Dad's support lifts young star Tuimoala Lolohea

FAST FEET: Tuimoala Lolohea is already being compared to Shaun Johnson and Billy Slater.
FAST FEET: Tuimoala Lolohea is already being compared to Shaun Johnson and Billy Slater.

He is filling Shaun Johnson's boots today. SARAH HARVEY on the rise of Tuimoala Lolohea

There was always something special about Tui Lolohea.

The hours and hours he would spend kicking a ball in the driveway of his dad's house; his unrelenting desire to play league, to have a ball in his hands, to be in the team.

The tears when he didn't make the Auckland Rugby League team and the satisfaction when the next year he not only made the team but he was made captain.

A gift that means, at only 19, he is signed with the Warriors until the end of 2017 and his silky skills as a halfback and fullback are compared with the likes of Billy Slater, Shaun Johnson or Brad Fittler.

A gift that last year, his first with the Junior Warriors, saw him score 22 tries and play in all 28 games, then be named player of the year.

Skills that saw him make his debut for the Warriors first grade side last weekend and a gift that, he says, is largely down to his dad Paul.

It's always been just Tui and his dad.

Ever since his mum Rachel went to sleep, when Tui was just one, and never woke up.

Paul Lolohea, who is of Tongan descent, said his wife had a heart condition no-one knew about.

"It was just Tui and myself from then on. And 19, almost 20 years have gone and it still just me and him."

Fitting the demands of his young son's training and games with his job as a security guard was difficult.

"I knew that in the day time I had to be with Tui and then I would give Tui to my brother to sleep. I would come back in the morning to pick him up and bring him home.

"When I was security on the weekend I would be working and then come back at 7am because Tui's game would be about 9am.

"I remember driving from home to a game and three times along the way we had to stop on the road to get a bottle of water to put on my face because I started to sleep. I never gave up till we got there.

"I said to Tui, you run and play and after the game, when I have had a sleep for a little bit I am all right to drive. I remember waking up and Tui saying ‘Dad, I got player of the day'."

Even in those early days, Paul said he knew his son was something special.

"He would take the ball in his hand and it would never come off until I tell him to come and do something."

Lolohea made his debut last week coming on after about 60 minutes to replace Thomas Leuluai. He had been told by coach Andrew McFadden just the night before that he would be in the side and told to play his natural, free-flowing game.

Tui said he had clammy hands and found it hard to sit still on the bench as he watched the game in front of him and could taste how close his chance finally was.

"It was good to be out there finally. My dream came true just to get a debut. I thought I would be really nervous going into the game but with the boys around me, they just kept talking to me."

It was almost surreal, he said.

"My family is not a big league family, I just started playing league when I was five. Dad took me to play league and I have just played league ever since then.

"He's been a big part of my career so far. If it wasn't for him I don't think I would be the person I am today playing footy. He made a lot of sacrifice in his life just to take me to footy games and training."

Paul said it was one of those days he had dreamed about.

"[Tui] rang me and said: "Dad, guess what? I play tomorrow." I said "oh man" it was the best.

"It was one of the days I had been praying for to see Tui play with the Warriors. I was so, so happy to see Tui on the field."

"They were quite excited for me," Tui said.

"I know they have been there for me ever since I was little and it was just a huge honour to see them be there on my first game."

Paul said Tui still thinks about and talks about his mum.

"It was very, very hard. I think I am still single because it was everything about Tui and maybe with a relationship a woman would come and she might not like Tui.

"I wanted to make sure he will be ok and work for him so one day he will have a better life, because he is always, always there for me."

Paul said last father's day, after years of jokes at he and Tui's expense about the car Paul drove Tui threw him something.

"It was a key. I said ‘what's that for?' He said ‘You go and you pick that up, I bought you a car.

"He said you have that car and I have the old car to take to training.'

"He said ‘you deserve it dad, you are always there for me.' "

Sunday Star Times