WHEN MANGERE EAST development officer Dave Pearce first saw a 12-year-old Sonny Fai kicking a ball around Walter Massey Park, he was certain.
"You knew from the moment you saw him that he was going to be a future Kiwi," he says.
Four years later, when coach Dean Hunter threw Fai in with the grizzled veterans of Manukau's national premiership team, he knew too.
"He was miles ahead of anything I had ever seen, and I had been around a long time," Hunter says.
There are two things everyone seems to remember about the first time they saw Sonny Fai play a game of football. First was how much bigger than his peers he was. Second, how much better he was.
"He stood head and shoulders above the rest," says Pearce. "Not just in stature, but in his presence in the game."
It is easy to say when a player is lost so young that he would have been a star, but in Fai's case, it is true. Auckland's tightly-woven league community knows when the next big talent comes along, and they knew for a long time about Fai.
When, at 14, Fai played for Counties-Manukau under-16s and destroyed Canterbury, Christchurch league stalwart Jeff Whittaker rang his old mate Frank Endacott, the former Kiwis coach and player agent, to tell him he had seen something special.
"I only had to look at him once," says Endacott. "We signed him up straight away."
He was easy to spot.
"He never looked like a normal teenager," says Pearce, who was involved with Fai's emergence at Mangere, and then as a development officer for Auckland as Fai made every rep side going.
"He was 192cm, 100kg and ran like Carl Lewis."
Fai's first contract with the Warriors, a three-year scholarship was dated January, 2003. He was still two months from his 15th birthday. He became accustomed to doing things early: he was just three years younger than his teammates when he debuted for the Junior Kiwis in 2004.
He played only one senior club game for Mangere before he was thrust into the national Bartercard Cup with the Counties Manukau Jetz.
"I didn't know much about him," says Hunter. "He came along and he made an impression from the moment he set foot on the field.
"We were 10-8 down against Wellington five minutes before halftime. I put him on the field and he went 70 metres to score the first time he touched the ball."
Most 17-year-olds would have the talent, but not the wherewithal to cope with the old heads of the Bartercard Cup. Not Fai. "When he stood next to other boys, you had trouble believing he was 16 until you had a conversation with him and realised he wasn't 22," says Hunter.
Everything kept coming ahead of time. In 2003, player of the tour for New Zealand under-16s on their trip to Australia; in 2004 and a Junior Kiwi for the first time. In 2005, a regular starter for the Jetz, missing their semifinal playoff defeat to be the Warriors' 18th man against Manly in the final round of the NRL.
By the time he played for the Junior Kiwis a second time the following year, he was, says coach Paul Bergman, "the first player picked ... he was like Ruben Wiki was in the Kiwis Sonny had that mana that Ruben brings".
"He was a very worldly boy he'd been around a lot of football sides already and around a lot of men and he matured not only as a footballer but as a young man. He was a leader, there was no doubt about that.
"Picking an international team to play the Aussies, you want a couple of rugged customers who put fear in the Aussies' eyes. He was one of them."
That year, Fai stepped up into the New Zealand A team. The next, he cracked the NRL reserve grade competition, scoring 14 times in 21 games for the Auckland Lions in the NSW Cup. Last year, it was 15 games in first grade and player of the year in under-20s.
Everyone interviewed for this story agreed: this year was surely going to be Sonny Fai's year.
Instead, early on Friday morning, a group of 2005 Jetz got together and took an early morning drive to Bethells Beach to pay their respects to their old teammate.
"The best thing about him was you'd be proud if he was your son," Hunter says.
"He was a lovely kid. A lot of boys get a big head and turn arrogant, but he didn't.
"When I finished coaching, he would always come and see me at work what I liked about Sonny was he would always come up and shake your hand.
"Everything I've been reading this week was very true."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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