How ‘first class’ Mitch turned from larrikin to leader
The old Mitchell Pearce story is about a footy larrikin. The new one is about leadership and love.
The transformation of an irresponsible, clumsy and much maligned young footballer to a mature and proud NRL captain via a new coach, new values... and the girl he has fallen in love with.
He is now on a mission to play 400 NRL games and deliver Newcastle's first premiership for 20 years.
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The last time I sat down to interview Mitchell Pearce was after the Australia Day debacle of 2016, the Thailand rehab and visits to alcoholics anonymous.
He is now such a different man.
There's still that bit of larrikin but, at 30, he has a much better understanding of his responsibilities.
"Do I look back?" he says, "Well I don't have Alzheimer's so I remember it all. I've tried to learn from it without dwelling on it. I just try to enjoy every day of footy.
"I'm a leader but do I have to tighten some areas up? Absolutely I do. It's about having some boundaries and consistency on and off the field.
"You've got to drive the standards. This is my 15th season. I know what I need to do. You learn how to hold yourself in all situations as you get older.
"For us to be there at the end of the year, my captaincy has to be up there with the great leaders in the NRL like Boyd Cordner and Cameron Smith.
"There's been so many things written about me over the years but I'm on a mission and really motivated to finish my career really well."
New Knights coach Adam O'Brien has worked closely alongside Test captains Cameron Smith and Boyd Cordner at Melbourne Storm and the Sydney Roosters. He puts Pearce in the same category.
"I can only judge him on what I've seen and it's been first class," O'Brien said.
"There's been a couple of things like he was the first one to leave our Christmas party and go home.
"We went to Tamworth to help out the farmers and had a beer with them afterwards.
"There was an 8.30pm and 11.30pm bus back to our hotel. Junior got the early one.
"Look, the first part of his book may have been written but the ending hasn't. He gets to control the last chapters."
It is for the example Pearce sets at training that O'Brien compares him to Cameron Smith.
"No-one leads better than Mitchell on the field at training," O'Brien said,
"He's that mentally strong, you won't beat him fitness wise. He's one of the best I've ever seen.
"Cameron is like that. In the field stuff at training they lift when it's tough. The harder it gets the more they step into it."
THE BROWN SACKING
There was much talk about Nathan Brown losing the dressing sheds on the day the Knights were walloped 54-10 by the Panthers in round 24 last year.
The club was in turmoil after looking finals certainties a month earlier.
"It got ugly there at the end, there's no denying that," Pearce said.
"There was a bit going on.
"My relationship with Browny was always good but at the end we weren't all pushing in the same direction and some embarrassing things happened.
"The club went a different way. The change has been great. Ads is a top shelf coach. He's very impressive. As soon as he walked in the door you knew. New voice, new systems.
"He's a strong character, hard worker, honest and tough. He's come from some great systems at Storm and the Roosters. Robbo is the best coach I've ever had and Ads is cut out of that cloth.
"You've just got to scrap last year and look forward. That's what we're doing."
If he can stay injury free, Pearce will play his 300th NRL game in round 25 this year.
He has now played 276 games and, remarkably, will be just 48 hours shy of becoming the youngest player in history to achieve the milestone.
The great Freddy Fittler was two days younger at 31 years and 150 days in 2003.
Pearce would have blitzed the record but for his 12-week pec injury last year and his eight-game suspension back in 2016 for his infamous Australia Day shenanigans.
"Wow, I didn't know I was that close," he said.
"It's not a bad rap. I'm very proud of it.
"It's taken resilience and hard work every day I've turned up week in week out."
There are suggestions he might stick around and play 400. Smith is still going on 411. He turns 37 during season. NFL legend Tom Brady is still going at 42. It's about modern-day sports science.
"It's a long way away, but I have thought about it," Pearce admits.
"Cameron is the greatest player of all time. If my body goes and I'm letting my team mates down I'll stop, but at the moment I'm fresh and rejuvenated."
Pearce could have stayed at the Roosters and been part of two more premierships.
He says the club will always be part of his life and admits Cooper Cronk did magnificently in his old jersey.
"Cooper was just sensational," Pearce said.
"What a champion. They hired him to do a job and he delivered. All the boys there are my mates for life.
"I have no regrets, I'm happy and I'm on a different journey. You move on. This next couple of years in Newcastle is about achieving what the Roosters have. Can we win a premiership? Yes I think we can."
FALLING IN LOVE
You only need to check Pearce's Instagram feed. He and his partner, Kristin Scott, have been together for 12 months and are inseparable. They've been to Bali and the US in the off-season.
Many at the Knights credit Kristin for changing Pearce's life.
"She is an awesome girl," Pearce says.
"She's from Wollongong but has moved to Newcastle.
"I'm feeling very settled in my life. She's a beautiful girl and I'm looking forward to sharing our future together.
"There is stability. We get along great and we're best friends. It's only been a year but we've spoken about our future together and we're excited about it."