Special moment...Corey Waddell and John Cartwright embrace at his NRL debut jersey presentation. The Waddell and Cartwright families are lifelong friends.

When Corey Waddell runs out for his NRL debut tonight, there will be a special group of people feeling a sense of pride and mixed emotions.

One of those people will be Manly Assistant Coach, John Cartwright, who has known the 22-year-old  since he was born.

The former Penrith, NSW and Australian player was best mates with Corey’s father, Steve, who sadly passed away from a heart attack when Corey was 15. He was just 45.

A hardened first-grade prop in the late 1990s, Steve played 89 games for Penrith and Illawarra.

“Steve was my best man at my wedding,’’ Cartwright said.

“’We lost Steve way too early.”

It’s why Cartwright felt extremely honoured, and a touch nervous, when he presented Corey with his NRL debut jersey at Lottoland. The pair embraced in what was a beautiful, emotional moment.

“I was really nervous because I know how much this would have meant to Corey’s Dad,’’ Cartwright said.

Special moment...Corey Waddell and John Cartwright embrace at his NRL debut jersey presentation. The Waddell and Cartwright families are lifelong friends.
Special moment...Corey Waddell and John Cartwright embrace at his NRL debut jersey presentation. The Waddell and Cartwright families are lifelong friends. ©Sean O'Sullivan

“This was more than just a normal jersey presentation for me, knowing how proud his Dad would have been, and how much he would have loved to have been here for the game.

“My son, Jed, and Corey are best mates. My daughter and his sister are best friends, so we have been pretty much like family for our whole lives.”

For Corey, the decision to leave Penrith at the end of last year to search for an opportunity to play in the NRL has now paid off.

He was impressive in the team’s final trial before missing the opening game of the season through injury.

Cartwright said Corey has had to work hard over the years to get his opportunity in the NRL.

“He hasn’t had it easy. He has to do things tough like a lot of kids have but a lot of kids go the wrong way too. Corey is a great young man and it’s always nice to reward someone like that,’’ Cartwright said.

“Corey is very similar to his Dad.  Like his Dad, he is very genuine, honest, and very loyal.”

And despite the years that have passed, Steve Waddell is never far from Cartwright’s mind.

“Steve’s strength was he was very black and white. I often ask myself when I am in a situation what he would do and that generally makes things a lot clearer for me,’’ Cartwright added.

“He was a tough player who was probably underestimated but not by those who played against him. Steve was as tough as anyone.

“I just know how happy the Waddell family will be. There will be plenty of family and friends here for Corey.

“It is so hard to get a game in the NRL so to see that come to fruition for Corey means there will be a lot of happy people in the grandstand.”

And prior to running out, Corey will keep to his pre-game ritual which will take on even greater significance tonight.

“I have this photo on my phone of my Dad from his playing days that was taken from an old footy card,’’ Waddell said.

“It is very special to me. I just take a look at it and think of Dad.”