The tragedy that inspires rookie Panther
In the weeks and months that followed, engulfed by grief and shock, Penrith's Matt Burton could do little else.
"He just tried to keep moving forward,'' Burton's father Guy said.
"And when he was moving forward, it was always with 'Sam' or 'Frase' written on his wrist.
"He's been doing that ever since. Sam is always with him and that's Matt's strength now.''
Three years after the drowning of his best mate Sam Fraser, Burton, a 19-year-old five-eighth, will run out at Penrith Stadium to tackle Cronulla on Friday night with his inspiration written in thick black marker pen on his wrist.
With James Maloney suspended, back-up half Jarome Luai out with a fractured eye-socket and Tyrone May stood down, the Panthers have gone to their rookie contract list to select Burton for his NRL debut.
The NSW under-20s five-eighth will be charged with helping Nathan Cleary save the Panthers from falling out of the finals race.
On the surface, it's a Hail Mary play from coach Ivan Cleary.
Particularly when you consider that just 12 months ago, Burton was playing A-Grade footy in Dubbo for his local footy club Dubbo CYMS and that at the start of this year, he was in Penrith's Jersey Flegg side.
But if Sharks forwards Wade Graham or Paul Gallen believe the rangy 190cm left-footer doesn't have the mettle to stay in the fight, they're in for a rude surprise.
The boy was forced to become a man at 16 due to the most heartbreaking of tragedies.
Six days before Christmas Day 2016, Burton went for a swim in Dubbo's Macquarie River with a group of friends, including Fraser, his mate since birth and talented halves partner at St Johns.
"They were just out having an afternoon on the river on a hot summer's day in Dubbo,'' Guy said.
"We'd had a bit of rain the week before and the rain had come down and the currents were a bit strong.
"He (Fraser) was having a swing and he just landed the wrong way and we lost him.
"It was a terribly sad time for everyone. All the boys and teammates were there. It was tragic.''
The freak accident rocked the entire Dubbo community, Fraser's family, the school, the footy club and his buddy Burton.
"Matt and Sam were born the same week in hospital. They were together in hospital as babies,'' Guy said.
"And they were together at footy as well, Sam was the St Johns five-eighth and Matt was the halfback.
"Afterwards, Matt went through some struggles, but he never stopped playing footy with Sam always with him.
"He dedicates pretty much every game to his good mate, Sam Fraser. Friday night will be no different.'
Within moments of Maloney being suspended for tripping by the NRL judiciary on Tuesday night, Burton received the message to begin preparing for his first-grade debut.
The boy who grew up a Tigers and Benji Marshall fan immediately phoned his father who had just finished his shift at the Dubbo car wash.
The father and son both broke down in tears. They cried because this was the moment his son had vowed would become reality when he was 12.
"Unbelievable,'' an emotional Guy said Wednesday.
"Where he's come from in a short space of time, the entire family is just so proud.
"He started playing rugby league and I asked him what he wanted to do when he grows up and he said he wanted to play in the NRL.
"It's been a seven-year dream and he's done it.''
Burton last year moved to "Panther House", a share accommodation owned by the club for rural and overseas players and run by former winger Shane Elford.
The 19-year-old, who was just one when Gallen made his NRL debut in 2001, has answered every challenge thrown at him, including a shock call-up to start in the NSW under-20s halves this year.
With "Sam" on his wrist, Burton scored two tries and had a hand in almost every big play the Blues produced, earning man-of-the-match honours in the 36-10 victory over Queensland.
"And since then he's played three games in Canterbury Cup, just improving with every step,'' NSW Origin advisor and Penrith great Greg Alexander said.
"It's a meteoric rise to the NRL.
"But given he's shown how he handles everything that is thrown at him, we've got full faith in him that he'll do the jumper, his family and his friends proud.''
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