There are a number of interesting post-rugby league careers our former stars have taken up, but few catch your imagination quite like the one Keith Mason has embarked on.
The former St Helens and Huddersfield forward is a unique character; he is best friends with Joe Calzaghe, has starred in films with Mickey Rourke and even had a recent cameo role in Peaky Blinders.
This doesn’t even take into account his personal life and the inspirational story behind how he met partner Riona Kelly – helping her to walk again after she was left paralysed by a stroke.
Rugby in his Blood
Mason is self-made, he doesn’t do things by halves and his latest project ‘Rugby Blood’ is a possible game-changer for rugby league.
The comic, whose main character is self-portrayed fictional rugby player David King, includes many current stars of the game including Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Addo-Carr, Konrad Hurrell and Jermaine McGillvary.
Following impressive Amazon sales, plans have been backed to turn the graphic novel into a movie and Keith revealed to us that the process is already underway
“Rugby Blood came from a film script,” he said. “I wrote the film script and I sent it to the famous Pinewood Studios where 007 movies are produced and they asked me to come down.
“I nearly fell off my chair. This was my first script and I was having a bit of fun with it. So I went down and they said we want to make this film for about £5 million.
“I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, but what I realised after that is to get a film made you need producers, locations, distributors, sales agencies and many other things.
“What I have done is start from the ground up, so if you look at most films or franchises they come from the spine of a comic, so Rugby Blood is the origins and David King is actually me.
“He is a guy that never gives in and has true grit and he perseveres no matter what. The twist is that he goes on missions and saves the world.
“The slogan to the story is ‘No Sacrifice No Glory’ so you have to sacrifice something now for something great down the line and that’s what David King is all about.”
Never giving up
Keith’s life has been a constant rollercoaster since retiring six years ago. Battles with depression came after losing his home but his never-say-die attitude has allowed him to come back bigger and better than ever.
This resilience has been instilled in him since a young age. Despite living in a loving home with his mum, he fell in with the wrong crowd and at 14 was given a two-year probation order.
After turning his back on all the bad things to focus on rugby league, Mason was picked for Yorkshire and then England Schoolboys after helping Dewsbury Moor win the league.
But much like how the rest of his life has worked out, Keith had to overcome adversity to make it to the top, suffering numerous setbacks in his bid to become a professional rugby league player.
With most of the other Schoolboys signed up to professional clubs, he trialled with Bradford and Castleford without success before trying his hand at Leeds Rhinos.
“I went to Leeds and they had some great players,” he told me. “Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire, Chev Walker and so on. It was that great academy team and I remember one day head coach Dean Bell came over to me.
“He pulled me to one side and said ‘look Keith we’re not going to sign you, I don’t think you will play Super League. I don’t think you’re a Super League player.’
“It was devastating because of where I had come from and how hard I had worked, jumping on eight busses three times a week just to be able to train with them.
“I was going to quit the sport altogether. I thought I couldn’t keep taking these knockbacks but I did eventually get signed by Wakefield.
“I hung in there, John Harbin gave me the contract. I think it was £5,000 for 12 months on a two-year deal and that following year I made my Super League debut aged 17.”
Playing in the NRL at 19
To say Mason hit the ground running would be an understatement, by the end of the 2001 season he was named the club’s player of the year.
His form and an impressive Wales debut against England led to a call from Melbourne Storm, and after turning down a four-year contract with Leeds, he signed for the NRL club.
In doing so he became the youngest ever British player to start an NRL game, moving in to live with the now legendary figure Cameron Smith.
“I found it tough when I first got there,” said Mason “It was a complete culture shock but the lads made me feel really welcome.
“Pre-season was tough and I had to recover from a long-term injury before I made my official debut against New Zealand, but you have to remember I was a 19-year-old kid.
“I remember playing the following season against Newcastle and Andrew Johns tore us apart, but I was never going to go there at such a young age and absolutely kill it.
“Our pack included me, Robbie Kearns, Richard Swain, Stephen Kearney, Scott Hill and then you had Marcus Bai, Aaron Mule with Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Dallas Johnson all coming through at the same time.
“I learned so much over there, everything was so professional and when I came back I was a much better player. It was a better climate, lifestyle and I was a better human being for the whole experience.”
Mason returned to the UK and signed for St Helens in 2003, before helping them beat arch-rivals Wigan in the 2004 Challenge Cup final.
Describing that as the best game of his life, Keith’s career then stuttered somewhat as injury problems left him out of favour with new boss Daniel Anderson.
Ian Millward’s Wigan made a play for Mason but after it was blocked by Saints, he joined an ever-improving Huddersfield side via a brief loan spell at Castleford.
Acting with Mickey Rourke
Fast forward to 2009 and after suffering the heartbreak of a narrow Challenge Cup final defeat to Warrington at Wembley, the night of that final would change Mason’s life forever.
“Some of the boys got invited to stringfellows after the game. So I walk in and I see Mickey Rourke walk past me. It was the year he made his comeback in The Wrestler.
“I was star struck. So I asked his bodyguard and I’ve walked over and introduced myself and he looked at me and said: ‘what are you man? Are you a gangster? An athlete?’
“We all had our Challenge Cup suits on so we probably looked a bit intimidating. I told him I was a rugby player and he said that he loved it and had watched the game earlier that day.
“He gave me his number and his details, we went to another bar and that same night we were speaking to each other and he suddenly started crying.
“I asked his bodyguard what was up and he said that I looked like his brother who was in heaven. It was quite a surreal moment. I often think that he has looked after me because I look like his brother,
“I flew out to New York to be with him at the GQ Awards not long after and I’m meeting Jason Statham, The Jackson 5, Guy Ritchie and all these famous people.
“So I spent time in Hollywood with Mickey, just as friends, and then he’s asked me if I want to be in a movie. I said yeah and had lines in the movie Skin Traffik.
“I have gone on to do 10-12 different pieces of film and TV work since then as well as a blink and you’ll miss part in Peaky Blinders.”
Clearing his name and meeting Riona
Although Keith was succeeding and making great friends away from rugby, he went through an acrimonious split from Huddersfield Giants in 2012.
This led to him joining Castleford in 2013, which would be his final season playing the sport, with the well-publicised court case against Huddersfield taking up much time and concentration.
In this period he was able to build up a great friendship and receive the support of boxing icon Joe Calzaghe, with Mason eventually winning the case against the Giants for unfair dismissal.
After clearing his name, Mason retired and after going through a tough period, which involved battling depression, losing two homes and being involved in a car crash, things turned around when he met partner Riona Kelly.
Speaking about Riona’s inspiring story and how they met, he revealed that her resilience and attitude to life helped him to put everything into perspective.
“Riona reached out to me,” said Keith. “I was doing a bit of personal training after I had retired from the sport and she asked me if I could train her.
“She just said she had a problem with her legs, so when she got there she put her legs out of the car and had crutches. I asked if she was going to be okay to train, she didn’t look well.
“She said ‘I’ll be fine’, I asked why she needed the crutches and she said ‘I’m paralysed’ she said it but I didn’t think about it too much, I thought that she’s here so let’s give it a go.
“When she came in, she sat down and got on the pulleys and did a few exercises just to work around her injury. I just stood there and I admired.
“Couple of months before she had a stroke and was laid in bed in a coma, she was a school teacher and fitness addict, and to have all that taken away from you is a bitter pill to swallow.
“I admired her perseverance and that I wanted her to get back onto her feet and help her and it just grew from there. It’s taken me to another level to be honest with you.
“It has put everything into perspective and that’s why I don’t drink and I do everything to the max, because I see a lady who looks after a family of six and she’s can’t feel her legs.
“I eventually helped her do her first squat, which was very emotional. I’ve fallen into this journey but she has brought the best out of me because I like to help and inspire people.
“People look from the outside and question whether it’s real, well yeah, it is real and it’s backs against the wall every day for us, but we are a team and she supports me wholeheartedly and is a big part of my success.”