Gary Endacott boasts a sporting CV most could only dream of, but despite turning 50 last month the inspirational Cantabrian is still ticking off major milestones and highlights even he thought would never come along.
Born with cerebral palsy, Endacott has made an art form of trampling the odds. He has run four New York City Marathons, won world titles in disabled tennis and became the first person with a significant disability to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
But there’s only one sport that truly holds his heart: rugby league. And 2018 has been a watershed year for Endacott in the 13-a-side game.
After representing New Zealand in the historic Physical Disability Rugby League Commonwealth Championships in Queensland in February, Endacott captained a team in a PDRL curtain-raiser to the Warriors’ NRL clash with Cronulla last Friday.
Nineteen years since father Frank, who spent four years as a reserve grade and first grade coach at the Auckland Warriors, last coached the Kiwis in a Test at Mount Smart Stadium and brother Shane played his final premiership match for the Warriors there, Gary finally graced the same turf.
“I’ve done a couple of things in my time but that was pretty special,” said Endacott, who was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2016 New Year’s honours for services to people with disabilities.
“I’ve certainly walked across the pitch a few times when dad was coaching, but I never thought (playing on Mount Smart) would become a reality and to go out and captain one of the teams was also very nice.
“I thought it was a good show we put on really.”
The match was organised by PDRLNZ in conjunction with the Warriors, and Endacott praised the club’s efforts in making it a rousing success.
“The whole Warriors management and everyone looking after us really treated us like they wanted us there – it wasn’t about just doing the right thing, they were pleased to have us as part of their program,” he said.
“That in some ways was a bit of a highlight in itself.”
For Frank Endacott, it was just another example of his son’s remarkable tenacity and thirst for a challenge – as well as a chance to show off his trademark cheeky wit.
“It was fantastic. I see he made the quip in the interview after the game that ‘my father’s been here, my brother’s been here, but I reminded them I’m the one that’s still out here’,” Endacott senior laughed.
“Good on him, it’s a great moment for him. I believe if it wasn’t for his disability he could have been a great player, he’s got that much heart and he knows the game inside out.
“Just to get out there and doing what he’s doing, representing his country against Australia, he’s done great and we’re very proud of him.
“He just loves it. He’s married with a couple of kids but he still finds time to play footy.”
As momentous as his array of achievements are, Gary Endacott said nothing he has achieved can compare to the feeling of representing his country in rugby league and playing the game he adores.
“I thought it was done well, but not to take anything away from the other night, certainly when we played Australia a few months ago the intensity was up a couple of levels from what you guys saw the other night, which you’d expect.
“I’ve done a lot of things, but pulling on that New Zealand jersey and even running out on Mount Smart the other night – if something came up and the news came back that I didn’t have too long on the planet, I wouldn’t have to rush out and do a whole lot.
“I think I could die a happy man now that I’ve ticked the Kiwi league box off. But it’s something I want more of, it’s the most excitement I’ve ever had in my life.”
The PDRL Commonwealth Championships final against Australia resulted in a golden point draw at Redcliffe’s Dolphin Oval, with the Kiwis finishing as silver medallists thanks to the green-and-golds’ superior points differential.
Gary rarely does anything in the sporting realm less than full-throttle – and that’s certainly the way he plays his rugby league.
That approach earned him a stint in the sin-bin in the gold medal match from ex-NRL referee Tim Mander for a high shot, but he makes few apologies for his rip-and-tear methods. After all, it’s in his genes.
“I don’t have too many softies in the bloodline – dad’s a really good person obviously, but he played his football physical, and if you’ve met my mother you’ll know I’d have no show of going down the softer side of things,” Endacott quipped.
“It’s New Zealand against Australia, these sort of things happen.
“It’s just one of those things and I tried to tackle a wee bit lower the other night (at Mount Smart) – under instruction from dad I might add!”
Endacott isn’t the only Canterbury player starring on the PDRL scene – Hornby stalwart Phillip Milne featured in the New Zealand side’s Commonwealth Championships campaign, and relative newcomer Joshua Dench joined the pair at Mount Smart last week.
“I work in the disability field and I know the numbers are out there,” said Endacott, who has worked for the Ministry of Education for several years.
“This may sound like a big call, but if it’s done right I can see this becoming the most intense disability-focused sport on the planet.
“It’s catering for all levels of physical ability as well.”
So what’s next for PDRL? Endacott revealed plans are underway for an October tournament in Australia that could include teams from England and Hungary.
He said New Zealand’s participation is dependent on funding, but that support from the NZRL, the Warriors, Sir Peter Leitch and the League 4 Life foundation have provided a solid foundation so far, and Autex Industries – the new co-owners of the Warriors – were also looking to become involved.
“So we do have some people supporting it, but it will come down to financial support for whether we will get to go over in October.
“I’m certainly hoping that’s the case and I’m hoping to be part of it as well.”
October is an eternity away for a player who enjoys the game as much as Gary Endacott, and he gets his rugby league outside the PDRL sphere with his involvement in the Eastside Masters, who coincidentally are run by PDRLNZ board member Bernie Milne.
And although he recently cracked the half-ton in the birthday department, Endacott isn’t entertaining any thoughts of hanging the boots up anytime soon.
“I don’t say this lightly, but I’ve done three or four different sports – and no disrespect to that, because it’s all been enjoyable in its own way – but I’d chuck it all out the window to do what I’m doing now.
“This is the sport that I love. I love the intensity of it, and it was great to have the Aussies standing in front of you.
“People may think that disabled sports is just about having fun – we like winning just like everyone else and being the best we can be.
“I’ve always tried to beat the odds, so where other people are worrying about age, the good thing about having a disability is it puts things in perspective.
“Apart from a bit of a lack of flexibility my body doesn’t feel a lot different from what it did 20 years ago – just getting up off the ground isn’t quite as easy as it was.”