James Graham paid tribute to his parents after they surprised him by flying from England to attend his emotion-charged 400th premiership at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Saturday.
Graham, who began his career with St Helens in Super League 16 years ago, was the centre of attention as the Dragons celebrated his milestone with a 40-28 defeat of the Titans.
The English forward admitted he was close to tears before kick-off as he saw his wife and children in the tunnel.
Tributes from former and current team-mates were played on the big screen and an England flag with the names of every player he’d play alongside written into the cross of Saint George was pinned to a wall in the home dressing room.
On each of the four sides of the red cross was the location of one of the three clubs Graham has played for, Eccleston (St Helens), Belmore (Canterbury) and Kogarah (St George Illawarra), and his birthplace, Maghull.
However, he had no sense before their arrival that his parents, John and Dianne, were also planning to be on hand to witness the Dragons end a five-match losing streak on a special occasion for their son.
“I was very, very surprised,” Graham said. “I spoke to my mum on Tuesday or Wednesday and she said, ‘good luck’ and all this, and I said, ‘if you are thinking of coming I will kill you’. She just laughed it off and I thought that was it.
“There are lots of stories in rugby league, and it is not just with me, but my parents made a big commitment and a big sacrifice to the family to get me to training and to get me to games from 11 years of age, four nights a week and Saturdays and Sundays.
“They did that not because they wanted to see me play in the NRL, but because they saw that one of their sons was passionate about something.”
Graham’s brother, sister-in-law and their two children were also at the match, and the 33-year-old said afterwards that his siblings had also had to make sacrifices for him to play at the level he did, which included representing England Under 16s.
“A lot of the time dad was busy ferrying me around the north-west of England so they missed out on some dad-time and mum had to pick up the pieces sometimes when we were travelling a lot,” he said.
Match Highlights: Dragons v Titans
“It has been quite overwhelming. I am quite an emotional character so when I was going out in the tunnel and I saw my missus and two kids I had to look down. I don’t even know why, I see them every day. It is a weird thing that emotion can sometimes overtake you.”
Dragons players players were relieved that they were able to celebrate Graham’s 400th premiership appearance, centre Euan Aitken’s 100th NRL match and Jackson Ford’s debut with a win.
Captain Gareth Widdop revealed that team-mates used Graham’s achievement to spur themselves on after the Titans fought back to trail 36-28 with 14 minutes remaining in the match.
“Obviously we spoke about turning up today for a number of reasons and not letting those blokes down,” Widdop said.
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“It was really important, for a bloke who guys out there every weekend and gets bashed pillar to post but turns up – you know what you are going to get from him – you need to reward him for what he has done all year and what he has done his whole career.
“He has played with some heart and some courage and it is just pleasing to get that win. There was a lot to play for today. He has been great for the game of rugby league in general and he is a good mate of mine so I was so pleased we could get the win for him.”
Dragons coach Paul McGregor said Graham would leave a legacy at the club with his work ethic after his career is finished, which won’t be until at least after next season as he has taken up an option in his contract.
“It’s just the effort areas around the game that he brings, and he doesn’t bring it in any other way except through his effort and grit and perseverance," McGregor said.
"If you look at any pictures of his career, he's always that bloke coming from the inside from somewhere to stop that try or push that person into the corner."