Pizzey Park is a short, 15 minute drive from Cbus Super Stadium, but it can seem a world away from the bright lights of the NRL.
Down Cottesloe Drive, it’s nestled next to Burleigh Golf Club and is home to the Burleigh Bears. A rugby league nursery that has seen the likes of Anthony Don, Eddy Pettybourne, Darius Boyd, Jai Arrow and Luke Keary all pass through its doors.
It was here that Gold Coast Titans hooker Matt Srama was plying his trade.
The slightly built, yet tough and nimble number nine had started his career well in 2011 before nailing down a regular spot in the NRL in 2012. Another consistent 2013 season saw the Titans extend his contract midway through the following year.
But then his career came to a shuddering halt. The man tipped to be the Titans long term hooker suffered a season ending hip injury.
That came off the back of a shoulder reconstruction during the 2014 pre-season which saw him only feature in six matches that year.
Thinking his time at the Titans was at an end, he decided he would head to the Roosters, signing a deal at the end of 2014 before backflipping to remain on the Gold Coast.
Rather than join the powerhouse Sydney club, Srama decided to fight for his career in Queensland.
2015 though saw further injury troubles with his shoulders and ankles, limiting him to just three matches.
As 2016 rolled around, Srama was retained but the Titans had lured the veteran Nathan Friend back to the club.
So it was back to Burleigh that Srama was dropped as he sought to regain match fitness and his sharpness to once again challenge for an NRL position and resume his career.
However, on Sunday 13 March 2016, in round two of the Queensland Cup season, Srama would pass his last ball in anger.
The then-25 year old hooker was turning to chase a Tweed Heads opponent when his right knee gave out and he tore his ACL.
It wasn’t his first serious injury and Srama would do everything in his power to return to the NRL, but a year later he would announce his retirement after 65 NRL games at the age of 26.
It was a career in its infancy, snatched away by fate. But while the former hooker does have some frustrations with the way his career in the NRL panned out, there’s nothing he looks back on with regret.
Rugby league was everything at the Srama household. Dad, Joseph played in the Toowoomba competition, while older brothers Luke and Paul also played junior footy.
It should come as no surprise then, that it was a family goal for at least one of them to make it to the big time.
“It was always my family’s dream, not just mine, but also my brothers’ and my dad’s as well for someone to play first grade, top grade footy,” says Matt Srama.
Despite his talent and love for the game, his career didn’t see him immediately jump into an NRL system.
Instead of the National Youth Competition, Srama found himself running out against fully grown men at the age of 18 in the Queensland Cup for Ipswich.
His performances there led to the Titans recruiting him and eventually to a career in the NRL, which is something he and his family are still very proud of.
“First word that comes to mind is very grateful. To achieve that (play NRL), I guess it makes me proud and I’m sure the family as well, that’s probably the main thing. I’m very grateful to play. Not many people get that opportunity I guess” he says.
But as much as he loved the game, the game didn’t exactly love him back. Srama speaks about a laundry list of injuries that quickly waylayed his career after only three years in the top grade.
“I played a few seasons back to back, injury free, played every game. I remember one year, three consecutive years, I think I only played about nine games. It was kind of like, serious injury, after serious injury.
“They weren’t just soft tissue injuries, they were big. Shoulder reconstruction, into an ankle arthroscopy, into another shoulder reconstruction, into hip surgery. So just really big injuries back-to-back, which was really frustrating because I knew what I could bring on the field, but I just couldn’t string the games together. That was very frustrating.”
Despite the injuries though, he always seemed to fight his way back, preparing his body to once again enter the fray.
That’s not to say that he wasn’t planning for when it came time to hang up the boots.
Some players choose to play a large chunk of their career before thinking about what they’ll do once the bright lights are no longer there. Others are preparing for life after league from the start.
Srama decided early on that property interested him, and took the money he was making from footy and put it into investment properties.
The Gold Coast was an ideal place to get involved in the property market as both house and unit prices have continued to climb across the last decade.
“During my footy career I was always into property investment. So I bought my first home quite young. Then I bought my first investment property pretty young as well. And I’ve always just had this interest in property investment.
“When the time and the thoughts came around retirement, I guess I always had that backing of “I think I’ll end up with something in property or real estate or something like that” because I really enjoyed it.”
Unfortunately for the Titans hooker, life after footy arrived a little sooner than he had hoped.
That ACL tear suffered at Pizzey Park in round two of 2016 was the moment when Srama decided it was time to move on from the game he loved.
It wasn’t the first time doctors had recommended he retire, but after years spent either in reserve grade or in rehab, he knew his career had come to an end.
“I already had some other injuries all over my body, with shoulders and hips, where I got told to retire previously. So I think having that last ACL was kind of like, coming off contract as well, it was sort of a crossroads for me, whether to keep playing overseas, or move onto the next phase in life.
“It was a hard pill to swallow obviously, giving up on the dream you’ve had since you were a kid but in saying that I always thought of life after footy as well. There’s more to life than footy.”
There was a small silver lining in the timing of the injury. Tearing his ACL in round two gave him virtually a full season to work out if he’d put himself through the pain of rehabilitation knowing he wouldn’t play again until the following year, or to decide that this was the end of the road.
“I was sort of weighing things up career-wise. I did it in round two so it gave me a whole year to really try and get things sorted, which by the end of the year, when it did come, I’d made up my mind. I was really fortunate I guess, because I had a year to prepare for life after footy,” he says.
Retirement didn’t exactly come easy to a man who had lived and breathed footy since he could pass a ball.
Many players find the transition difficult. They go from having everything planned and regimented, with a team of backroom staff looking after them, to all of that falling away, being left to their own devices.
A lot of athletes, not just rugby league players, find it hard when they find themselves on their own, while also no longer getting the adrenaline fix that comes with running out in front of a packed crowd.
“It is tough and I think every athlete, not just NRL, every athlete will tell you the same thing I daresay. It’s not easy.
“It’s really a dream job, it comes with a lot of pressure as well but in saying that, when it all goes away, myself and I know plenty of ex-NRL athletes struggled with the transition. It takes a few years to find your feet,” Srama says.
“To play NRL you’ve got to be wired that little bit differently, you’ve got to love competing, winning, all those sorts of things. It’s really hard to do that on a daily basis in the real world so that was one thing I really struggled with.
“Where am I going to get this fix for just competing and getting rough and physical? Then that routine of training, game day and off-season, all of that finishes up as well.”
However, the former Titan says he eventually found his feet and dove head first into the real estate industry, first as an agent, now as a buyer’s representative.
“When I ended up retiring, I ended up buying a few more properties and then I was like “I might go work in real estate” so I actually became a real estate agent for a little while. Then I left that side and started planning the buyer’s agency side of real estate.
“It’s not a common thing here in south east Queensland, the buyer’s agency model. But it was something I was really passionate about and something that I really wanted to take with both hands.”
He tells RLM that his experience in property during his playing days meant he was often used as a sounding board by friends and teammates looking to buy their own properties. That naturally led him down the path to starting his own buyer’s agency.
“I’m the founder and director of The Srama Group. We’re a buyer’s agency based on the Gold Coast. So essentially we source property for both interstates and local buyers looking to purchase property on the Gold Coast.
“People will give us what they’re looking for, and then we’ll go out and find it for them, we’ll negotiate the deal and we’ll also give them access to off market property as well.”
It may be a long way from playing in front of a buzzing Suncorp Stadium crowd, or packing down opposite the likes of Cameron Smith or Robbie Farah, but Srama said he gets plenty of thrills out of running his business.
“One thing is I get the competitive nature I guess and the adrenaline still. Anyone who is running a business will tell you it’s not easy. If I’m bidding on auction for a multi million dollar client your palms are a bit sweaty so you do get those little bits of fixes.
“One thing I love most of all is the fulfilment from helping people achieve their dream property. So you get that sense of achievement as well.”
He adds that his experiences dealing with pressure and high stakes situations has assisted him in running The Srama Group.
“So many things I’ve taken away from professional sport. Dealing with pressure, being able to compose yourself when things go wrong, solving problems and just work ethic I think is a big one.
“To be an athlete in any field, not just NRL and to do it at a high level and professionally, you have to be someone who is very disciplined and someone who isn’t afraid to do hard work and go that extra mile. Same traits in business, the more you work and the more effort you put out, you get that back 10 fold.”
Looking back though, Srama occasionally asks what his career would have been like if he took his current attitude to his business and applied it to his rugby league career.
“I’m a bit older now, I’ve just turned 30 and now running a successful business, I wish I had my mentality that I had now, back when I was a bit younger and maybe used the NRL as more of a job rather than an enjoyment.
“You’re playing with your mates and that but really being diligent on my rehab and diet and everything because at the end of the day it’s such a short career but when you’re young you think it’s going to last forever.”
He also has some wise words for the younger players coming through, who may end up with more money than they ever dreamed, in a career that could end in an instant.
“My biggest advice to any kid who is coming through the ranks now is realising it’s a very short window, make the most of it in terms of the opportunity you have being a full time athlete and also, another one is leveraging your financial position. You’re not going to be on that money for your whole life so you need to leverage that.”
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