A Warm Place

Josh Griffin never used to want to play rugby league. The Oxford-born back, raised on union, never even considered a career as a professional sportsman just over a decade ago. As a teenager, he only knew he wanted to work in the outdoors, away from an office desk – and when the opportunity suddenly came to turn his Sunday run-around into a living, he was already deep into training with the Royal Marines. But like a lot of his major decisions in life, he eventually plumped for the one recommended by his most respected mentor and guide; his father.

“I had two contracts, from Wakefield and Huddersfield in front of me,” he recalls. “I’d done all the courses and the time away in Plymouth for the Marines, and I’d done really well with that, but I still didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. My dad told me to do whatever it was I wanted, but when I asked him for his choice, he backed the rugby. My brother Darrell was already playing with Huddersfield, so I signed the contract with them.” He smiles, fondly. “Looking back, it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.”

When Mantality meets Josh, it’s in a Starbucks near his home in Birstall where he lives with his partner. It’s an apt location in terms of his playing career geography; halfway between his past and his future. He’s spent the last few years heading out west on the M62, towards Manchester to ply his trade at the Salford Red Devils. Now however, he is heading east for the Humber, to start up a new chapter in an already storied career with Hull FC. It will be his sixth professional club as a first-teamer in rugby league; his seventh overall if you count his stint with Leeds, now Yorkshire Carnegie, in union between 2012 and 2014.

“There were a few clubs circling, yeah,” he admits when asked about how many teams were in the hunt for his signature after an impressive, yet injury-stricken spell at the AJ Bell Stadium. “Leeds, St Helens. Melbourne was a big one too. But Hull were the club who matched my ambition really. I’m wanting to push to play in those big games so they just fitted me perfectly.” Why not Melbourne though? One of the biggest clubs in the NRL? His answer is decisive, a clear indicator of a man who puts family before fortune. “My dad. It was still too close at the time, even a year later. I didn’t want to go halfway around the world and leave my family, especially not so soon after.”

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All the Love in the World

Josh’s father unexpectedly passed away in late May last year, following complications from emergency open heart surgery arising from a sudden cardiac arrest. It’s one thing to lose a parent; it’s another thing entirely for them to simply drop out of your life without warning at a relatively young age too. For the middle Griffin brother – and indeed the rest of his siblings – he likened it to a sink-or-swim situation; such a sudden bereavement can sink you but eventually, you learn how to swim back up.

Growing up in Oxfordshire, Josh never always saw his dad regularly, such was his career as a long-distance HGV driver. But like all good father figures, he helped instil strong convictions and morals in his son through his actions as a family man. “He used to go off to work on a Monday morning with no money in his pocket, because we needed it at home,” he reminisces. “It was tight and we needed food on the table, so he’d go the whole week, working eighty hours across seven days, with not a pound in his pocket. He always made sure to put his family first.” There’s a wistfulness, a reverence to his voice when he speaks about his recollections of his father at a young age. “When you’re young, you don’t really realise it, you don’t realise the magnitude of it; but in hindsight, seeing him set off down the road without a penny to his name made me respect him and love him even more if possible. That’s the sort of bloke he was.”

Aside from a brief sojourn as a pub landlord, Josh’s dad never strayed from his original career; and his willingness to work brutal hours meant that he was easily able to secure work elsewhere when the family decided on a move north. “Lorry drivers always get flogged when they’re younger,” Josh notes, “but he never asked anything of his employers. When we moved to Wakefield, he managed to get a regular job up here because of his reputation. He was good at his job, and he was established in industry circles, so he could always find the work he needed.”

That respect that his father cultivated in his profession and as a parent profoundly had an influence on Josh growing up. Although he had done well in school, he found the shift to college difficult and owing to his physical prowess outmatching his academic knowledge, was quickly turned off the idea of further education and university. Yet it was his father again who helped him going forwards. “My parents understood what I was like. I was struggling at college because of the freedom there; it was less structured than school. And I was unsure what I wanted to do with myself too; perhaps orienteering but I never really pushed on with that either. But my dad never pushed me towards anything; he always told me to do what I wanted to, but he’d help me with the indecision too.”

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One area where the middle Griffin brother was excelling though was the academy at Wakefield Trinity – and despite little interest initially at turning pro, his move to Huddersfield opened up a world of possibilities. But it also gave him a chance to truly get to know his Darrell, who had been away from the family seat for a decade owing to his own career as a player. “He was always a brother to me,” Josh is quick to state, “But I didn’t really know him as a close sibling. He moved to London to join their academy when I was only six, and we only ever saw each other three to four times a year after that. So playing alongside Darrell was the first chance I really got to know my brother. We’d travel together from Wakefield to training.”

It was his father and Darrell that taught Josh credits with helping to keep him on “the straight and narrow” as he puts it. The sudden leap from academy level was a culture shock, and he admits that it took some “eye-opening” experiences to ground him. “Steeping into that first team environment, you go from being the big fish in a small pond, to being at the bottom,“ he acknowledges wryly. “Inside, I was struggling to get my heard around. Outside, it gave me the mentality of being someone who thinks they’re better than they are. I was going around town, being bigger than I had any right to be. I was slipping down the wrong path.” The wrong path how? “I was going out drinking all the time. I was living at home, and suddenly turning pro, felt like I had a lot of money to burn. I tried turning up to training after a night out.” He pauses. “It took my dad and Darrell to put me on track. I had an argument with Darrell at training one day that turned into a scuffle, and it made me pause and realise what I was doing. It took my dad and Darrell to knock it out of me in the end.”

The Day the World Went Away

Josh’s father may have been his critic but he was also his champion. Over a year and a half on from his death, his son still keenly feels the loss of one of the most influential, loved figures in his life. It will be his second Christmas without his dad; and he states that his passing didn’t initially hit him strongly until his absence at the festive period last year. “It was Christmas where it really hit. His birthday too, in a way, but they were something never greatly celebrated with him because he wasn’t always there. When it came around, it felt in part just like another birthday where he was simply at work. But he was always there for Christmas. That’s when I kind of properly realised that he was gone.”

Salford had played Warrington on the Friday night, after which Josh had spoken to his father over the phone about the game, as he hadn’t been able to make it due to work. On the Saturday morning, having just arrived in Manchester for training, Darrell received a call from their sister, telling them that their dad had been rushed to Leeds General Infirmary with a suspected heart attack. For Josh, he initially feared the worst but upon seeing his dad in hospital, found his worries assuaged. “He was awake and fine, in good spirits and being his normal jokey self,” he says. “When we spoke to the doctors, they seemed positive that his condition was improving and that they were going to move him to Pinderfields in Wakefield later to be closer to him. They said it was only a small heart attack, so we all headed home to let him rest, not thinking it was any more serious than they’d said.”

Yet déjà vu pervaded on the Sunday; again after arriving at training, Josh and Darrell got a call that their father’s condition had suddenly worsened and that he would have to undergo emergency open heart surgery, with only a sixty percent chance of survival. “I spoke to him on the phone as we headed across back to Leeds. He was scared, he was getting quite emotional. We managed to get to the LGI before they took him down for the operation and we had the chance to speak to him in person, to be there with him.” He pauses in recollection, and swallows. “That was the last time that we spoke to each other.”

His father survived the procedure – but serious complications arose when he suffered a second cardiac arrest mid-operation, with surgeons unable to probably stem the flow of blood pouring out of his heart after it blew a hole. Though he started to show signs of improvement throughout the rest of the day and Monday after being moved to intensive care, Josh got another call at three in the morning on Tuesday, asking him to come to the hospital. By the time he got there, half an hour later, his father had passed away. “I was quite numb. It was very strange. It doesn’t sink in quite immediately in that sense. Everyone was emotional; no-one was really talking to each other. People were trying to sleep, but it’s hard. It didn’t really sink in until a few months later.”

Josh and his brothers – Darrell and younger sibling George, who also played at Salford – took the Wednesday off, but trained again on the Thursday and then, for the first time, all played alongside each other at their Magic Weekend fixture against Widnes in Newcastle. He concedes that perhaps the trio weren’t fully ready to return in the immediate wake of their bereavement. “It affected all of us strongly, mentally. Darrell got a red card for a high tackle, George got put on report, I got a yellow for fighting. We probably shouldn’t have played; our emotions defined us in that game and we were absolute crap. But over the next few months, it became part of my way of coping. We kept playing to honour him; we all thought that he would have wanted us to keep at it.” Were there any other games where he keenly felt his dad’s absence? “Every game. Every game.”

We’re In This Together

The Kübler-Ross model suggests that there are five stages of grieving. Anger was the one that Josh felt defined him most in the wake of his father’s passing; an injustice at the unfairness of it all. “My parents had been together forty-odd years and my dad had always worked hard to support his family. And then you look around and see people who still have their parents but don’t appreciate them, who take advantage of them. I kept asking myself why it had to be me, and not them, in a sense. I always understood and appreciated my dad, so when I saw people who didn’t cherish that connection, it made me very angry. People don’t always realise what they had until it’s gone.”

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Josh admits freely that he became very angry inside, an anger that affected his partner, family and career. “It was little stuff that could bring it out; I found myself getting angry quite quickly at small things. My missus and family copped a lot of it from me. It was how I dealt with his passing, but it wasn’t healthy. I ended up speaking to a professional about it in the end, about how to approach it and deal with it.” He doesn’t believe that the emotion was latent; more that it was born out of trying to process his dad’s passing. “It was all about trying to get my head around it, it was about being jealous of people who still had a father to turn to. In a sense, I was drowning.”

He credits his family – in particular his sister, the eldest of his siblings – as helping to pull himself back together. “She took a lot on in my mum’s stead when she couldn’t handle it; she became the rock of the family, holding us all together. We helped each other through it in the end – we still help each other through it. We are very close as a family; and I think it might have been very different if I didn’t have my brothers and sister alongside me.”

Nineteen months on, and Josh is preparing for life at Hull, where he hopes to take the next logical step beyond simply playing Super League; claiming some silverware for the mantelpiece. It’s a desire to progress, and to be able to look back with a fond eye – but once again, he knows that whatever he achieves, it would have made his father proud. “I’ve gone to Hull to win stuff. You want to win, medals, win trophies, win the international call-up. I could have stayed in Salford on more money – but as my dad showed me, it’s not all about the money. It’s about happiness. I want to be able to look back and tell my kids what I did, that I won cups and played for my country. But I know that whatever I do now in rugby, I’ll be doing my dad proud too.”