EXCLUSIVE: Rebels legend Xavier Sullivan hangs up the boots

RUGBY LEAGUE: It's a sport that gives back as much as it gets, and since he was five years old Xavier Sullivan gave rugby league everything he had.

In return, rugby league gave Sullivan family and friends. It may have even saved his life.

Now, after 32 years of playing the game, the time has come for the warhorse to hang up the boots.

Walking from the field after the South Grafton Rebels' last game of the Group 2 season at their McKittrick Park home, Sullivan said he knew the time was right to say goodbye to the game that had given him so much.

"I had always been saying this was it, as most people do, but I was in the car with the kids and this feeling came over me," Sullivan said.

"It was the last home game (of the year), and I was going back to work (in the mines in Western Australia) the next week so I was going to miss the finals anyway. After getting to play with my son Will in his first grade debut that was a big occasion as well seeing Brooke run around in league tag and seeing how much the club has accepted my kids as one of their own, it's pretty special."

Xavier Sullivan at McKittrick Park.
Xavier Sullivan at McKittrick Park. Adam Hourigan

In the past two seasons, Sullivan said he had ticked off a number of his bucket list goals he had set for himself, and by the end of this season he had nothing left to play for.

"After seeing the Rebels' win in 2015 I was playing reserve grade and it hit home a bit, and the kids couldn't really remember how I used to play so I had a personal battle with them that I could actually hold my own on the football field," he said.

"I had a few personal issues going on too, so I really wanted to beat those demons and get back on the right track.

"Last year when I was going OK I snapped my arm against the Ghosts, a complete rupture of the bicep and that put me back a bit. This year I was sort of umm-ing and ah-ing about playing and I was (at McKittrick) to watch a game and a few people hadn't turned up and I just got itchy and Ron (Gordon) tossed me a jersey.

"I can't say no to Ron, he has been a great mate and is part of the family as well and I'm not one to let the boys down so I tried to battle it out as much as I could but I think in the end just 32 years of playing contact sport and seeing the kids come through, now it's just time to enjoy them."

Sullivan first picked up a football when he was five years old, playing junior league in Brewarrina. When he was 11 he and his mum packed up and moved to the Clarence Valley, where Sullivan first played junior league with the Grafton Ghosts.

A talented rugby union player too, Sullivan joined the Grafton Redmen and earned selection into the Australian Under-16 rugby union team.

However, by his own admission, Sullivan was a "pretty lazy trainer as a young bloke" and while the Australian team opened some doors and Sullivan moved to Sydney for a few years, he chose the kids and his career over pursuing football and returned home in 2006.

Sullivan has made his mark on a number of Clarence Valley league teams. He was a part of the failed Rhinos team and pulled on the black and white of the Lower Clarence Magpies, but he will be most remembered for his time with the South Grafton Rebels, the team he first played grade football for when he was 16.

"I think we had more than 400 points put on us over three grades against Marist Brothers so that's when I started playing back then," he said.

The Rebels' 2016 grand final win over arch rivals Grafton Ghosts ranked as one of Sullivan's proudest highlights of his time with the club.

"Proving stuff to the kids and a few doubters, especially with my age, I was 35 at the time, really made that win special," he said.

While Sullivan was proving the doubters wrong on the field, privately he has faced some demons.

"I went through a few personal issues, drug addiction, depression, it was pretty hard at the time but we got through it and the club and the boys were great with it," he said.

"I'm pretty open about it now, I don't mind telling people about it because hopefully my struggles and what I've been through can lift people and give them that strength to speak up if something is wrong."

Having seen four close mates lost to suicide from depression, Sullivan is passionate about breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health and support initiatives such as Livin and the It Ain't Weak to Speak program.

"I think the more people are open about it, the more services that are available, which they are, and if people know they can access it at any time it'll go a long way to help," he said.

Jaxon Sullivan with dad Xavier Sullivan at McKittrick Park.
Jaxon Sullivan with dad Xavier Sullivan at McKittrick Park. Adam Hourigan

Throughout it all, Sullivan has had the support of the club, his players, the fans and family, especially his mum who sacrificed so much to give Sullivan every opportunity to play footy. "I owe her everything," he said.

While Sullivan's playing days are now over, he said he would still come and support the Rebels, just perhaps towards the back of the grandstand, far enough away a jersey can't be thrown in his direction.

"A few of the boys have tried to get me to do waterboy or strapping courses but if I get too close to the action I might get sucked back in again so I might just stay away from the sidelines for a little bit."

For more information on Livin and their It Ain't Weak to Speak program, visit their website.