After claiming the 2023 Dally M Medal, Kalyn Ponga reflected on a year that at one stage had him preparing for retirement before returning to lead the Knights on an unlikely finals run.
On Wednesday night the champion fullback became the third Newcastle player, after Andrew Johns (1998, 1999, 2002) and Danny Buderus (2004) to claim the game's highest honour for men, after a horror start to the season which saw his playing future up in the air after he travelled to Canada to meet with specialists following a string of concussions.
After receiving the award, on a night in which he was also named as the Dally M Fullback of the Year, the 25-year-old spoke openly about the challenges and eventual personal glory he experienced in 2023.
"This was probably the worst year and the best year all in one; it definitely feels like two years in one." Ponga said.
I was looking at retirement for a little bit there and to come back and do what I’ve done, it’s a credit to the people around me.Kalyn Ponga
"The conversations I had with my parents were quite real.
"When I went over [to Canada] I felt pretty guilty, but it was a build-up of the year before and not playing because of concussion.
"I just wanted to come back and make people proud, do my job and be the player I know I can be."
Ponga finished the season with 21 try assists and 19 line breaks in his 20 matches, bursting to life in the second half of the season as the Knights won nine games on the trot to finish in fifth position.
But his strong form and eventual rise to Dally M winner came only after he moved back to his more familiar position of fullback, after spending the early rounds in the halves, which he admits probably wouldn't have happened if not for the forced time away from the game.
Ponga pips Johnson in Round 26 to claim 2023 Dally M Medal
"[I'd] probably still be being stubborn trying to play six.... I was pretty stubborn on that and the knock probably put me back to fullback," Ponga said.
"It made me reassess."
Ponga enjoyed the occasion alongside mum Adine – who despite firing off a cheeky pre-award call that her son was no chance of winning the top gong – stood proudly with him and his medal, having earlier this year been unable to watch some games out of fear of seeing Kalyn get hurt again.
"It was probably a pretty confronting feeling for her, I remember my first two, three or four games back she didn’t watch them, she was too scared," Ponga said.
I think she has probably ridden the wave more than anyone. From a mother’s perspective, to now see her son standing on the stage with a Dally M Medal around my neck, it’s pretty special for her and my dad.Kalyn Ponga
"She’s my biggest supporter but my biggest critic at the same time."
With Knights No.1 Tamika Upton claiming the NRLW Dally M Medal it signals the first time since the women's competition began in 2018 that the same club has supplied the winners of the two prestigious prizes.