HE may have been one of the most intimidating players on the rugby league field but the work Ashton Sims is doing off it is even more powerful.
After playing 368 first grade games with St George Illawarra, Brisbane, North Queensland, Warrington and Toronto during his 17-year career, the Gerringong Lions product decided to hang up the boots in 2019.
"The last two years of my career were marred by a few little injuries that I'd never gotten before," Sims said.
"It was a little hammy tear here, a little calf tear there and I just knew they were injuries I'd never sustained before.
"I remember speaking to one of my good mates Kurt Gidley and he said once you start getting those injuries, it's your body telling you your time might be up.
"I've always been one of those guys who wanted to retire on my terms, as I've had a lot of teammates and friends had to retire early."
It was during the twilight of his career, Sims found another passion to direct his time towards - something he hoped to pursue in retirement.
"The last seven or eight years of my career, I was an anti-bullying and mental health campaign ambassador, as it's something I'm very passionate about," Sims, who was stoked to watch the Lions win a Group Seven grand final in person for the first time since 2013 this season, said.
"It bounces me out of bed every morning.
"I know a lot of guys who have transitioned through four or five jobs at the end of their careers before finding one that really connects with who they are.
"I'm very glad to say this has always been a passion of mine - helping people be that best version of themselves.
"I'll admit, I wasn't the best footy player even though I did play for a long time but one thing I've always been is someone who's wanted to help others.
I'm a blue-collar boy from Gerringong, who's the son of a dairy farmer and a Fijian immigrant, who both worked their fingers to the bone to provide for our family and put food in all our belliesAshton Sims
"Whether it's on or off the field, in social life or family life, everyone deserves to be happy and if I can help them develop tools to become the best fit for them, so they can find that optimal outcome, surrounding their physical and mental health, I've made a difference.
"I've conducted more than 50 workshops already and it gives me an identity and purpose while allowing me to change the perception around mental health.
"The better knowledge we gain around our mental health, the better outcomes we will get."
On the topic of mental well-being, Sims claims mentally he could have played for another 10 years but it was the physical side that started to break down.
"I didn't want to go that one season too long, have an injury-riddled year and be remembered for that," Sims said.
"I got to bow out when I wanted to, in one of the most important games - helping the Toronto Wolfpack up into the English Super League.
"All good things have to come to an end at some point, which is sad but I look back on my career fondly, as I got to play with and against some of the best players to ever play our game.
"I've always had that gratitude with me during my career.
"Not once did I feel like I was better than anyone, never did I feel I was a celebrity - I know who I am.
"I'm a blue-collar boy from Gerringong, who's the son of a dairy farmer and a Fijian immigrant, who both worked their fingers to the bone to provide for our family and put food in all our bellies.
"We come from very humble beginnings, and it's easy to look back at some of those dark times growing up and use as motivation moving forward."
That final game with the now-defunct Canadian-based franchise is one of a number of highlights the former Australian Schoolboy holds close to his heart.
"Making your first grade debut is always a huge one - it's a culmination of all the hard work, sacrifice and dedication it takes to live out your dream," the 12-time capped Fijian international said.
"Growing up, all I wanted to do was be a rugby league player.
"I remember as a kid listening to it [rugby league] on the radio, as there were periods of time that we didn't have a television in the house - thankfully I got to watch my heroes play for the Gerringong Lions each week instead.
"Another highlight for me was playing alongside my younger brothers [Tariq and Korbin] at the 2013 World Cup with Fiji, which was a powerful experience.
"It was a backyard dream on the world's biggest stage.
"It's one thing to play rugby league with your mates but it's another to play it with your flesh and blood. For the three of us to run out together in a professional setting, highlighted how devoted our parents were to helping us kids achieve our dreams.
"Finally, getting to play in the 2016 English Super League with Warrington at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, in front of more than 68,000 fans was incredible - especially as my oldest son Kobe walked out onto the field with me that day.
"That was a bittersweet moment (Wigan won 12-6), but it's one I'll never forget after seeing the joy on my son's face - it's one we have plenty of photos of and will cherish forever."
Sims, his wife Nic, and their four children then moved back to the South Coast in October 2019, to start the next chapter of their lives.
"I've been very humbled and privileged, to play professional rugby league for 17 years," the now 35-year-old said.
"It [rugby league] gave me so much - I was a kid who was destined to live, grow and die in Gerringong, which I was happy to do."
"Rugby league showed me parts of Australia and the world, that I wouldn't have otherwise seen.
"No matter where I've been around the world, the South Coast is still the jewel in my eye - it's given me so many experiences and opportunities in life.
"I'm now in a position where I can give back to those communities and workplaces in this amazing area."
Really proud to say I’m joining #MentalHealthMovement as a full time facilitator. An innovative company specialising in developing & maintaining mentally healthy & supportive workplaces through Awareness, Education, Training & Resources🧠 #MentalHealth#StartingTheConversation🗣 pic.twitter.com/M1yYbby9TM— Ashton Sims (@ashtonsims26) December 3, 2019
That next faze for the Kiama High School alumnus saw him team up with fellow former NRL players Dan Hunt and Chris Houston at the Mental Health Movement - who's work is as vital as its ever been, with the unfortunately high number of self-harm deaths on the South Coast in 2020.
"Our biggest mission at the Mental Health Movement is to help create, develop and maintain mentally healthy, supportive workplaces, communities and schools," the MHM consultant and facilitator said.
"That's always been a big vision of the company and I'm glad since myself, Chris [Houston] and Brett Connellan have come on board, we've been able to really outreach to the communities.
The world has changed and evolved and we need to adapt our mindset and thought processes around that - it's like we are trying to navigate the new landscape with an old mapAshton Sims
"There was a period of time where we had seven suicides in seven weeks in my local area and unfortunately, I know there's been a knock-on effect down the coast too.
"We aren't going to sit on our hands and do nothing; we know our awareness, our education, training, resources all help break down the negative stigma around someone putting their hand up when they going through mental health struggles.
"To me, that's all part of the human experience and it's okay to feel that way, but you know what? There are so many avenues of support out there to help you get through it."
While suicides statistics are as high as they've ever been in Australia, so are professional support networks to assist people struggling with mental health.
"We want to educate people that if you're feeling down, depressed, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, agitated, sad, angry, it's okay - they're all emotions we're meant to be feeling," he said.
"People just need to know it's okay to put your hand up and seek support, which in no way makes you less of a man, woman, husband, wife, father, mother, less of a person, it just means you want to be doing better than you currently are.
"There's a big difference between acting tough and being strong.
"Those connotations of 'if you've got an issue, grab a tissue' or 'have a cup of concrete and harden up' might have worked in the old days but it's certainly not working now.
"The world has changed and evolved and we need to adapt our mindset and thought processes around that - it's like we are trying to navigate the new landscape with an old map.
"I've always been big on respecting the past but we need to change our mindsets towards our future, which all starts with education, knowledge, how to better manage your own mental health and how to being the best support network you can for your friends, family and colleagues."
If Sims' words hit home for you, please feel free to email him at email@example.com, as the Mental Health Movement would love to hear from you.
"We've evolved into so much more than just a mental health company that goes to workplaces," he said.
"We're very lucky and proud to be on board with Group Seven Rugby League in 2021, as well as the Illawarra District Rugby League competition.
"We are also in the process of talking with a number of different netball and hockey organisations, about implementing mental health strategies in their respective competitions.
"We've also worked with a host of different schools and one of the big ones leading the way at the moment is Bomaderry High, who we will be kicking off a mental health strategy course in January with.
"We're also in talks with Moruya High, trying to finalise some details.
"It's really exciting because if you're 30 years or above, you weren't educated on this at school with mental health studies and how to manage it - so we're just doing the best we can in this shape with the knowledge we've got.
"The more knowledge we've got the better choices we'll make and the better outcomes we will get in life."
Numbers to call if you or anyone you know needs help are:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
Headspace 1800 650 890
QLife 1800 184 527