Cowra High School mates reunited … Chris Cummins, Royce Simmons and Keith Hammond.
Story by NEIL CADIGAN
Royce Simmons’ walk from Gooloogong to Penrith is in a big way retracing his path in life – from a country kid who loved rugby league to a Penrith Panthers legend who played for Australia and now lives quietly in a retirement complex named after him just a Nathan Cleary kick away from the stadium that was his field of dreams.
During that journey though, ‘Simmo’ has never lost sight of where he came from nor contact with many of his mates he played footy with well before he became the Panthers’ favourite son.
And that has been a much-unpublicised feature of Royce’s Big Walk which has raised more than half a million dollars for Dementia Australia and may raise close to another $80,000 for junior rugby league around the area he has walked.
Typical of that ongoing link with his roots was Royce’s schedule before he left Gooloogong on Tuesday, May 17. On the Friday he attended the funeral of a mother of a school mate. On the Saturday he attended an informal reunion of his very good Cowra High School footy team after earlier in the day heading back to Canowindra (for a sportsman’s lunch) where he lived until his family moved to Gooloogong when he was eight so his father George could take over the local butcher shop.
And integral to all that is Royce’s good mate Chris Cummins, managing director and owner of Breakout River Meats which operates the local abattoirs, Cowra Meat Processors. In an earlier life, Chris was Royce’s front-rower in those Cowra high rugby league teams and they have continued a strong friendship since.
And when it came to Royce declaring his dementia diagnosis and his plan to do a fund-raising walk, Chris was one of the first to leap to his support. Breakout River Meats became a sponsor and it also supplied the meat free of charge (and it was outstanding according to those who attended) for the first fund-raising event, at St Marys Leagues Club which raised $100,000 for the cause.
“Chris came to me early and pretty much said, ‘what can I do’,” said Royce. ‘He was pretty much the first person to throw in some sponsorship and he’s done more than that. I can’t thank him enough, and that’s the same with a lot of long-time mates and former teammates and, well the list goes on.
“I’m really lucky to have kept really strong friendships with a lot of my mates from school and footy in the bush and we’re there for each other when we need it. I’m pretty lucky. Overwhelmed actually.”
That’s the overriding characteristic of Royce Simmons, son of the Gooloogong butcher. His wife Liane is a local girl. His good mates from way back are still his good mates. He never saw a need to change who he was.
“The mark of the bloke is that no matter whether he was playing for Australia or was in reserve grade coming back from injury, he was still the same person,” said Chris Cummins, “always time for others.
“He never got carried away with his success or where he came from and it’s no surprise whatsoever the support he has received around this walk.
“Royce has been a good friend to so many people over the years and I’m privileged to be one of them. He’s always been there when any of us needed support.
“And while people see him as a larrikin is tough as nails, he’s very smart, very street-wise and I’ve never met anyone with better people skills, because it’s natural to him.”
Back in their Cowra High School days, Chris says he was lucky the little hooker “who was a cut above everyone else” used to rest on his shoulder (in the scrums at least). “I wasn’t qualified to tie Simmo’s boot laces, but we had a good team and a great bunch of young blokes who have remained good friends through life,” he said.
“It’s broken our hearts he’s had to confront his diagnosis and we all just want to help in any way we can. I can’t believe all the people who have gathered around him to get Royce’s Big Walk in motion. It’s truly remarkable and a testament to the respect and friendship that people have for him.
“Also, Liane has always been part of the crew from our school days and has always been just a beautiful human who has also remained the same as she was all those years ago. Every family needs a rock and Liane has been that Simmons family rock.”