By Mike Petri
December 12, 2011 – The day that Jonny Wilkinson announced his retirement from international rugby. I was saddened by the news and felt compelled to write a bit about someone that has had such a profound impact on my life without ever even having met me. I didn’t post this entry right away but believe now, with the Six Nations competition underway, is an appropriate time to share my thoughts and celebrate his career. With all due respect to a deserving Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson, I feel as though I took watching Jonny in the England number 10 jersey for granted. Watching England in the recent tests hasn’t been the same for me personally without him leading from the front. Therefore, I’d like to share with the RugbyRugby.com readers what I wrote down in the days following his retirement announcement:
"I never ever believed that I would be able to give up on this dream..." In his own words Jonny Wilkinson describes the feeling every athlete struggles with but inevitably undergoes at some point in his or her career. Whether playing in high school, college, socially, or making a living playing professionally, the decision to walk away is one of the hardest there is to make. Jonny is one of the lucky, and certainly worthy ones, to do so on his own terms and in his own time. He also does so being remembered as arguably the most respected athlete ever to set foot on a rugby field.
Throughout his career, Jonny has enjoyed an incredible amount of success (the extent to which no writing of mine could do justice) yet he never really sought the limelight. He went about his business but the spotlight of course followed him as he continued to reach personal goals and make headlines. However, he was always quick to downplay his own accomplishments and instead praise teammates and coaches. He gave credit where it was due and was a true team man.
The more I learned about him the more I realized why he was so special. I had the pleasure of playing alongside some of his friends and teammates who shared stories of what it's like to play with Jonny. I read his books and tried to emulate his work ethic and attitude. He was always the first in and last out of practice and was dedicated to improving every single day. He has been the utmost professional and is an outstanding role model for an entire generation of rugby players.
Jonny certainly saw his share of ups and downs but was persistent and never took his foot off the gas. His training methods have been both hailed and criticized by the rugby community, but no one can deny that he is always the hardest working player and it has produced results. He is the true model for the fact that hard work, dedication, and a positive, selfless attitude pay off.
In today's sporting world with all the media attention and millions of dollars thrown at athletes, it's rare to see someone be so successful and yet so incredibly humble. His team first, self-last attitude is a refreshing break from the typically selfish, money hungry athletes out there. He never complains and even in his greatest moments of glory he continues to work hard and look toward the next challenge. He lives and breathes the game of rugby and his passion is evident every time he pulls a jersey over his head.
I can't comprehend what that internal struggle must have been like when he was making the decision to retire from test rugby. There is surely a feeling deep down that he has more to give; but when it's time, it's time, and he seems ready to embrace his new path. Not surprisingly, in true Jonny Wilkinson form, he is selfless and charismatic in his parting - "the time is right for others to enjoy the same honour and pride that I have felt over the past 15 seasons."
An athlete of Jonny's caliber and intellect understands the new opportunity this decision has created. There will be more time to place emphasis on being Captain of Toulon and there is also no doubt in anyone's mind that he has any intention of slowing down. I'm sure he will continue to be as ambitious and goal driven as he always was.
I have never met Jonny Wilkinson, and perhaps never will. My closest encounter was standing next to him in the tunnel before my very first game with the USA against England in the 2007 World Cup. He wasn't included in the squad as he picked up an injury a few days before kickoff, but in true leader fashion he stood alongside the rest of his teammates supporting them until the final moment before they ran on to the field.
Jonny, I wish you continued success, happiness, enjoyment, and fulfillment. I have enjoyed watching you represent your country with pride and lead your teammates by example on and off the field. Thank you for the impact you have made on my life and on the lives of so many others throughout the world.
My favorite athlete is Jonny Wilkinson. Who is yours?
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