A Sunshine Coast footballer whose death deeply affected rugby league from the grass roots to the elite has been remembered as a carefree “gentle giant” in an emotional public funeral.
James Ackerman was farewelled by hundreds of mourners at the Sunshine Coast Stadium in Kawana – the home ground of his Queensland cup team, the Sunshine Coast Falcons, on Wednesday.
League dignitaries were among those who paid their respects to `Ackers’, a 25-year-old father of two who died in a Brisbane hospital last week, two days after sustaining head injuries from a tackle early in a match against Norths Devils.
Speakers painted a picture of a carefree “gentle giant” who loved a punt and a pint, but was ultimately rugby league to the bone.
Ackerman’s school coach and prominent local identity, newsreader Rob Brough, summed it up best by reading excerpts from a Year 12 essay penned by Ackerman.
“I am what I am because of rugby league,” wrote a young Ackerman.
“Football is not just a sport but a religion. I need to explain who I am and no quote could be more applicable.
“I am many things – a brother, a friend, a student – but most of all, I’m a footballer.
“Football has changed my life. Everything I need I have learnt from football.”
His tragic death has left an indelible mark on not just those close to him, but the entire rugby league community, from the grassroots to the game’s very top levels.
Those in attendance included NRL chief executive Dave Smith, Queensland State of Origin legends Alfie Langer and Kevin Walters, current Maroons captain Cameron Smith.
Players and representatives from the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm, the Falcons’ feeder club, were also on hand while NRL supercoach Wayne Bennett praised Ackerman’s family for their courage in a video message.
Close friend Tyson Brough refereed Ackerman’s final match and said he was privileged to have been out there with him for the last time.
“The Norths boys were unreal. Everyone was just in disbelief, everyone – the crowd, everyone,” Brough said.
“There was just an eerie silence across the ground.
“No-one could really comprehend what was going on.”
A football and a Falcons jersey lay on Ackerman’s coffin throughout the service, while a jersey from his first junior club, St John’s in Dubbo, hung from the lectern.
Falcons president Ashley Robinson announced the club has permanently retired Ackerman’s No.8 jersey, ensuring he will forever be a part of Sunshine Coast football.
Ackerman was taken for one final lap of his home ground, where the Falcons will try to channel their grief when they resume playing on Saturday.
His coffin was driven through a guard of honour formed by players from all his former clubs, with rapper Wiz Khalifa’s song See You Again ringing through the air.
“What’s happened here today will stay with us all of our lives,” said Bennett in his video message.
“I’m sure all of you that are mates will always be mates and be bonded by James and all the other things that rugby league has given all of us.”