"I know I’m not lonely, but sometimes I feel lonely."
It’s the first of many startling admissions Ben Hunt divulges at St George Leagues club on the eve of his return to Brisbane for a do-or-die semi final against his old club.
"It’s gone through my mind a couple of times, thinking ‘I wish I didn’t leave’."
The fact a man who traditionally says very little is saying so much is the strongest indication yet this story is about far more than a player dealing with a few bad games of footy.
"I’ve actually been getting some help from a psychologist to help cope with things," Hunt told NRL.com.
"I never wanted to go out and get help because I never thought I needed help. I always felt I could correct the things going wrong in my life. But that wasn’t happening for me anymore. So a couple of weeks ago I got help."
For some, largely those with red and white eyes, Hunt’s admission that sometimes he wishes he was still in Brisbane will be met with outrage.
Hunt: Criticism has worn me down
After all, what’s more rugby league than a bit of outrage.
But living in a new city with his wife Bridget and son Brady, and no family around to help, combined with relentless criticism, you struggle to blame him.
"The reason it goes through my mind is the people that are up there," he said.
"It’s not that I don’t love the Dragons. But when things were hard at the Broncos, I had friends and family close by. It’s why I could get through things myself, because they were around. My wife is from Brisbane and all her family are there. Being by herself was something we had to learn and cope on our own.
"I’m lucky enough to have some great teammates, but sometimes you do [feel lonely]. You’re that far away from your family. It’s the little things. You wish you had someone around that could babysit at the last minute … your mum and dad aren’t here. Things like that when you wish you were still back there. It crosses your mind."
When football went pear-shaped in the past, which it has, Hunt has always managed to separate football from his home life.
But under the weight of pressure of living up to the expectations of St George Illawarra fans who have all but kissed another season goodbye, and without the support of family and friends he grew accustomed to in Brisbane, Hunt's mental state deteriorated.
"My wife Bridget knew it. This was more than just playing bad footy," he said.
"She could see I wasn’t myself any more. She was concerned for me. I was different at home. She encouraged me to try different things. I was against it at the start. I didn’t want to do it. But it got to the point where I had to.
"I’ve had my own way of dealing with things for years and never needed it. I’ve always been a person that just lets things fly by. If something happens I give it a couple of seconds thought then it’s gone. I don’t really worry about it and move on with life. There was a bit of a pride thing, thinking ‘I’m a man I can sort it out myself’. But I couldn’t."
His wife, fed up with the criticism aimed at her struggling husband, recently took to Instagram to voice her concerns.
"You know what the number 1 killer of men between the age of 15-44 is? It’s suicide! And no wonder, the amount of bullying these people cause other people is despicable," she wrote.
"Words have meaning! You may not think they affect the person, but they have meaning! It's funny, that Ben is apparently being blamed for the Dragons' performances of late, but it's funny, last time I checked it's his first year at the Dragons, and this has happened three years in a row. And it's funny that there's 17 people in a whole side, yet it's all his fault! Players make errors when they are loosing (sic), and players make errors when they are winning too!
"Rugby league should not be condoning this culture! You would hate it if someone was talking to your children or parents that way, so why is it okay to do so in the game they play? It’s bullying & it’s not okay! We are just lucky that Ben is resilient and doesn’t get affected by this sort of stuff, but the story may go a different way for someone else."
Through the vitriol and abuse he has copped, largely because of the amount of money that is rolling into his bank account each week, the joy football once brought Hunt diminished with each game.
"I think my heart wasn’t there," Hunt said.
"It wasn’t the enjoyable footy I knew as a kid. You grow up doing this for nothing but the joy it brings you. But that joy went away for a couple of weeks. The love of the game disappeared.
"I found myself shying away from contact. Defensively I wasn’t getting into my tackles like I usually do. I wasn’t running the ball at all. I couldn’t put my finger on how to change."
Hunt never used to care about the outside noise. But suddenly his head was full of voices. The voices of players – past and present. The voices of the media. And the deafening sound of social media.
Hunt ready to face Bennett at Suncorp
"I’ve had to delete Instagram," he said.
"I’ve made a decision not to get on it for the rest of the season. I never used to care, but I found myself scrolling through the comments reading everything people were saying about me.
"It was very strange for me. But the last month or so I’ve been really struggling with that. I’ve had a few things playing on my mind and listening to people I shouldn’t be listening to. Worrying about what other people think rather than what I can do. It dragged me down."
After the first three months of the season, Dragons fans began comparing their team to the premiership-winning team of 2010.
Hunt was worth every one of the millions of dollars the club spent luring him from the Broncos. While the perception outside the club’s four walls has since changed, internally they are still singing from the same hymn sheet.
"We’ve got the halfback we want," Tyson Frizell said.
"He’s a great halfback for our team. We’ll be sweet. He’ll be sweet. We have his back. We’ve had it the whole time."
It was at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, June 24, when things began to turn.
When Queensland’s problems became St George Illawarra’s problems.
He didn’t know it at the time, but it’s when the doubts began creeping in.
Am I good enough? Am I worth it? Should I play hooker? Should I even be here?
"Looking back now I think it did have an impact on me," Hunt said of his axing from the Maroons starting team for State of Origin III.
"The couple of weeks following Origin, I didn’t think so. I thought I was feeling alright. But I wasn’t. The longer it’s gone on the more I feel like it got to me and it took its toll on me mentally. I found myself in a funny situation. I just couldn’t get over it like I usually do.
"I still think that kick in Origin was the right option, I just didn’t execute it. So I was able to move on from that because deep down I knew I was making the right decisions - that I just kicked it too hard. I did it again the next game for the Dragons and we scored. That’s how I’ve approached my whole career. But that mentality is something that has evaded me the last few weeks."
Queensland coach Kevin Walters made the tough decision to bring in Daly Cherry-Evans for the dead rubber at the expense of Hunt, but insists he never held the Dragons halfback liable for his team’s shortcomings in the opening two games of the series.
"I didn’t blame him for what happened," Walters said.
"I blamed it on the 17 players out there, and we had some pretty experienced players there too. We just couldn’t nail and get it right. It’s been horrible really, the criticism he has since copped. It’s unfair. I stayed in contact with him. He’s a terrific fella. Regardless of who it is, what people say about you, it does have an effect on people. Somewhere people have to start understanding the impact those words can have.
"It’s hard but he needs to block all that out. He needs to come out and play the football we know he can. I think Ben would really be looking forward to the challenge that Sunday provides back at Suncorp in a different jersey trying to finish the Broncos’ season. He’s just got to get back to doing the things that he knows works well for him. I love him as a player. He can do things, like Anthony Milford, that not many can do. He just needs to start challenging the line again."
For years, Mitchell Pearce has played the role of rugby league punching bag. If anyone knows what Hunt is going through, it’s the Knights No.7.
"Funny you say that," Hunt interrupts.
"He actually messaged me a couple of weeks ago out of nowhere on social media. He just said ‘keep your head up, I know you’re a great player and I’m thinking of you’. He said: ‘I know what you’re going through and you’ll come out the other side’.
"Honestly, that made me feel pretty good. For him to say that, a player I love watching play, for him to come and say that it meant a lot."
Hunt has been dealing with some anxiety issues, and through the advice of a psychologist and those closest to him, he’s adopted a range of techniques to help him overcome what it is that has brought him down.
He’s taken his wife’s advice and sought help.
He’s taken his coach’s advice and has been watching old footage of himself when life and football seemed a lot simpler.
He’s also began practising mindfulness, like Pearce, focusing on the moment to help deal with the head noise.
"The last few weeks I’ve turned the corner mentally," he said.
"It’s helping. It definitely has. It’s taken this weight off my shoulders getting it out there and not bottling it up inside. I’m trying some breathing techniques. When I find myself a bit anxious or stressed about something I ground myself again and start breathing.
"I worry about the present moment and not the noise on the outside. I’m focusing on what I can control. It’s cleared my head. I think I’m pretty close to being clear. There’s a load off my shoulders and on the weekend against the Knights I enjoyed playing the game and feel better about a life."
Unfortunately some fans show little sympathy. It’s about results. It’s about premierships.
Hunt joined the Dragons as their marquee man on a five-year deal, and perhaps he should be judged on what he accomplished in those five years not the first five months.
"That’s it," he said.
"It’s obviously the goal to win a comp. But if I finish my time down here without one, I’m going to be pretty disappointed. As a fan, I know they want to win every year. I want to win every year as well. But we’ve got to try and get one in there somewhere.
"The big discussion when I came down to the Dragons was that we feel like we’re building towards a team that are ready to win a competition and I feel that I can contribute to that."
I’m lucky enough to have some great teammates, but sometimes you do [feel lonely].Ben Hunt
So when will it be? Is this their year? Or are things now too far gone for the Dragons to turn it around in sudden-death football and win four on the trot to achieve what looked so likely just a few months ago.
"I think it’s fair for people to say that we’re gone going off what we’ve produced the last six weeks," he said.
"It’s definitely fair for people to say that, but I know we’ve got a quality team. We showed that at the start of the year. I think things can turn our way."
First up, a clash against his old mates. Returning to Suncorp Stadium for the first time in Dragons colours.
"The messages have already started," Hunt joked.
"Telling me ‘to run at them’ or ‘I’ll be coming after ya’."
Boyd expects Hunt to rise
And that will no doubt be the case, but as Darius Boyd showed during the week when he pleaded with fans to get off Hunt’s back, there’s a bond that no jersey will break.
"It meant a lot mate. It really did," Hunt said of Boyd’s comments.
"Everyone knows what he’s been through in his career and in his life away from footy. To say those great words, it definitely meant a lot. It touched me. It gives you a bit of a lift in yourself to know there are other players out there who have been in tough situations and there are ways through it."
Hunt expressed his appreciation in a text to Boyd, thanking him for the lift in morale.
"He just replied: "don’t let it help you too much on Sunday".
Readers seeking support and information about mental health can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.