Cullen’s remarkable comeback

Published 1:43pm 12 August 2022

Cullen’s remarkable comeback
Words by Kylie Knight

Redcliffe Dolphins’ halfback and captain Cameron Cullen will make his return to playing this weekend, 11 weeks after surgery on a bulging disc in his neck which was causing excruciating pain.

Cullen is due to play BRL with the Brighton Roosters against the Magpies on Saturday.

“I’ll find out on Saturday, exactly which grade I’ll play,” he says.

The 28-year-old hasn’t played a game this season and has worked hard during rehabilitation to fast-track his physical and mental recovery.

He made the decision to go under the knife after realising the pain was stopping him from doing the things he loved – playing with his daughters and playing footy.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, I may as well have a crack at doing it’,” Cullen recalls.

The surgeon initially told him recovery would be four months and would rule him out for the season.

|“I didn’t have much hope of coming back, which was quite frustrating for me being the last year that Queensland Cup are the top team and all the things that are going on with the club,” he says.|

“I was really looking forward to playing. I was down in the dumps for a couple of weeks. I didn’t really do much rehab … I think I had more beers than rehab.

“I got myself to a point where I thought, ‘why don’t you just rip into rehab and don’t rule out playing’. I thought, ‘if I can get it in my head I can come back’ … I was always joking that I was coming back for the finals and people thought I was joking.

“In my head, I knew if I could get myself right for the back end of the season, if the boys play finals and they have injuries, then I’m better off giving myself but also giving the team an option to have me there fit and ready to play rather than me being a slob and not being fit to play.

“That was the decision I made probably three weeks after surgery. I started doing some accountability stuff with myself and I grabbed a couple of the players – Sheldon, Valynce – and we got together and started doing some accountability stuff … what we were doing every day to try to improve ourselves.”

It motivated Cullen and has kept him on track.

“I literally have done rehab on my neck every single day since that day and when I went back to the surgeon, he was really happy with my progression and the fact that I had no pain and had built up all the muscles around it. I think I’ll break a record for how quickly you can get back from neck surgery,” he says with a smile.

“I’m feeling awesome. All the pain is gone, which is probably the best thing. When I got the surgery, I had no thoughts of playing because I was told I couldn’t initially. I just wanted to do it to feel normal again. I was in pain for three months, severe pain (before surgery).

“I was really in a bad way, physically and mentally. It was frustrating me that I was in so much pain. It was draining.

“Being pain-free was the first step. After feeling sorry for myself for a couple of weeks, I then went to the next step of going ‘what have you got to lose, give yourself an opportunity to play in the back end of the year’.”

At that stage, whether he was selected or not was irrelevant.

|“I just wanted personally and for the team I just wanted to get myself in a position that I could play again. I’ve done that and now I’m up for selection this weekend, which is pretty cool,” he says.|

“I’m pretty much back to normal.”

Cullen is heading into this weekend with full confidence in his body.

“The confidence comes from the work that I’ve done. It’s been, I think, 45 days of accountability that I’ve done with some of our Dolphins boys and some of my other friends as well … every day doing things like cold showers, training twice a day, sticking to a diet, getting up at 5am, neck rehab, stretching,” he explains.

“I know that I’m ready physically and that probably helps mentally being ready as well.”

Cullen’s remarkable comeback

Hopes for the rest of the season?

“My goal the whole way along was to be able to add value to the team and push into finals. We’ve got a pretty unique opportunity as a club to win a Grand Final at the Dolphins as the last-ever Queensland Cup team that was just solely Queensland Cup,” he says.

“It means something to our players and the group – our staff that are here – we’re not going to be the top team next year, so it means something. We’ve spoken as a group about how we’ve got an opportunity to do something special.

“I just wanted to be a part of that. That’s why I worked so hard to come back. Getting that Grand Final win, would be awesome.”

Not suited to sitting on sidelines

“It was really hard to be honest. I struggle to watch because I get so into the game. I’ve heard coaches say it, they have everything to do with the preparation but once they’re out on the field they’ve got no control at all … it’s the players. That was the hardest thing for me, watching the game and having zero control over it. I don’t know how coaches do it,” he says.

“I’m a halfback and I’m the captain and I have so much control over the game, so when I’m not I’ve got none and it’s frustrating. It certainly made me appreciate playing and made me so keen to come back. I’ve got plenty more to give in the game.

“Scotty (Murray) was awesome in terms of including me. We had a chat and he said, ‘I think you can a lot to the group … we’ve got young halves like Cody Hunter … I think you can be a mentor to him’. That’s what I did. I started working with Cody and doing some extras and we’d catch up for breakfast and have a chat. I was really enjoying doing that.”

Murray also encouraged him to come to training, be on the field and work in with the coaching staff.

“I was doing that pretty much until it clicked in my head that I wanted to play. Then, I think I switched over to … I’ve got a load of work to do myself personally to get myself physically and mentally ready to play. It became a lot of training and about that and turning up on game day watching.”

He credits his family, friends, teammates and the club for helping him through the tough times.

|“I think it’s important that I mention that I was going through some pretty tough times, especially prior to the surgery with the amount of pain and the mindset I was in thinking that I might not play footy again,” Cullen says.|

“I reached out to Deon, who’s our welfare guy and was seeing a psychologist to work through some of those issues.

“I feel like I want to go on the record and say that’s something that I did because it helped me massively just talking to someone. That definitely helped me, I still do it. It’s a good exercise for anyone to go and see someone externally and talk about some of the things that you’re feeling and stuff.

“I left Dolphins to go to Cowboys in 2015, the year they won the comp, and Paul Green is the one who got me up there and I spent time up around the club. I know all their players are devastated. It really hits home with that whole mental health side of things.”

Cullen’s remarkable comeback

How much is he looking forward to pulling on that Dolphins’ jersey?

“So much, eh. Initially I didn’t know if I’d put any jersey on again. It was pretty upsetting that that’s the way I felt … just because it was such a serious surgery. The first thing I started thinking about was my kids long-term, do I want to put myself, my body in a position again to do anything to my neck … I could be in serious trouble,” he says.

“I did a lot of research around it. I spoke to (former Dolphin) Tommy Butterfield who had the same surgery and he played for two years afterwards. I thought, ‘I should be right, I can play’.

|“I missed it so much and I definitely will never take for granted again throwing a Dolphins’ jersey on. I’m definitely excited to play this weekend.|

“The opportunity we’ve got in the next couple of weeks … for me it’s fitting into a team that’s going really well. Just getting in there and doing my job for the team and hopefully we can go as far as possible.”

And he’s excited about the current run of top form he believes can take the team all the way.

“We have that feeling about us that we can definitely do something special. We’re putting on some pretty dominant displays without actually being at our best. If we can get that consistency leading into finals and keep improving … that’s the exciting part,” he says.

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