NOWRA-born Cody Walker sits quietly in the hospital room, his head bowed, waiting for his brothers.
He’s the youngest of four boys. “And always been the most emotional,” offers Walker’s second eldest brother, Ryan. “Clingy. Especially when it
Walker was in the middle of cooking dinner at home in Sydney when he received the phone call that his mum, Linda Stewart, had suffered a heart attack and that he’d better get down to Nowra on the south coast where she lived as soon as he could.
So he dropped everything, bundled up his two young sons and dropped them off at their other grandmother’s place before tearing down the highway with his partner, Nellie.
“The first call was that she was OK,” Walker recalls. “My first thought was that she’d come good. I thought we’d come down for a few hours and she’d come good and then we’d go home. Half an hour later, we got another call. We’d lost her.”
So now Walker sits with his head bowed in a hospital room, sitting next to his mum, waiting for his brothers. How does this happen? She was only 60.
When Ryan arrives, he starts looking through his mum’s bag. He finds her purse and opens it up.
“Cody,” he says quietly, “come look at this …”
Inside their mum’s purse is every ticket to every South Sydney match she had attended in the last two years. They stretch back to the day when Walker made his NRL debut, against the Roosters, at the age of 26.
“When I turned up, he’d been in the room for a fair while,” Ryan recalls. “He wasn’t game enough to look through [her belongings]. Me being me, I was checking through her stuff and there was every ticket from every one of his games that she’d been to. She was extremely proud of Cody, especially in the last couple of years. We all have been.”
Says Walker: “She spoke about keeping certain things. But I never knew about this. We just thought Mum would live forever. She was unstoppable to us boys.”
Grief reveals itself in many ways. There are almost as many ways to handle it, to get through it, to push on.
Footy should be among the last of Walker’s priorities right now. For many years, as he struggled to find the discipline needed to convert raw ability into a full-time career, it wasn’t.
But since his mum passed away 10 days ago, footy has never been so important for Walker.
It’s helped get him through: from his emotional try for Souths in their win over the Knights less than 48 hours after her death, to him bouncing off the walls at training at Redfern this week, to Sunday’s blockbuster against competition frontrunners St George Illawarra at ANZ Stadium.
Her name was Linda but almost everyone knew her as Lou. Or Lou-Lou. Or Aunty Lou. Nanny Lou-Lou. Or Mum.
“She was a very quiet girl,” Walker says. “She didn’t say too much, didn’t fuss too much. Give her a couple of drinks and she’d get a bit cheeky.”
Her husband, Bernie, agrees. Then he giggles, bless him.
“Unless we went into the Souths merchandise shop,” he says. “I’m Cody Walker’s mum. I want a discount! No shame. We’d watch Souths games at the pub if we couldn’t get to the game. She’d get a little tipsy. She also didn’t hold back then! But normally she never wanted to be the centre of attention.”
That seems to be how it was with Lou: the mum and nan who put everyone else first.
When Walker was contracted to the Gold Coast Titans, she would drive two hours from the family home at Casino on the Far North Coast to shuffle her son to physio appointments and the like because he didn’t have a driver’s licence.
When he would come home for the weekend and then struggle to return to the Titans because he was so homesick, she would never judge. When he missed training sessions, when he got in fights, when he never looked like cashing in on an NRL career that was begging to be taken, she told him to live by nobody else’s standards except his own.
“I didn’t have the right commitment and discipline to make it in the NRL,” Walker admits. “People always told me I had the talent but did I have the drive and commitment? I got in some trouble in Casino. The Titans didn’t offer me another contract. But Mum, she just supported me. You choose your own life. You want to do it, you do it. If you don’t, come home. She never pushed us.”
Souths coach Anthony Seibold knew how good Walker could be as he watched a spring-footed kid, who idolised Preston Campbell, trouble defences each time he took on the line for Brisbane Easts in the Queensland Cup.
Seibold was an assistant coach at the Melbourne Storm when Walker arrived there in late 2013 for the pre-season; yet another train stop in Walker's complex career.
“He was going to make his debut in round nine against Manly,” Seibold remembers. “But then he did his hamstring in the second last training session of the week. He didn’t make his debut — and he didn’t make it for another two years.
“He could’ve been one of those players who fell through the cracks. All the ability in the world but didn’t get beyond Queensland Cup. But since then I’ve seen him grow as a person. He’s really matured into a special young man.”
Soon after Walker injured his hamstring, Souths boss Shane Richardson snapped him up. The mail on Walker had come from Richardson’s close friend Des Morris, the Queensland selector who ran Brisbane Easts until a couple of years ago.
In the last two years, having pinged from club to club, Souths have become Walker's second family. He’s a proud Bundjalung and Yuin man and his family’s totem — the goanna — is on Souths’ jumper for this weekend’s round that honours the game’s indigenous heritage.
“He plays his best footy when he’s representing our culture,” Ryan says, proudly.
It’s the hours away from footy that are the toughest for Walker right now.
“But this is my happy place,” he says during our interview at Redfern Oval earlier this week. “I can be a little smart arse to the boys. I love it. I love to get under people’s skins. I could not wait to get here on Monday morning.”
Within hours of his mum’s passing, he told Seibold he wanted to play against the Knights.
Ryan, who played three matches for Penrith in 2011 before pursuing a career in the Hunter Valley mines, knew what Lou would've wanted.
“It’s up to you if you want to play,” Ryan told his brother. “But I know Mum: she wouldn’t want the world to stop.”
The club arranged for 30 or so tickets for Walker’s immediate and extended family to attend the match in Newcastle.
In the past few years, the only time the Walkers have come together has been to watch Cody play, like the time he made his debut.
Souths winger Robert Jennings scored in the first minute and then, three minutes later, the ball found Walker: one off the ruck, 10 metres out from the tryline, right in front of the posts, defensive line going backwards.
Danger. Danger. Danger.
A shimmy, a change of direction and then the try with three Knights defenders clinging on to him. Every one of his Souths teammates rushed in to congratulate Walker, who grabbed the tape carrying his mum's name on his wrist.
“Incredible,” Bernie says. “We’re excited when he scores at any other time, but to score that for Mum, it was really emotional. Tears just came to all our eyes straight away.”
Walker didn’t cry after he scored the try. That came later, after full-time, when he found Nellie and his two boys, Kade and Kian, in the grandstand.
“To understand what it meant for him to play, you have to know him,” Ryan says. “He’s the most emotional out of all of us. For him to hold it together, as the baby of us boys, it shows where he’s at and how well he played. He’s not the sook but he’s the one who is more in touch with his emotions."
The Walkers went back to the team hotel and sat in a room to reminisce and trade stories about Lou until 7am. Since then, Walker has been watching replays of his try.
“I’ve been watching that highlight over and over,” he says, “because it makes me feel good. The first person who popped into my head was Mum. She loved it when I scored tries. She never missed a game, whether she was there or not. She’d go down the pub and always watch the games …”
On Monday, Walker and his family will put Lou to rest with a funeral service in Nowra. The entire Souths team will be on the bus, making their way there to be by his side.
Before that, there's the minor matter of taking on the Dragons. How heartbreaking: it’s the ticket Lou won’t be tucking away in her purse; another keepsake of her youngest boy’s career.
“It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday,” Walker says. “And it’s the Indigenous Round. I was planning on bringing her up.”
If that doesn't make you squeeze your Mum a little tighter than usual this weekend, what will?