Warrios cult hero Suaia Matagi has taken to the stage to tell his incredible tale of redemption.
The blockbusting NRL prop has written and performed the play My Story - From Prison to Palace, to spread the message that people who've made the wrong choices in life can change things for the better.
As a teenager, Matagi, 26 - who played against the Rabbitohs in Perth last night - was caught up in gangs and alcohol.
After attacking two other young men on a drunken night out, he ended up behind bars at Manawatu Prison in 2006.
Realising his life was spiralling out of control, Matagi changed his ways and spent his time in jail trying to better himself, including becoming involved with the prison's sporting team.
Matagi came out of prison after a year, and headed home determined to get the most out of life.
The then 19-year-old embraced rugby league, a game the powerhouse was built for. By 2009 he was picked for Auckland and then the New Zealand Residents XIII.
A year later he was in the Auckland Vulcans but had to wait until 2012 before he was cleared to travel to Australia. Selected by the Warriors last year, Matagi has cemented a starting spot and has become a fan favourite.
He wants to use his life story to spread a message of hope. After being approached by producer Lily Su'a, Matagi wrote My Story - From Prison to Palace, in which he plays himself.
Matagi says he found writing the play and acting in it hard, but felt it was important to do.
"I stepped out of my comfort zone to be in it," Matagi told Sunday News.
"I hadn't done any acting or things like that, so it was a good experience for me, but the real message behind it was to give hope to people."
He co-wrote My Story - From Prison to Palace, which features five other actors, with Su'a.
It was first performed at Mangere Arts Centre, South Auckland, in January.
"I explained my past, what happened, my life now and put it all into the acting scenes," Matagi said.
He was delighted by the powerful and positive reaction of the audience.
Matagi didn't have any acting lessons before treading the boards, but used his experience of playing in front of tens of thousands of fans each week in the NRL to help him cope with nerves.
"It might have looked like acting to other people, but I was playing myself and it wasn't too hard to do that," Matagi said.
"I just tried to be me and paint the picture so that they could hear my story.
"In a way I was lucky that I've had experiences of being in front of huge crowds. That gave me the courage and going on stage was just like me taking to the field in a game."
As well as the public shows, Matagi put on a special performance for his Warriors team- mates after making a promise to the club's former coach, Matt Elliott. "We had a training camp during the time of the play and for me to go ahead with the acting I had to ask Matt for time away from the camp," Matagi said.
"He said I could under one condition, that I would perform in front of the team also at some point.
"I said fair enough and last month I did it in front of them. It was probably one of the biggest challenges I've ever had, to do it in front of the boys and see how they reacted. I guess they know more about myself and where I come from now."
Warriors hooker Nathan Friend was one of the players who attended Matagi's special performance.
He said the team were blown away by it.
"We all went as a team to support him [Matagi] . . . It's something we all wanted to see and it was great," Friend said.
"It was pretty heartfelt and touching and it makes you sit back and appreciate what you've got and come through in life."
Friend added: "Suaia has turned his life around and now he's starting to get a bit of a profile and [is] able to project his story.
"It shows that there's always hope and I think it's a great thing that he's done."
Matagi's manager, Tyran Smith from Sports Player Management, said he chose to work with Matagi because he realised he was a special kind of person.
"I've been working with him for a while and have identified what sort of a person he is, he's very genuine and he wants to make a difference," Smith said.
"He's dedicated and determined and those sorts of ingredients build success."
Matagi hopes to be able to perform the play again in New Zealand and would also like to take it to Australia.
"I wouldn't mind doing it in Sydney," he said.
"Because I think it's got a good message behind it, for people wandering around out there with no hope, thinking that it's over for them, or they're going through different types of struggles and the My Story project will help out a lot of them."
Asked if he had someone in mind to portray him should a movie ever be made of his life, Matagi replied - with a loud laugh - "I'd like Denzel Washington to play me!"
- Sunday News
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