WHEN the full-time siren sounded on his rugby league career, after nine seasons and 155 first-grade games for Newcastle, Penrith and Melbourne, Adam Woolnough followed the example of so many of his former Knights teammates and found work as a coal miner.
"Digging a hole out of the ground," is how he succinctly describes it.
"I went underground for three years. It was convenient. I didn't need any qualifications or tickets or experience, and it paid really well. But after a couple of years, I realised it wasn't for me. It's a great occupation and there was great camaraderie, but I just thought I could contribute in other ways."
The popular front-rower found himself wondering what he wanted to achieve in life, and realised that while playing professional football had been a dream, it was also all he knew.
"All I wanted to be was a rugby league player," he said.
"I played Australian Schoolboys in '99, then came down to Newcastle [from Taree], and made my NRL debut a week before my 20th birthday. I just put all my eggs in one basket and just thought it would last forever, as a lot of athletes do.
"I hadn't really thought about too much else. So I had to really re-set myself and work out what I wanted to do as a career."
Woolnough recognised there were probably many other professional athletes who arrived at a similar juncture in their lives, once their sporting careers ended and they encountered the daunting task of having to find a "real job".
Perhaps, from his own experiences, he could provide some advice and guidance?
"After a process of reflection, I thought I could give something back to the next generation of footballers," he said.
So he contacted the Country Rugby League, NSWRL and NRL and volunteered his services. He gained mental-health and first-aid certificates. Eventually he applied for a position advertised with the Queensland Academy of Sport, for a personal-development officer to help athletes in areas such as career and education, welfare, transitions and community engagements.
"On reflection, I was under-qualified," he admitted. "But right place, right time."
Four years later was managing the program, liaising with a wide spectrum of athletes, including Olympic swimming superstars Cate and Bronte Campbell and Mitch Larkin.
Six months ago he was appointed to a new program, moving from Brisbane to Melbourne to become an athlete well-being-and-engagement manager with the Australian Institute of Sport.
"We're trying to help them understand the impact they can have on the community," he said of the athletes he oversees.
"You're not always going to be a swimmer, or a diver, or a hockey player, but you can actually impact the community more during and after your career."
Woolnough knows from personal experience how easy it is for athletes to become cocooned in a routine of training and competing.
"We want to see athletes get on the podium and make Olympic and Paralympic teams," he said.
"So our focus is high performance. But there is also research that shows that engaging in other things outside your sport, ie education, employment, work experience or some form of volunteering, actually aids performance."
As an NRL player, Woolnough was well paid virtually from the moment he left high school. He said it had been an eye-opener to deal with athletes whose main focus is to wear the green and gold at the Olympics, and who do whatever it takes along the way to make ends meet.
"They don't earn the money of professional codes, even though their training loads are similar," he said.
"The general public have no idea the time and effort they put into reaching that goal every four years of competing at the Olympics or Paralympics. For a lot of them, they're basically on minimum wage.
"They work part-time jobs, go to university and train incredible hours. They're not in it for money, just their passion for the sport."
This week the AIS announced that 21 of the athletes with whom Woolnough works had been chosen as "community custodians" to work in conjunction with Lifeline and talk to everyday Australians about the issue of mental health.
"If athletes can tell their story in the broader community, well, one life saved is enough," Woolnough said.
The 36-year-old looks back on his own career with mixed emotions.
"I had a good career, a long career," he said. "I wouldn't say I was a fantastic player, or great.
"There were a lot of things, in hindsight, I would have done differently.
"I probably made many mistakes and at times didn't put in 100 per cent effort.
"But now I have an opportunity to put 100 per cent in and look back and potentially be proud of some programs and initiatives and working for the AIS."
The 19-year-old Woolnough would probably have benefited from the type of mentoring and direction he now tries to provide.
"Where I've got to now, in sports administration, it wasn't by design," he said.
"I didn't do any education or study when I was playing, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone to do it like that.
"But I suppose it's worked for me."