From 18 beers a day to making his own kombucha: How Russell Packer changed his ways

Growing up in Foxton on New Zealand's north island, Russell Packer would drink up to 18 beers in one session – at the age of 12.

When he got older and started playing professional footy, he pumped prescription and recreational drugs into his body.

Now, after years of slaughtering himself, after finding himself in jail following an assault in 2013, after dodging possible deportation to New Zealand, after finally convincing the NRL to give him another chance, after pulling on the famed Dragons jumper and playing well enough to land a fat four-year deal at the Wests Tigers, you know what he drinks?

Packer shed tears when he told the Dragons players that he was leaving.

Packer shed tears when he told the Dragons players that he was leaving.

He drinks Kombucha, the fermented wonder drink with amazing health benefits. The entire suburb of North Bondi basically bathes in the stuff.

"I make it, too," Packer says. "We started eating organic and gluten free because my son is autistic. There are a lot of intestinal issues around autism and that all helps. I haven't drunk for four years. It's hard for some people to believe that. I'm a straight shooter, mate. I don't talk shit. If I'm going to do something, I do it and I said I would give alcohol away. I realised they were the times in my life when I've had the most trouble.

"You see that being part of the NRL and rugby league is more than just being a good player. You've got to do the right things off the field."

"You see that being part of the NRL and rugby league is more than just being a good player. You've got to do the right things off the field."

"I've lived life alcohol free, making my own kombucha. I had to go through a traumatic experience to get to that point. If I didn't spend a year in jail I don't know where it would've gone."

Read more: Family the number one motivator for uni graduate Packer

Packer tells me this just hours before a graduation ceremony in Wollongong earlier this week. That in itself also explains much about his personal revolution. He is a walking example of what the game can do to heal its own.

He started studying at Wollongong University in July 2015, doing one subject to get a taste of tertiary life. He excelled and was then accepted to study a bachelor of commerce (accountancy and finance) last year.

"If I had education I wouldn't have fallen so far off the wagon."

"If I had education I wouldn't have fallen so far off the wagon."

His academic results were exceptional. He made the Dean's Merit List and this year has knocked over a graduate certificate in business. He wants to complete his MBA in the future. Retired Dragons captain Ben Creagh has been instrumental in helping Packer along the way.

"Studying has played a massive role for me," Packer says. "It's given me something external away from rugby league. You find trouble when you're bored. When my behaviour was not where it should be, it was when I was injured and not mentally stimulated. If I had education I wouldn't have fallen so far off the wagon."

I sat down with Packer just over two years ago for an interview in the Chinese restaurant at St George Leagues Club.

Then NRL boss Dave Smith wasn't budging on allowing Packer back into the NRL. He was allowed to trot out for the Illawarra Cutters in NSW Cup, but that was about it.

Russell Packer playing his first match after being released from jail for the Illawarra Cutters in May 2015.

Russell Packer playing his first match after being released from jail for the Illawarra Cutters in May 2015.

The CCTV footage of Packer's assault was the stumbling block, Smith insisted at the time.

He wasn't the only one with misgivings. After the story ran, there was an avalanche of ugly feedback from fans saying Packer should not be allowed back into the NRL. Many probably still think the same way.

Newcastle Knights player Russell Packer arrives at Downing Centre district courts in 2014.

Newcastle Knights player Russell Packer arrives at Downing Centre district courts in 2014.

What they didn't see was how many people at the Dragons helped Packer, especially coach Paul McGregor and former recruitment man Peter Mulholland, and then how Packer repaid them by becoming a strong leader at the club.

And what they don't see now is how his young family got back their husband and their father.

Despite this, Packer baulks when asked if definitive bad boy Todd Carney should be allowed back into the game.

"Honestly mate? When I met with you, I never thought I'd play in the NRL again," Packer says. "So I am extremely grateful for all the people who have helped me back. I would rather not comment on Todd's situation. I don't know the details. It's a case-by-case scenario. Just like me, I'm sure he would have some strict conditions.

Packer with his partner Lara Wilcox at Towradgi Beach in 2015.

Packer with his partner Lara Wilcox at Towradgi Beach in 2015.

"But some have made it back and made the most of it. Mitchell [Pearce] got eight weeks. Kenny Edwards. Shaun Kenny-Dowall. There are so many people who have made mistakes and got another opportunity, but it's how much you make of it that matters. Without rugby league and people accepting me back in and allowing my actions to show that I did deserve a second chance, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."

Packer shed tears when he told the Dragons players that he was leaving. The club wasn't comfortable offering him a four-year deal to stay. A Wests Tigers side trying to rebuild was prepared to give him the financial security that he wanted for his family.

"I've never been worried about going off track," he says. "That was everyone else's expectation. The experiences I've had in jail … if I was going to go off track I could've easily done it in jail. That's why I changed: I couldn't care about anyone else but my wife and children. People say I owe people. My missues lost a partner for a year, my children lost a father for a year. Now they've got him back.

"I felt like I deserved to play NRL. This is being honest. I assumed that I should play because I am good enough. From maturing, you see that being part of the NRL and rugby league is more than just being a good player. You've got to do the right things off the field. I never thought like that. Now I've come out of this crazy experience and seen the world for what it is. Like it or not, you're a role model. It's part of the package. You might as well make the best of the situation."

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