronk to training at Brisbane Norths.
While they still share the ambitions of another NRL title, they have remained very different characters.
Rested from a pre-season game, this is typified by Smith heading to the Mr Whippy van for a double soft-serve cone dipped in chocolate. Cronk pulled out a bag of trail mix he’d brought from home.
While they may not cut from the same cloth, they are close.
They have shared plenty and Cronk hoped there was more good memories to be made, starting Saturday night at AAMI Park.
“We were living the dream when we were 19, 20 and we still are today,” Cronk said.
We’re super fortunate to land here at Melbourne and have the career and life and achievements that we’ve had and hopefully there’s still a few special ones left.”