Rising Warriors cult hero Suaia Matagi will tell you he was a bad kid as a teenager. He hung out with a bad crowd. He was an alcoholic, a smoker, someone who dabbled with gangs.
''I thought that was life,'' Matagi told the Fairfax Media last week. ''That was how I looked at life. I just did what I wanted.''
Matagi was going nowhere - and didn't care. That's when it happened. He got in a fight, a really bad one and beat someone up good and proper.
The result was a three-year prison sentence, to be served in Manawatu Prison, in Linton.
He took his medicine, sat in prison and thought about a lot of things. A new-found belief in God was a catalyst for change. In his faith, he found a way forward.
''It finally took prison to open my eyes and show there was no purpose in the life I was living,'' he revealed.
''I'm not proud of my past - but I sure wasn't going to let my past determine my future. I just wanted to go back and restore our family name.
''I embarrassed myself and my family too with the life I was living. That was my motivation. There was always hope.''
Matagi came out of prison after only a year, and headed home to Auckland, wanting to be a better man. His pathway came in league.
Though he'd never played any organised sport before, the 19-year-old started playing, first for the Te Atatu Roosters, then the Mt Albert Lions.
A natural front-rower, his success was swift. He was selected to play for Auckland in 2009 and the New Zealand Residents (2009, 2010 and 2011).
Matagi got a job as a courier driver. He'd work 12 hour days, and then head to training. Time with his family was limited.
His first outing for the Auckland Vulcans -- one step away from a Warriors promotion -- came in 2010. It was also the first time his past caught up with him.
Matagi's past record meant a travel visa for Australia was impossible. He was restricted to playing home games for the Vulcans only.
The phonecall Matagi was waiting for came late last year. Finally, he had been cleared to travel to Australia. The dream was closer. In the off-season, he would train with the Warriors main squad.
Matagi quit his job as a courier driver, and poured himself into training. Warriors skipper Simon Mannering remembered how hard the 25-year-old worked.
''He just did everything at 100 miles an hour,'' he said. ''Obviously he was very thankful to be in the position he was, and he was making the most of it.''
The Vulcans season began, and that first holy flight to Australia came against Manly in Sydney in the opening round of the NSW Cup.
His hard work in the pre-season would soon catch the coach's eye. Matagi's Warriors first-grade call-up came in the May 11 clash against the Bulldogs in Wellington.
The first step of his journey to the NRL was now complete. Matagi thought of his wife Fai and her support, and his children Malili (7) and Christopher (4). But he was determined this was just the beginning.
''There's more to achieve,'' he said. ''There are greater days ahead. Once you get that goal, you find another goal.''
Spreading his story has been a passion. Matagi regularly visits schools and troubled youth. His training ethic has not waned. He explains he doesn't want to be a first-grade flash in the pan - he wants his story to be an example of what you can achieve.
Coach Matt Elliott describes Matagi as having ''first-grade written all over him''.
''What he does individually is spot on,'' Elliott said. ''[What needs work] is what is going on off-the-ball. When he gets that right, he's going to be a high-quality first-grade player.''
From a prison cell to the spotlight at Mt Smart, Matagi reflects: ''I know how lucky I am. I used to work 12-hour days and now I get to live the dream. It makes you appreciate the jersey even more.
''Every day I'm star struck. Guys like Manu Vatuvei and Simon Mannering are standing next to you. It reminds you, never take everything for granted.''
''No matter how many times you drop the ball in life, it's about picking it up and running at the line again. That's what counts.''
- © Fairfax NZ News
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