Modest Keven Mealamu makes his mark
Playing the hotshot has never appealed to Keven Mealamu.
As a pupil at Auckland's Aorere College, where he climbed to fame as a New Zealand under-16 flanker, Mealamu resisted an urge to lord it over his mates as the king sports jock. Seventeen years later, little has changed.
Even when receiving a message on the eve of his 100th test by one of the most respected linebackers in the history of the NFL, Mealamu resisted the hype.
"I got an email from a man I'm a big fan of - Ray Lewis plays for the Baltimore Ravens, so getting an email from him is quite special."
It is understood Mealamu, 33, and Lewis, 37, who has been named an Associated Press All-Pro 10 times, first connected through a third party; Lewis' interest in the All Blacks was piqued after learning about Mealamu's accomplishments in the team he has represented for 11 years.
There has been much to like about it.
Apart from being suspended for a headbutt on England's Lewis Moody in 2010 and combining with Tana Umaga in the ugly tip-tackle on Brian O'Driscoll in 2005, Mealamu's career has been largely free of controversy.
Lewis hasn't been alone in observing Mealamu's career from a distance.
Former Aorere College principal, Stuart Middleton, extracted satisfaction from his achievements.
"Ego is the last word you would have attached to him at school," Middleton reflected.
"He had huge dignity and an appropriate level of confidence. He was the epitome of humility and not a glimmer of swagger about him."
And when it came to schoolwork?
"He did enough to keep out of trouble. He did all right but as he went through school, increasingly sport took his interest."
Although a Christian, Mealamu has been no doormat when provoked.
Older brother, Luke, who represented Samoa, struggled to recall any moments when his sibling has blown-up away from rugby but reiterates anyone trying to exploit him on the park should expect a heated response.
"I call him the baby-faced assassin. He is very nice off the field but you don't really want to mess with him on it. He knows how to look after himself."
Luke agrees with Middleton when noting Keven wasn't one to take advantage of his status as a teenager.
"He had no ego. You could tell he was going to do well by his work ethic - and he had the biggest thighs out of any kid at Aorere College," he quipped.
It was the power in those legs which impressed Auckland coach Wayne Pivac before he selected him to make his NPC debut in 1999.
Having watched Mealamu playing for his Otahuhu club, he selected him as hooker Paul Mitchell's deputy - despite only converting to rake from flanker the previous year.
"He was very, very powerful in the legs," says Pivac.
"That was one of the first things you noticed. He could carry the ball with one or two players on him as made that extra few metres towards the gain-line."
The following season Mealamu was grabbed by the Blues and in late 2002 John Mitchell selected him for his test debut against Wales in Cardiff.
Hard graft, says Pivac, was instrumental in that success.
"When he first made the Auckland team he would be at his house throwing the ball at marks on his house or down at the park with Brad Mika throwing against the goal posts. He was religious about the hard work. And it has paid off."