The news that Bulldogs' legend Steve Folkes had died of a suspected heart attack came as an enormous shock to many in the rugby league community. Folkes spent his career taking the utmost care of his most valuable asset, his physical fitness. He played the game hard, during some of its hardest years, but he played the game with a level of fitness almost unprecedented at the time.
Rugby league changed during the 1980s, at the dawn of a new era of full-time professionalism. As it became more obvious that any edge in fitness was a big advantage over rivals, players stopped gathering after training to down a few beers and a cigarette or two. Some even adopted strict diets and put in extra hours on the paddock and in the weights room to improve their on-field performances.
Among the leaders in this new era was Bulldogs second-row forward Folkes. At 178 cm and 85 kilograms Folkes wasn't the most imposing physical specimen to pack into the rough and tumble of a 1980s scrum, but when he ran onto the field there wasn't a player better prepared or physically fitter than the Canterbury-Bankstown junior.
Folkes would go on to prove the benefits of the extra attention to detail in his preparation, with a stellar club and representative career. He played in six grand finals with the Bulldogs, winning four of those, while representing New South Wales and Australia with distinction.
It was an ethos he would take with him into his coaching career. As head coach of the Bulldogs from 1998, with fitness enforcer Billy Johnstone in his corner, Folkes was notorious for the punishing pre-season schedules he would put his players through. In 2004 he was at the helm for the Bulldogs' most recent premiership victory.
Folkes went on to share his strength and conditioning knowledge far and wide; from the West Indian cricket team, to the Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra Dragons and more recently as coach of Australia's Jillaroos. He knew that a fitness edge was something readily attainable by anyone willing to put in the effort.
Then the news today, the shock of it. Heart attacks are surely what awaits the couch-bound, unhealthier specimens among us. We all look to improve our diet and exercise regimes to avoid such a fate. It knocks the wind out of you to hear that a rugby league giant and a strength and conditioning fanatic has died so suddenly.
In the tributes that have flowed through social media, many shared the shock and sadness that they felt at the news.
Shattered to hear my old coach Steve Folkes has passed away this morning!! Was a big part of my career! Prayers go out to the family and friends 🙏🏽RIP mate
— Willie Mason WMM 💯🇦🇺🇹🇴 (@mase21) February 27, 2018
— Lote Tuqiri (@LoteTuqiri) February 27, 2018
Like everybody else I am numb at the news of Steve Folkes passing.Sadly it is almost 5 years to the day since he lost his wife Karen. Thoughts with his Family. So sad
— Darryl Brohman (@therealbigmarn) February 27, 2018
Very sad news hearing of the passing of one of rugby leagues real good guys Steve Folkes. Great player, even better bloke.
— Mark Geyer (@markMGgeyer) February 27, 2018
Shocked to hear the news that Steve Folkes has passed away. It was a pleasure to work with him when he was the the @WestsTigers he was a honest, hardworking bloke who everyone respected.
— Chris Lawrence (@chrislawrence04) February 27, 2018
The NSWRL sends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of NSW True Blue and former @NRL_Bulldogs legend Steve Folkes, who sadly passed away today.
— NSW Rugby League 🏉 (@NSWRL) February 27, 2018
Very saddened this morning 😔 A great coach and even better bloke .. RIL Steve Folkes 🙏🏾❤️
— Ben Roberts (@ben02roberts) February 27, 2018
Sad news about #stevefolkes today. Had the pleasure of him being an assistant coach at dragons and always challenged players to get best out of themselves. Thoughts and prayers out to family and friends.
— Jamie Soward (@sowwowofficial6) February 27, 2018
Rest easy folksey. Thoughts are with the family. 2004 what a season ❤️
— Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) February 27, 2018
Hard to find the words with the sudden passing of Steve Folkes. A great friend to me personally & admired by many people across the game. Condolences to all his family & friends and to everyone at the @NRL_Bulldogs who admired his loyalty, toughness & leadership
— Todd Greenberg (@Todd_Greenberg) February 27, 2018
Very sad to hear of the passing of Steve Folkes.
A great clubman & player for Canterbury,NSW &Australia.
I had the pleasure to play with Steve many times & always respected him as a player.
He may not have been the biggest but he epitomised the Bulldogs https://t.co/jE5DDDnEVT pic.twitter.com/sKgFs4YQGb
— Garry Jack (@jimmyjack244) February 27, 2018