EVER since he started playing rugby league at the age of five, Gerringong's Jackson Ford has had one thing on his mind.
Playing in the NRL.
That dream will become a reality on Saturday, when he runs out onto Netstrata Jubilee Stadium to make his first grade debut with the St George Illawarra Dragons, for their round 21 clash with the Gold Coast Titans.
As much as the Group Seven product is 'over the moon' with this opportunity, he also appreciates how much time and effort has gone in to get him to this point.
The Kiama High School alumni spent 14 years at the Lions, which included winning the first grade premiership in 2016, before linking up with the Dragons.
In his three seasons with the Red V, he has played Jersey Flegg (under 20s), Canterbury Cup (NSW Cup) and now first grade - all while being part of the club's top squad.
"Being able to see first hand how hard all the NRL guys work each day, has definitely helped me take my game to the next level," Ford said.
"I thought Gerringong's preseason sessions were hard until I did my first one with the Dragons last year - which really laid the platform for my strong past 18 months."
In 2019, the backrower's form has helped the Dragons move into the top four of the Canterbury Cup ladder - which includes scintillating four-try effort against Wentworthville (a match they won 36-16) last weekend.
"I've defiantly had one of my best seasons of footy this year in Canterbury Cup," Ford, who is equal leading tryscorer (13) in the Canterbury Cup this season alongside Magpies' Bevan French said.
"It's been the most enjoyable season I've had to date.
"It's this play, especially last weekend's effort, that helped convince the coaches I'm ready for first grade."
The 21-year-old found out he was becoming Dragon 227 on Tuesday morning, when he was called into coach Paul 'Mary' McGregor's office.
"On Monday night, I got a text from Mary asking me to come and see him a hour before training," he said.
"From then on, I couldn't really sleep and was just thinking of all the possible things Mary could tell me and just hoping it was this one.
"Thankfully I heard the news I was after - I was so happy and excited, while also feeling a sense of achievement.
"Everyone who plays rugby league would love to be in the NRL - it's the pinnacle."
The first people he called with the good news were his parents Geoff and Tracey.
"I called my mum first but she didn't answer, so then I called dad," he said.
"As soon as I hung up to dad, mum rang back - they were both so happy with the news."
Ford then had to head into a video session, which saw his mother inform his sister Bree and brother Nathan - who Ford rates as the biggest influence on his career.
"Ever since I was young, Nathan (who himself was in the Dragons junior system before spending time with the Cutters during a pre-season) has been giving me tips on playing - he was even my coach for a few years in the under 18s at Gerringong," he said.
"When I was young, I used always go up and watch the Lions first grade side train and he was always putting in 100 per cent and always the one leading the pack - I always wanted to be like him.
"He even got me into the gym and helped me get rid of my lanky frame, which got me into the Dragons' juniors system and I've never looked back."
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It's not just older brother Nathan who's had an impact on Ford from the Lions club.
"Gerringong is a massive rugby league town," he said.
"Everyone is supportive and asks how I'm going every time I see them.
"In particular, having Mick [Cronin] as coach for a couple of years was special and really taught me a lot about the game."
Looking ahead to the game, Ford, who has made 3091 run metres from 295 carries (ranking in second in Canterbury Cup) and 641 tackles this season, has been given a couple of instructions by Mary ahead of his debut.
"Mary gave me three things to focus on for the match," he said.
"Be as strong as I can in defence, especially in ruck control to win my tackles.
"To make sure I get my timing right on my leads and to get behind the ball early after kicks, so I can get involved.
"If I do these and keep my errors and missed tackles down, I'm confident I can prove I belong."
Ford joins the likes of Gerringong products Paul Quinn, Michael Cronin, Peter Ford, Ron Quinn, Rod Wishart, Ashton Sims, Tariq Sims, Korbin Sims (both of him who will be in the Dragons side this Saturday) and Reuben Garrick, as well as the likes of Jack Murchie, Josh and Brett Morris, Shaun Timmins, Dylan Farrell and Jonathan Britten who spent time at Michael Cronin Oval, to play first grade.