NRL star Chris Walker goes from problem drinker to vodka company owner

EXCLUSIVE 

Former NRL star Chris Walker has won his battle with the bottle so convincingly that he is now the teetotal owner of a thriving vodka business after once needing a stint in rehab to fight his grog habit.

The ex-Queensland, Broncos, Roosters and Titans winger is one of the men behind Sunny Days Distillery, which produces a range of products including Ariane Premium Vodka.

It’s an incredibly surprising field of work for a one-time try-scoring machine who had a career full of highlights on the field and alcohol-fuelled lowlights off it.

In 2007, Walker – who has confessed to having 100 drinks during a two-day bender – was ordered to undergo an eight-week rehab program to treat the drinking and anxiety problems that ruined his footy career.

Walker (pictured with wife Courtney) has gone from problem drinker to spending his working days going from pub to pub without touching a drop 

The former Queensland Origin winger (pictured playing for the Brisbane Broncos in 2001) excelled on the field but was a trouble magnet away from football while he was drinking  

The 43-year-old once joked that he ‘played at more clubs than Slim Dusty’ after being sacked by the Roosters and Melbourne Storm due to his drinking – but today he’s a completely changed man and couldn’t be happier.

Walker is now so confident in his ability to resist the lure of the bottle that he has no problems going from pub to pub selling vodka in his role as Sunny Days’ roving ambassador.

Asked how someone who once couldn’t control himself around alcohol now makes a living out of it, he has to think for a second before answering.

‘Very good question – the simple answer is I don’t drink anymore,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

‘I’ve been nearly 14 months sober. At some point I came to a realisation and my conscious and subconscious aligned and I gave it away.

‘To have that realisation, to start a vodka company and not drink, is one of those things on my journey in life and I’m very comfortable with where I’m sitting. 

Walker (pictured with Bulldogs great Willie Mason) was still drinking when he and a couple of mates started the Sunny Days Distillery business, but he soon came to a turning point in his life

The 43-year-old is the roving ambassador and salesman for Sunny Days’ range of vodkas, including Ariane Premium (pictured)

‘I had that conversation with Wayne Bennett [his coach at the Broncos] about six months ago and he was very proud of me, that I’ve taken that road.’

Walker was still drinking when he first started the company three years ago, but he eventually reached a fork in the road. 

‘At 43 years of age there was a point where I needed to grow up,’ he said.

‘There are certain guys in the industry who can go out and have a drink and function the next day – not that I couldn’t function the next day, but I found a little bit harder to have my productivity at a point where I needed it to be to get this business going.

‘I know what the products taste like, so I don’t need to keep on drinking them to be able to sell them.

‘I’m talking to these large, independent retailers and owners – most of those guys [who own] 50, 100, 200 pubs that I’m dealing with, I find that they don’t drink. They’re around alcohol 100 per cent of the time like I am, and they don’t drink, because they’re businessmen. 

Going teetotal hasn’t just helped Walker with his business life – he’s also whipped himself into outstanding physical shape

‘That’s the lesson I’ve taken.’

Walker – who also made headlines during his playing days when he dated Home and Away star Kate Ritchie – said his family and friends were ‘very supportive’ of his move into the vodka trade despite his chequered past with grog.

Going teetotal hasn’t just helped him expand the business to the point where Ariane and its sister brands Pink Dot Vodka and Sunny Days are sold in up to 3000 venues across the country.

He’s also in great physical shape, as evidenced by his workout videos on Instagram, in which he looks like he could still run out and play first grade.

‘It certainly helps when I’m waking up at five in the morning instead of getting home at five in the morning,’ he laughed.

But it’s been far from plain sailing for Walker since the business started in 2020. 

He said he ‘cheated death’ after suffering horrific leg injuries when a shipping container fell on him as he was in far north Queensland selling his vodkas in December 2021.

The former tryscoring machine was crushed by a shipping container in December 2021, suffering shocking leg injuries (pictured) that left him in a wheelchair 

He gave back to charities that support people going through alcohol problems and mental issues like depression and anxiety by spending 71 walking from Cairns to the Gold Coast beginning in April 2021 – and loves inspiring others

‘The last two years, I can tell you right now, have been the most difficult of my life,’ he said.

‘I had to rewind the clock back to two, three years of age and learn how to walk again. 

‘Being in a wheelchair for two to three months, I was relieved that I was still alive and still had my legs.’

Walker spent 71 days walking from Cairns to the Gold Coast beginning in April 2021 to raise money for Beyond Blue, RizeUp Australia and the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, and is now proud that he’s seen as an inspiration by people who are enduring the same struggles he went through.

‘When I’d wake up at five o’clock on that walk and see the messages from a plethora of people wanting to see how I’m going for the day and saying I’m giving them strength to get through their day, it was humbling,’ he said. 

‘People still reach out to me Australian News Today and tell me I changed their life.’ 

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