Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson convinced Junior Vaivai to fight on
BY: Adrian Proszenko (Sydney Morning Herald)
It had been years since Vaivai had played in the NRL and a return appeared unlikely. Struggling personally and professionally, he turned to his family for advice. The message was clear: go back and find your passion for the game.
It would have been a directive easy to ignore had it come from anyone other than Dwayne Johnson, known as "the Rock" and "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment".
"We started chatting in the kitchen and I said I didn't know if I wanted to play, with so much politics in the game and things out of your control like injuries, that I wasn't enjoying my football," Vaivai said of his heart-to-heart with cousin Johnson, among the biggest stars in Hollywood.
"Dwayne goes “Why don't you start again and try to find your passion because if you're passionate about something, things seem to work out. He said to go back and restart. Do it because you want to do it, not because everyone else is doing it."
Before he went on to become a global phenomenon via his WWE and movie exploits, Johnson too was a footballer at a crossroads. Passed over by the NFL and cut from his team the Calgary Stampeders, Johnson suffered bouts of depression before continuing his sporting career in the ring. History suggests it was a prudent move.
It was only after their chat that Vaivai was star-struck.
"It's crazy. To me it was getting advice from an older cousin," Vaivai said. "After our conversation, it clicked that he's an international Hollywood star. At the time, it was just family time, just talking with his mum as well. When I left my auntie's house, he's all over billboards over Los Angeles. He's doing very well for himself. "He's an international star doing what he's doing. I'm just grateful to have that time with him and get that advice. "I'm proud of what he's done and that he inspires people around the world."
Vaivai will get the opportunity to showcase his wares on the world stage. The 27-year-old has been chosen to again represent the US in the upcoming Rugby League World Cup. It's an accomplishment he felt was out of reach just a few years ago.
After making his mark as a member of the 2009 National Youth Competition team of the year – which included Kieran Foran, Gareth Widdop and Daly Cherry-Evans – Vaivai made his first-grade debut for South Sydney that season. However the Rabbitohs sacked him following off-field drama and his stint at Penrith, where he was Phil Gould's first signing, was thwarted by injury.
In 2013 his ACL buckled for the third time.
At that point he was sleeping in his car, wondering where it all went wrong.
"There was a time when you just want to be alone," he said.
"When I was at the Dragons I found myself sleeping outside of WIN Stadium, getting ready for training the next day.
"It was a case of sacrificing a lot. At the time I was only on training wage, there was no contract or anything. I stayed in the car because I was travelling from Bondi every day and found myself sleeping there until the next day instead of going all the way to Bondi and back."
Vaivai knows a thing or two about cramped sleeping arrangements. As one of nine siblings growing up in Brisbane's western suburbs, things were tight. So was the family.
"We grew up sharing the same blanket," he said. "We didn't have the things kids have nowadays. My kid has his own room and own bed. I didn't have that. "I used to live in a two-bedroom apartment with eight kids. We used to sleep on the lounge and share a blanket. My childhood is something I won't forget, but I'm grateful because it makes me appreciate the things I have and not be angry about the things I don't have."
He may not have had an NRL contract, but Vaivai refused to give up.
The speedy centre – he clocked a 100-metre sprint time of 10.72 seconds at the age of 15 – joined Western Suburbs Red Devils in the Illawarra league and rediscovered his love of the game under the tutelage of Brett Kimmorley.
"I had a goal when I first went to Wests to play in the World Cup and hopefully secure a future deal," he said.
The first of those ambitions has been achieved. Off contract and without a manager, Vaivai – whose full first name is Taioalo – is hoping to impress NRL talent spotters during the season-ending internationals.
If he fails to do so, all is not lost. Armed with a new perspective that comes from being a father of two, he knows there are other outlets, such as his personal training business, if he doesn't return to first grade. Not that he's given up.
"To be honest, my chances may be slim," he said. "But you've got guys like Cody Walker who debuted at the Rabbitohs at 26. I'm 27. It may be far-fetched, but my form will determine if I can open doors or if they close.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to play in the World Cup and if something comes of it, I'm happy. If something doesn't, I'm happy. "For a long time it was hard for me to let go of the fact I may never play NRL again. I've come to terms that there is life outside of football and there are other ways you can inspire people. I'm passionate about helping people and in the course of my ups and downs in life, I've come to realise that."
About the Rugby League World Cup 2017
The Rugby League World Cup 2017 (RLWC2017) will see 14 teams play 28 games over five weeks – all hoping to be crowned world champions in what is the pinnacle event in international Rugby League. In addition to playing matches in Australia and New Zealand, there will be three pool matches played in Papua New Guinea in front of some of the world's most passionate Rugby League fans. This Tournament will celebrate the diversity of cultures and countries playing and engaging with the game around the world. RLWC schedule as follows:
- USA vs Fiji Oct 28 Townsville QLD (6:30PM local time)
- USA vs Italy Nov 5 Townsville QLD (6:30PM local time)
- USA vs PNG Nov 12 Port Moresby PNG (3:30PM local time)
How to Watch the Rugby League World Cup
Catch all the Rugby League World Cup 2017 Action with Fox Sports TV and Online. FS2 Channel features USA Hawks games with Fox Soccer Plus Channel broadcasting select tournament events. Catch all the action ONLINE with Fox Soccer Match Pass
For USA Hawks RLWC2017 media related inquiries, please contact Hawks Communications Manager: Steve Williams (This email has been obfuscated.).