Tumut Blues under 18s coach Jon Burgun was in ‘complete shock’ after being recognised as the New South Wales’ male coach of the year in a radio announcement on the Ray Hadley show last Thursday morning.
“(I) had a mate ring me, who heard the announcement on the Ray Hadley Radio program then Win News rang immediately after,” Burgun said.
“(It was) very much unexpected and I was in complete shock when I heard and still can’t believe it.”
The annual award is part of the annual NSWRL volunteer of the year awards, that recognise the invaluable contribution made by almost 25,000 people who give up their time as volunteers, officials, coaches and referees to ensure NSWRL is able to run at more than 700 clubs across the state.
Burgun coached Tumut’s Weissel Cup side to the finals of the Group 9 under 18s competition, but it was his efforts with his playing group off the paddock that garnered him the most praise.
In a statement by NSWRL, Burgun’s efforts to help the squad deal with the passing of former teammate Ethan Day was why he was nominated and chosen to be coach of the year.
“Tumut’s Jon Burgun was named Coach of the Year (male), for the work he did to help his team through the unfortunate passing of a young player, making himself available day or night to support the under 18s side, and travelling 45mins from Tumbarumba twice weekly,” the statement read.
Burgun said Day’s death hit both him, and his team hard after the 2019 season had finished.
“The Tumut 18s, who I have been coach of for the last two seasons, lost a very popular member in Ethan Day to suicide last November, which tore all our hearts out,” Burgun said.
“Ethan used to call me dad, which made it more devastating for me personally.”
The Blues coach explained how he dealt with the situation, imploring members of the playing group to embrace their emotions, rather than bottling them up.
“I was really concerned about the mental health of the rest of the group, so I organised a tribute day soon after, where I met with the players, their mates and some fathers in the dressing rooms,” Burgun said.
“I sat in the middle of them and cried and showed how much I was hurting; the devastation a suicide had left behind and all the should haves, could haves and would haves I was, and still am experiencing every day.
“Ethan’s mother (Leigh Day) sister (Julia Day) also spoke. After we gathered in the centre of Tumut football field and let blue balloons go, I encouraged the boys to let their emotions go at the same time to let out the hurt and not bottle it up.”
Burgun has since kept in close contact with the playing group, both as a coach and friend, and said this has helped everyone in the group during their mourning of Day.
“I was continually in contact with all the group and had many of them in bad mental shape during the initial period, (with) lots of late and sleepless nights,” Burgun said.
“The group has become very close and look after one another as a result; many of them message and talk to me one-on-one (with) how they are feeling.”
Covid-19 and the Dunns Road bushfires made this even harder for Burgun, who admitted he was also battling with mental health demons of his own.
“All the time I was trying to hold myself together as I was completely broken and suffering my own mental battle,” Burgun said.
“I stayed on to coach the team in 2020 as they moved from 17s to 18s, feeling that they needed my support even more (but) then the problems of 2020 began with bushfires and Covid, which separated us as a group, but we stayed in touch via social media.”
The passing of Day and other local men to suicide is a battle that Burgun said he is willing to fight, and he hoped to encourage more support and conversation.
“I have also dealt with two more suicides in the time since, and continually worry about who is next,” Burgun said.
“We need to support one another more instead of judging; encouraging a conversation and ask how someone is feeling instead of forming an opinion on their behaviour or actions.
“2020 in particular has been a roller coaster of ups and downs and the emotional effects and mental health of everyone in the community is a big concern.”
As far as receiving the award goes, Burgun was initially taken back, but has since grown proud of receiving such prestigious recognition.
“To be nominated for the award was a complete shock and not something you expect, I was initially embarrassed but as it sunk in, I have become very proud of it and I will cherish it forever,” Burgun said.
“I played senior rugby league for Tumbarumba for 15 years and immediately went into coaching when I retired due to a bad achilles. I also took up refereeing and this made me a more patient coach as you experience how hard the job actually is.”
Burgun’s involvement for the Blues stretches past his coaching of the under 18s in 2020, with his coaching and training with the Tumut Minor League Club over the years, and his first aid training of the club’s senior teams, including his friendship with Blues first graders and Tumbarumba residents Jordy Anderson and Matt Byatt.
“I have also been involved with Tumut first grade the last two seasons and have enjoyed that immensely supporting Jordan Anderson and Matt Byatt along their way,” Burgun said.
“We have made great mates in Tumut and I thank both the minor and major league Blues clubs for giving me the opportunity to take on roles for their clubs and supporting me also.
“I just love rugby league and being involved in something that was bred into me by my parents, who always volunteered and took on roles no one else wanted to do, they have supported me my whole life in everything I did.”
Blues president Bryan Black couldn’t praise Burgun highly enough after hearing he had received the award.
“It just shows what he does for the club and the young fellas that he coaches, he is passionate footy and about these young boys and their mental health,” Black said.
“I think he helped them all gel together and kept them talking and working together as a unit during a very difficult time.”
NSWRL Chief Executive David Trodden congratulated the winners of the NSWRL volunteer of the year awards and thanked all volunteers across the state for their invaluable contribution to the game, especially in the challenging environment facing everyone in 2020 throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as through the bushfires and droughts that have also taken their toll on our rugby league communities.
“2020 has been a year like no other, and the resilience, patience, flexibility and unwavering commitment of our volunteers to make sure the game went on, is something we at NSWRL are very grateful for; without our volunteers there is no game,” Trodden said.
“To the winners of our 2020 awards, congratulations. While we have not been able to recognise everyone at a special function this year because of Covid, the sentiment is the same and we are especially indebted to you for your extra efforts this season, going above and beyond in difficult circumstances.”