How Henderson turned tragedy to success with help from friends

Posted: February 14, 2012 at 1:02 am

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Still a Wagga boy at heart … Rebels powerhouse Nic Henderson said he had to contend with a void in his life following the tragic death of five childhood mates in an accident at a train crossing in 2001. Photo: Craig Abraham

Coming to terms with personal loss has made the Rebel a winner on the field, writes Stathi Paxinos.

There is a point on the Olympic Highway near Gerogery in southern NSW that Nic Henderson avoided for a decade. If the Melbourne Rebels front rower was heading that way, he would take an alternative route.

It was there that five teenagers from Wagga Wagga died when their car drove into the path of a train.

On January 27, 2001, Kyle Wooden, Cameron Tucker, Luke Milne, Graham Kelly and Ben Wilkins had been on their way to Albury to watch Henderson play a trial game for Melbourne Storm.

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They never made it - a coronial inquest suggesting a lack of safety warnings, such as boom gates, contributed to the accident.

Near the point where the train line crossed the road - flashing lights and bells the only warning of trains approaching at 160 kilometres an hour - there is now an overpass named Five Mates Crossing.

''I've only ever driven it once since the accident, which seems funny, but I superstitiously would always go the back way,'' he says. ''It's a nice way to remember them even though they're never really forgotten.''

Henderson had grown up with the five teenagers, going to the same high school - and primary school with two - and like many youngsters in country areas, forging a bond through sport, in their case basketball and rugby league.

When they were killed, Henderson was living away from home in Brisbane, playing for the Storm's then feeder club Brisbane Norths. But with the support of family in Wagga and that of his girlfriend and now wife Jodie and her family in Brisbane, he worked his way through the loss, initially spending a few moments before every game remembering his friends.

''I used to say a few things before a game, but superstitiously I haven't done that in I don't know how long,'' he says. ''The biggest thing … was there's a huge void in your life. All of a sudden where five of your best mates are no longer there to laugh with or call or talk to, it's not how do you fill it but where do you go from there."

The 30-year-old, who switched to rugby union after two years in the Storm reserves, says there is no shying away from the tragedy when he returns to Wagga.

''There's a whole bunch of us left behind to remember them … the first thing we do is remember them and talk about them and laugh about them,'' Henderson says. ''I know a lot of us are still close to the parents of the guys who passed away. I'm lucky to call a few of them very close, almost second mothers and second fathers, which is great …''

Despite spending his early life on a sheep-grazing farm run by his father, Henderson said farming life had never been for him.

"Mum and dad split when I was eight or 10 years old so half my [childhood] was spent on the farm and the other half was living in Wagga, so I never really planted firm enough roots in the country to follow in my old man's footsteps," Henderson says.

That fell to his elder sister, Katie, who is "now a fully fledged farming girl" and has taken control of the operation of a property just outside Wagga after her partner was killed last year in a farming accident.

Henderson, who was recruited from the Western Force, is off contract with the Rebels this season and says he would like to continue his career in Melbourne for a few more years yet. As for life after rugby, that is still something he is working on. ''It's something that I've never really had a clear direction in life - what I'm going to do once football finishes," Henderson says.

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How Henderson turned tragedy to success with help from friends

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February 14th, 2012 at 1:02 am

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