The inaugural edition of our new series, CBS: Sounding the Siren, features former NRL winger Denan Kemp, who enjoyed a phenomenally swift rise to stardom and endured an equally dramatic fall from favour. Retiring from the playing ranks after a series of curtailed comeback attempts, Kemp is now gaining attention for his talents in the world of online media.
It would be understandable if Denan Kemp was bitter towards the game that shot him to prominence as a 20-year-old. A rookie sensation in 2008, a horrific stretch of bad luck and poor treatment saw the wing speedster’s NRL career lurch from one setback to the next, eventually prompting him to retire at just 27.
The Wollongong-based Kemp, now 28, grafts long hours in an industrial coalmine as an electric apprentice these days. But he has made another indelible mark in the sports spectrum over the past six months with his increasingly popular video podcast, The Locker Room.
Kemp has interviewed current stars such as Paul Gallen, Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson, Brett Morris, Trent Merrin, Corey Norman, Jamie Soward and Alex Glenn; recently retired players like Beau Ryan, Eric Grothe Jr, Jharal Yow Yeh and Shaun Timmins; and controversial boxer Anthony Mundine and Muay Thai legend John Wayne Parr since The Locker Room’s first episode aired in May.
It has provided fans with a unique insight into what makes some of Australia’s biggest sporting names tick. Whether it’s Kemp’s easygoing outlook and natural ability behind the microphone, or the fact that he’s been there and done it as an NRL player, his guests open up in a frank manner rarely seen in traditional media platforms.
Kemp offered Commentary Box Sports the same candidness when we caught up with former Broncos and Warriors flyer to talk about the soaring highs and soul-sapping lows of his brief professional rugby league career, and the inspiration behind his latest venture.
A meteoric rise
Born and raised on the Gold Coast, Kemp was seemingly destined to scale the heights in another code as a teenager.
“I was a pretty serious soccer player, I’d been to England for it and made all the rep sides, represented Queensland,” he said.
“I guess I was in a position to eventually play A-League, which was about to be brought in. I was playing for the Brisbane Roar reserve grade when I was 16.”
But a low-key opportunity to dabble in rugby league changed his sporting trajectory. Kemp was scouted by NRL heavyweights Brisbane after starring in a Catholic school confraternity league before being put on the fast-track to stardom.
“I was just mucking around with a few mates, it was like a week of footy. I went away to enjoy it with my mates and miss a bit of school,” Kemp continued.
“I went and saw my soccer club and said I was going to play footy for the Broncos. They said, ‘are you sure? If you stay you’re likely to play A-League next year’.”
The 13-a-side novice rolled the dice on a permanent code switch, however, and after originally being slated to turn out for the Broncos’ Under-19s side in 2006, Kemp was thrust into the line-up for their Queensland Cup feeder club, Toowoomba Clydesdales.
Kemp featured on the wing for Queensland Under-19s during ’06, opposing Akuila Uate and scoring a try in the young Maroons’ 22-10 loss to NSW in a fiery curtain-raiser to the State of Origin series opener at ANZ Stadium.
Wearing the No.2 jumper in the video below, Kemp proved he wasn’t shy about mixing it up:
Later that year, he was on the flank in Toowoomba’s grand final defeat at the hands of Redcliffe, and in Round 10 of the following season – just a week after his 20th birthday – Kemp received a call-up to make his NRL debut at fullback for an Origin-depleted Brisbane outfit against Manly. It was a spectacular introduction despite the 18-4 loss at Brookvale Oval, racing away for a sizzling long-range try in a superb all-round debut display.
“That was a real buzz, I couldn’t believe it,” he said of his first taste of the big time. “I remember being, not scared, but worried that these guys were so much bigger and they just seemed so much more aggressive than reserve grade.
“But I remember getting tackled for the first time and thinking, ‘man, these guys don’t hit any harder – I’ve been hit harder in reserve grade.’ It was a real confidence booster.
“I ran for about 275 metres, made three line-breaks and scored a try on debut. So yeah, it was a buzz.”
The rookie sensation
Kemp made three subsequent appearances in the top flight in ’07 deputising for gun fullback Karmichael Hunt, but after the Broncos told him that he was third in line for a wing spot at the start of 2008, he put the feelers out to other clubs.
The New Zealand Warriors courted the promising flyer and Kemp gave the Auckland-based club a verbal indication that he would move across the Tasman at the end of the year.
“The Broncos told me that I’d start in reserve grade. But I thought, ‘I can’t start in reserve grade, I feel like a first grader’. We put my name out there and the Warriors were interested.”
But it took only three rounds of ’08 for Kemp to get another chance with the Broncos, an injury to Hunt garnering a promotion to the wing for the ambitious tyro. He went on to play 24 straight first-grade games and led the club’s try count with 19 – a tally that ranked equal-fifth in Broncos history.
An aerial four-pointer against Gold Coast marked the first of four straight matches Kemp found his way onto the score-sheet, including a double against South Sydney and a memorable try against Wests Tigers that showcased the deft skills from his soccer-playing past.
Kemp’s raw pace was the most immediately eye-catching facet of his game, but combining that with his strength, courage and poise under the high ball belying his relatively diminutive stature, and his anticipation and finishing instincts – particularly for a player with only a couple of years in the code under his belt – heralded the arrival of special talent.
That game, that try
Denan Kemp will forever be associated with one epic match and one extraordinary try. Just over a year after his debut and in only his 13th first-grade appearance, Kemp scored a Broncos club record-equalling four tries in a 30-26 victory over Parramatta at Suncorp Stadium – culminating in arguably the greatest after-the-buzzer match-winner in premiership history.
“When I look back on it, it’s like it was someone else that did it,” Kemp recalled of his glorious moment in the spotlight. “It just happened. It was weird, I couldn’t believe that happened to me.
“That’s something that you dream of, the buzzer going and Darren Lockyer – who I think is the best to ever play the game – kicking for you to score the winning try in the corner at the best stadium in the world, it was such a buzz.
“I just remember when he kicked the ball over, there was no other option – I had to get that ball. All I was thinking was, ‘you must get to that corner’.
“When I look back on it I get tingles, and I get anxious again, and I get all amped up and adrenaline running through the system.
“I remember distinctly pointing for a few plays before for the kick, so I was ready for it. But part of me was like, ‘oh please, don’t kick it’, because I didn’t want to be the one that stuffed up.
“I wasn’t even thinking about the four tries, I was focussing on the other parts of my game that I’d played pretty well in. The tries were just tries, and they were important, but I would rather do my job and I wanted (coach) Wayne (Bennett) to be happy with me.
“The tries were just icing on the cake. There was a grubber that I covered and Jarryd Hayne could have scored. It was a crucial time of the game and if I wasn’t there we would’ve lost.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love that memory (of the match-winning try) and it’s crazy, but that was just as much a game-saving play as the try.
“It was just one of those games, everything went my way. It just feels like someone else did it when I look back on it. The Parramatta game is one of those things that I can’t really sit here and put into words.”
Good judges were already praising Kemp’s potential prior to the Eels clash, but that phenomenal performance cast him into the consciousness of rugby league fans everywhere – although the Warriors feared the breakout display may have cost them their impending new recruit.
“(The Warriors) were actually a bit worried that I wasn’t going to come because I’d scored four tries, my price-tag would go up and I was playing some really good footy and other clubs became interested,” Kemp revealed.
“I could have got more money elsewhere – because I’d only said yes, I hadn’t signed anything (with the Warriors). I could have easily said I’m not interested anymore. Wayne said if I wanted him to step over any boundaries for me, he would like me to come to the Dragons with him.
“But my word was my word, and even though it ended up costing me a lot of money and didn’t end up being the best move to go to the Warriors – whatever the reasons – I agreed to it so I accepted that was the way it was.”
Although his future lay elsewhere, Kemp became an integral part of the Broncos’ campaign. He ended the year second in the NRL’s tryscoring stakes (behind Brett Stewart) with 19 tries – including four-pointers in six consecutive late-season appearances, before brilliantly finishing off sensational team tries in the Broncos’ finals matches against Sydney Roosters and Melbourne.
Just six players previously – Bobby Lulham, Ron Roberts, Les Brennan, Larry Corowa, Noa Nadruku and Israel Folau – and only Alex Johnston since have tallied more tries as a first-grade rookie. Kemp was being touted as a potential Queensland Origin bolter, and there was nothing to suggest he would not kick on as a prized addition to the exhilarating Warriors’ backline.
An ill-fated move
Kemp’s stint in Auckland began impressively, slotting five goals on club debut in a win over Parramatta and nailing a tough conversion in the dying minutes to snatch a thrilling 26-24 away win against defending premiers Manly.
He looked set to form the NRL’s most devastating wing pairing with Warriors powerhouse Manu Vatuvei, who edged Kemp for Dally M Winger of the Year honours in 2008, but his year quickly unravelled on and off the field.
In contrast to his astounding streak in 2008, Kemp scored just one try in 10 appearances for the Warriors and eventually lost his place to gifted rookie Kevin Locke.
“I didn’t play very well at the Warriors and it kind of felt like I wasn’t appreciated much there,” Kemp said.
“They had Manu Vatuvei there and that was it – it was like that’s who their winger was, and I was always like ‘the other winger’ and every single one of their plays was going to Manu. I was just sitting on the other side.”
“And that’s not a bad thing, I think Manu Vatuvei is the best winger in the world on his day, so it’s not a negative thing. I just wanted to be in a team where I got a bit more opportunity when it came to scoring and that sort of stuff.”
Far from blaming anyone else for his woes, Kemp praised the club and his teammates, and acknowledged in hindsight that an inability to settle in his new surrounds off the paddock contributed to the dramatic decline in his fortunes.
“The squad was awesome. I had a lot of shit going on off the field. I just wasn’t happy, my girlfriend at the time wasn’t happy, she was homesick and I was trying to just manage that. I didn’t give the guys a good opportunity to get to know me as a person, which is something that I really regret,” he admitted.
“That’s maybe a part of why (their plays were) directed to Manu, because I didn’t put as much effort off the field into getting to know the guys as I should have, and I didn’t appreciate how good they were to me.
“The whole office and the whole team were extremely accepting and extremely nice to me. I was young and I had a lot going on – it was just one of those years…I was a young kid in a whole new country and had a whole lot of expectations on me that I didn’t really have (previously).
“I remember a lot of people saying, ‘oh, he’s getting paid all this money and he hasn’t delivered’, but I was getting paid nothing big at all. I went there to play first grade, and it wasn’t a big contract whatsoever.
“There’s not that many Australians that go over there and do play well. I don’t know what it is – I can’t explain it why they don’t.
“The boys were really close and they were really good people that wanted to help if they could. It’s something that I do regret, not giving the boys a better version of me, and a version that wasn’t dealing with (off-field issues).
“If I had have got my life away from footy right, I probably would have played good footy.”
Another unanticipated factor compounded Kemp’s yearning for more familiar environs.
“The weather killed me – it was so depressing. It was always wet, and I didn’t realise how much I loved good weather,” he lamented, with memories of the Auckland’s harsh winter chill and high rainfall rate still fresh.
“It is a great city, if only could move it to somewhere it didn’t rain all the time! I was so sick of wearing shoes everywhere, so sick of wearing jeans everywhere. It just drained me no end. I’m from the Gold Coast, so I’m used to wearing thongs and shorts.
“The frustrating thing was I loved Auckland; Ponsonby, where I lived, was beautiful; the food was amazing; the people were awesome. The people were so welcoming and so nice, but the weather killed me.
“When I got back (to Brisbane) I had this knot untie in my chest.”
Kemp secured a return to the Broncos for 2010 and made an instantaneous impact, proving the match-winner yet again with a stunning late try in a nerve-shredding 30-24 victory over North Queensland in the season opener at Suncorp.
After his failed stint with the Warriors, Kemp had taken just 80 minutes to regain his credibility.
“Round 1 of 2010 is my favourite game. People said I was a one-year wonder but I came back and scored the match-winning try in that game.
“It was really important to me to show people that I wasn’t a one-year wonder and that there were other things that contributed to me not playing as well as I could at the Warriors that were out of my control.”
Fate intervened a fortnight later, however, with Kemp suffering a shocking injury in a match against his former teammates. The Broncos’ reaction to his setback became just as frustrating as the painful injury itself.
“I broke six ribs and my lung collapsed. It was actually Jerome Ropati’s knee – it was unintentional obviously – but it was just another one of those things,” he said.
“I tried to get back as quickly as possible but I got hurt again and it got to a point when I tried to rush back and I kept getting pressure from the club to come back. I kept saying to them, ‘something’s not right’.
“They kind of implied that as long as I was tough enough, I could play. I was getting needles to play and trying as hard as I could. Every game I was getting to the 70th minute and I’d just be in agony.
“Eventually I put my foot down and said, ‘something’s not right. I want to get every scan we can get because it’s not right’. Then we found out I’d been playing with a crack in my rib.
“That really mentally drained me, it was like a mental knockout. I felt like I wasn’t treated correctly in that situation; I felt like I wasn’t believed when I was saying I was injured. I felt vindicated when the scan did show my rib was still broken – ‘there’s the evidence, I’m not lying, I’m not being a sook’.
Kemp eventually regained full fitness but he didn’t appear in first grade in 2010 after Round 8, while the ordeal was the beginning of the end of his second coming at the Broncos. Ivan Henjak’s shock sacking as coach just a fortnight out from the 2011 premiership kick-off represented another roadblock for the 23-year-old.
“My pre-season was awesome, I was fit as I’d ever been, I was ready to go. Then Anthony Griffin took over (as coach) and obviously he had people he wanted to play, and maybe he didn’t see what Ivan Henjak saw in me.
“It was kind of back to the drawing board. There were certain things that were agreed to by the Broncos that weren’t delivered and I guess I was kind of forced out. I wasn’t in favour anymore and I had to find somewhere else.”
Consigned to Queensland Cup duty with Wynnum Manly early in 2011, Kemp signed a deal with the Australian Rugby Union to join the national Sevens squad. His speed and tryscoring nous pegged him as an ideal Sevens recruit, but the abbreviated format’s set-up at the time left him feeling alienated and ultimately he never donned the green-and-gold.
“I thought I’d get a fresh start, but I didn’t enjoy that at all. I didn’t enjoy the lack of team environment every day,” Kemp said.
“I liked rocking up and training with the boys every day but it wasn’t like that at all.
“You do most of your own training. It was nowhere near the same level of professionalism as the NRL. It was a string of all these negative things happening in my life. I struggled with stuff off the field after that.”
Before the year was out, Kemp fielded offers from several NRL clubs before signing on with St George Illawarra for 2012. He shaped as a contender for the fullback spot vacated by Newcastle-bound Darius Boyd – Kemp’s former Broncos teammate – but he was unable to break into the struggling Dragons’ first-grade line-up.
The Broncos threw him another lifeline in 2013, but the luckless Kemp was once again left feeling disillusioned and let down by the club.
End of the line
“The Broncos called me to come back up and I was like, ‘you know what, I’ll give it another go’. It was on a really small amount of money. But (I thought I’d) give it another go to show people that I can still play NRL,” he said of his third stint at Brisbane.
“I got named to play – and it had been a thousand days since I’d played NRL – and I’d proven that I could make it all the way back if I really wanted to. And then two days before the game, ‘Hook’ (Griffin) called me in and said, ‘we’re not going to go with you, we’re going with someone else’.
“I was like, ‘man I can’t do this anymore, this is bullshit’. In my head I was like, ‘I can’t continue to be screwed around like this’. I was over it. I’d done everything I wanted to do. I played NRL, played really well in the NRL.
“I needed to start focussing on stuff after footy. I was just wasting time – (it would have been) for my ego to play more NRL games to get paid ‘OK’ money, but then I’d have no qualifications for anything after it.
“After that happened I just lost the drive, the will to continue with footy.”
Kemp returned to Wollongong and turned out for Thirroul in the Illawarra competition in 2014, but it was to be another short-lived comeback to the footy field.
A remarkable statistic reflects the lack of genuine chances Kemp received to revive his career, despite his undoubted ability. Of every player in premiership history to have scored 19 or more tries in a season, only one retired with less appearances than Kemp’s 42: winger Les Brennan, who scored 32 tries in just 26 games for South Sydney in 1954-55.
A new direction
Hanging up the boots for good, Kemp secured an electrical apprenticeship and hasn’t looked back.
“It’s one of the tough trades you can do when it comes to coalmines, it’s dirty and long hours. But an electrical trade is a good trade to get behind you.”
Despite the demands of his new career, Kemp had a nagging ambition that kept gathering energy – one that eventually led to The Locker Room.
“I always wanted to have my own show. The internet has always been my hobby and video games and stuff like that. When I was younger I wanted to have a video game show, but I started playing NRL so it’s one of those things that I put on the backburner,” he said.
“I was doing my apprenticeship and for months I kept thinking about it. And I was listening to a lot of The Joe Rogan Experience and a few other podcasts, like Star Talk with Neil de Grasse Tyson and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.
“So I thought about it for ages and I hadn’t really voiced it to anyone, because it’s hard to voice that sort of thing, especially something as openly risky as that. It could be terrible, or no one could want to watch it.
“Eventually, after a few months of putting it together in my head and thinking about, I voiced it to a few people close to me and bounced it off them. They seemed to have really positive feedback about my idea, so I just ironed out all the small details and went from there really.”
The enthusiasm of current and former NRL stars to be involved and generously giving up their time has overwhelmed the unassuming Kemp, giving him renewed faith in a game that seemed hell-bent on denying his dreams so often over the previous six years.
“It’s been crazy the amount of players that have gone out of their way to help me out. It’s been phenomenal, I cant express enough how good every single guy’s been that’s come on the show. A lot of these guys I don’t even know and have never met,” Kemp gushed.
“Here’s an example – imagine calling up an electrician and asking them to come around for 30 minutes and help you do whatever around the house. They’d laugh in your face.
“And yet there’s been guys that I’ve literally just rang out of the blue and said, ‘hey man, have you got half an hour to come on the show?’ And they’ve been like, ‘yeah man, of course, I’ll help you out’.
“If you ever doubt that the rugby league community is unique, all you need to do is look at my show and see how giving it is and how much they are willing to do for their own.”
The Locker Roomhas been a runaway success. It has over 7,500 Facebook followers and that number is climbing daily, while a snippet from his explosive interview with Mundine has attracted more than 15,000 views on YouTube. The full interview with ‘The Man’ is yet to air after the controversial league star-turned-boxer had second thoughts, but his views comparing himself to Johnathan Thurston, Laurie Daley and Brad Fittler in a sneak-peak clip nevertheless caused a major stir.
“When I walk into the room and Laurie Daley or Brad Fittler are there. I can feel they’re intimidated. Because they know what went down when we were playing in the 90’s. I know that they know that I was the man”Anthony Mundine believes Laurie Daley and Brad Fittler knew he was the best player of his time.
Posted by The Locker Room on Monday, November 9, 2015
As for his favourite guest to date…well, it’s difficult to narrow it down from such a star-studded list.
“Paul Gallen was great, he had some cracker stories, and obviously it’s Paul Gallen. Eric Grothe Jr was really good on the mic. Beau Ryan was really, really interesting.
“Just to see a guy like (Ryan) that did this all himself and has become this superstar, and he was literally just a winger for the Tigers. Maybe Matty Johns before him was pretty big in the media, but no one has done what Beau Ryan did – he literally transcended rugby league to become this Australian celebrity, all off his own bat.
“He’s had help, but to have the guts when a lot of people would have been saying no, and when he had a bad game people would blame the fact that he’s doing all this media. Beau Ryan’s an extremely interesting person because of what he’s achieved and what’s he done.”
An unexpected by-product of the show is the amount of headlines it has created – solely from the guests’ forthright admissions, rather than any journalistic prying from Kemp.
“I never started out to pick up scoops and headlines and that sort of stuff, it’s just kind of happened. My focus is just trying to give the people an opportunity to know these guys on a very personal level.
“All I did was set out to give people a vehicle to know their favourite sports player better than they’ve ever had the chance to before and this was the only kind of way to do it.
“It’s been extremely humbling, to be honest, to see all of these headlines created from the show. There’s been heaps – Paul Gallen, Mundine a few times, Ferguson had about three different headlines, Josh Dugan made headlines, Jordan Kahu made headlines, Jamie Soward. There’s been a fair few, so it’s been crazy.”
Kemp has ventured outside the rugby league realm for his latest – and arguably most fascinating –athlete profile, John Wayne Parr. It’s clear the combat sport luminary left a huge impression on the star-struck interviewer.
“He was phenomenal. Internationally, he’s huge. But Muay Thai isn’t that big in Australia. So a lot of people don’t realise that he’s literally one of the best fighters to have ever come out of Australia.
“His life is movie. What he achieved and what he did and how he did it is crazy. He lived on a wooden floor for four years and ate rice and had no toilet paper and no toiletries for four years, lived in poverty for four years and became the best Muay Thai fighter in Thailand.
“It’s like an Australian going to Brazil and being the best soccer player in Brazil.”
It hasn’t been simply a matter of kicking back and having a chat with his contemporaries and heroes, however – plenty of elbow-grease has been required to get the show off the ground and make it into the emerging juggernaut it is now.
“It’s been a massively steep learning curve. I spent a weekend teaching myself to edit, teaching myself to make graphics, teaching myself to do all this stuff.
“I do everything, from designing the logo to designing the studio wall, so it’s been a massive learning curve.
“But it’s also been rewarding journey – I hate to use the cliche of journey but it’s been a very rewarding experience, creating a product or creating a piece of art, or whatever, and just putting it out there.”
Onwards and upwards
Enthusiastic, engaging and insightful behind the mic, Kemp’s future in the world of sports media would seem limitless. However, his rollercoaster experience in the sometimes-fickle life of an NRL player could justifiably make him wary of re-entering that sphere – particularly whenThe Locker Roomis picking up steam and is 100 percent on his own terms.
But he refused to rule out the possibility of taking his new-found talents to a wider audience if the opportunity presented itself.
“I’m open obviously to anything, but the main goal is making the show as big as possible. The future is I want the show to be the biggest sports show in Australia.
“The end goal – and this is me humbly speaking, it’s not in an arrogant way, it’s me setting a long-term goal for myself – I believe there’s a real hole in the market for a 60 Minutes-type show for sportspeople.
“There’s no outlet for fans to actually sit down with their favourite sports stars and know them as a person inside and out. That’s nobody’s fault, there’s just no real show that does that.
“The technology is there now to be able to do it, so I’d definitely jump at an opportunity, but short-term I just want the show to continue to be enjoyed by the fans that enjoy it at the moment. Long-term I definitely want it to grow as big as possible.”
Perhaps Kemp’s recent success – and gradual return to the spotlight, albeit a much smaller one at this stage – has mellowed any bitterness he felt from the succession of shattering obstacles that cruelled his playing career.
But the circumspect manner in which he views his brief moment in the NRL sun – and the dark days that followed – is admirable.
“I appreciate (the 2008 season) for what it was; if I never came back in 2010 and didn’t play so well in that Round 1 game I would have struggled to look at it positively,” he said.
“But coming back and scoring the match-winner again, and just kind of cementing that I was able to do special things when I played in the NRL, that was what I needed.
“I enjoyed 2008, it was an incredible year. I believed that I could do it if I put my mind to it. It’s just a matter of staying injury-free and committed to playing footy. I look back on it extremely positively, and I’m very grateful for it to have happened.
“Not many people get the chance to play NRL, not many people get to experience a year like that where everything just seemed to fall into place and I was being acknowledged for the skill I could bring to a game.
“All the negative stuff that happened (afterwards), it happened, and that’s life. It only really defines you if you let it.”