As the NRL restarts its pandemic-disrupted season, Canterbury Bulldogs' legend Hazem El Masri speaks on growth, lessons and life after the game.
On a cool Sunday afternoon in Illawong, I found myself sitting across from one of the most gifted yet underrated players in NRL history: the 1996 Canterbury Bulldogs Rookie of the Year went on to be, at the time he retired, the NRL's highest point scorer of all time, yet he only once donned the fabled Blues' Origin jersey.
I asked Hazem El Masri, a legend of the game, about life after sport, 10 years into retirement. I wondered, was it true that all athletes die twice? And if so, can you find meaning in that "first death"? The moment El Masri realised I was curious about his life now, his demeanour quickly shifted, and he said of his post-football life: "This is what I hate most, because you get let down, and you just don't want to talk about it."
EL MASRI was 12 when his family fled war-torn Lebanon, arriving in Sydney on a refugee visa. His father, a carpenter, struggled to find work and when he did, faced discrimination and workplace harassment due to cultural and language barriers. Money was tight and young Hazem shared a room with his five siblings every night.
Sport became his sanctuary. His focus was on the round ball game until a chance encounter at a local barbecue changed the course of his life. He recalled the day where a couple of cousins were playing footy and asked him to join. "What a weird looking ball," he thought to himself, as he learned the rules. He described his very first game as near euphoric. "Wow," he gasped, as if reliving that exact moment for the first time, "it just gave me freedom that I didn't feel in soccer, so I fell in love with it."
In 1994, his last year at Belmore Boys High, El Masri started playing rugby league regularly, and he was spotted by a Bulldogs' scout at a school knockout competition. "I had done something spectacular apparently," said a modest El Masri, because he did not have to try out for the squad, he was invited to join.
He finally accepted and embraced his playing past as a chapter in the 'Book of Hazem' rather than the entire story.
He joined the Bulldogs officially in 1995 as a fullback on the Under-21s team and a year later, got his first call up to the firsts as an injury replacement. Reflecting on these early breakthroughs, he said, "I was given few opportunities, but I grabbed them and made sure I did the best I could."
Despite his exceptional ball handling and goal kicking skills, El Masri believed he had to work twice as hard to be recognised as equal. He was 31 before he finally got a call up to play State of Origin, making him one of the oldest players to debut. To prove himself worthy, Hazem became obsessed with winning and perfecting his game. Over the course of his 13-year first grade career, he would win an NRL premiership, represent both Lebanon, as captain, and Australia, and was the leading point scorer in two consecutive seasons. Last year, Melbourne Storm's Cameron Smith took his mantle as the highest NRL point scorer of all time.
"Here's the thing, you have to hate losing," he said, right before recalling an interaction still fresh in his mind with an older Lebanese man post-game from years before. The Bulldogs had just won the semi-final. The team was on the bus, ready to leave the ground when the gentleman knocked on his window. "Out of everything this man could have said, he asked me how I could have missed not one, but three kicks," El Masri said. He may have missed three kicks but he had scored 22 crucial points.
For El Masri, the expectations, "especially from the Arabs" were often unrealistically high and he now identifies that kind of pressure as "toxic". Despite this, he took pride in his culture and religion. He didn't just play for himself, he played for a community that was scrutinised and marginalised at that time.
"I personally went through hell more than any other player because I was Lebanese, Muslim, and a Bulldogs player." From the al-Qaeda-led 2001 9/11 attacks on America, to the Bali bombings, the Cronulla riots, the Coffs Harbour gang rape allegation and the salary cap scandal, he was forced to defend his character.
Like a gladiator, he still bears the scars that he says define him and are a testament to his strength. "I trained myself to be resilient." He now believes it is the balance between physical and emotional strength that made him an athlete of star magnitude.
"El Magic", as he was known on the field, was, during his playing career, one of the few Muslim role models recognised within the Lebanese and wider Australian community, but he asserted, "I am for everyone". He recalled once taking a call from an elderly Australian woman on a charity telethon for Channel 9. When he introduced himself as Hazem El Masri, she shouted: "Oh, you're the good Muslim!"
It is moments like these that matter most to him. Asked about the highest point of his career, there was no mention of his records, money, or media coverage.
"For me to play my last home game and have 40,000 people attending to say goodbye, especially during Ramadan on a Sunday, epitomised what I had achieved both on and off the field," he said. "It's all about legacy."
AFTER dedicating so much of his adult life to rugby league, El Masri's transition into retirement, at 33, was filled with fear. Imagine everything you had ever known and loved suddenly taken away from you. He, like so many elite athletes before him, struggled to find meaning outside the game. To this day, he wishes he could have played longer and won another premiership, but as he puts it, "you look back and realise it went by so quickly, the body just can't handle it anymore … it's too hard."
Instinctively, he dealt with retirement as he would any loss, except, unlike football, there was no next game or season in which to reverse the result. Winning was no longer an option. As such, the loss lingered.
At first, to keep busy, he joined the NRL ambassador program and travelled around Australia to promote rugby league. He also kept ties with the Bulldogs as a club ambassador. He spent a lot of his time giving back to the community by visiting sick children at hospitals and attending schools for career days. Although this gave him comfort, he was far from content.
In attempt to reinvent himself, El Masri fell into a series of financial traps when he trusted the wrong people who he says, "took advantage of my name and fame for money."
It is incidents like these that exacerbated his deep-rooted sense of yearning for the past. I wondered if he misses the comradery, the sporting brotherhood he shared with his teammates over the years.
El Masri paused then answered, "like no tomorrow, it's like leaving school, except when you leave school you actually find other friends." Of their special bond, he said, "being on the field was like being in a warzone, it only takes one look, one gaze, to know the trust is there and you won't be let down."
The reality is, in the world beyond the field, El Masri has had to learn to trust himself.
From early on, he has had to navigate through trouble. "I would think back on my career and there were a lot of obstacles there and sometimes you question that and you're like 'Why me?'" In 2014, his first marriage ended in divorce, followed by a brief second marriage which ended in ugly acrimony. He has now reconciled with his first wife.
After years in which sport anchored his life, without its discipline, he drifted in a sort of mental limbo, struggling to find purpose until he turned to his faith for guidance. Islam had always been a huge part of his identity yet for a long time, he said, he overlooked its ability to heal him from within.
El Masri now believes he was given a voice and a platform to leverage his experience and harness its wisdom towards the greater good. He finally accepted and embraced his playing past as a chapter in the "Book of Hazem" rather than the entire story. He has a lot more to offer, not just as a retired NRL legend, but as a husband, father and friend.
This revelation pushed El Masri to start working on a self-care program of school clinics to provide support for aspiring student athletes, especially those experiencing hardship. His goal is to motivate, educate and inspire the next generation.
"I want to share my journey to prove that any obstacle can be overcome through hard work, dedication and faith. You have to have faith; you have to believe in something."
As El Masri finally comes to terms with his playing career and how it fits within a greater life purpose, league fans have acknowledged his contribution to the game. In March, NRL.com readers overwhelmingly voted him "the greatest goal kicker of all time", with almost double the votes of runner-up Jonathan Thurston. The man who fought doubly hard to be equal, is now first among equals.
So, if it is true that all athletes die twice, a decade after he retired, Hazem El Masri appears to have finally navigated beyond that "first death". As well as his school clinic initiatives and the fresh fan accolades, he has taken up carpentry, mirroring his immigrant father's simpler ways. "It took me a while," he said, "but I found peace."