Some were born into extreme poverty, others to drug-addicted parents. Many have had to overcome tragic deaths and even time in jail. These are the backstories of the players who have overcome under-privilege to rise to the top of the NRL
- NRL semi finals are set to go ahead this weekend following a thrilling coronavirus-interrupted 2020 season
- Some of rugby league’s biggest names share their inspiring off-field stories ahead this weekends matches
- Challenges they’ve faced include stints in prison, crippling poverty, loss of loved ones and family drug abuse
- One star player was so disadvantaged growing up in a remote village he used a coke bottle for a football
The inspiring on-field performances of NRL stars is often nothing compared to what they’ve been through off the field.
Rugby league has always had its roots deeply entrenched in battling working-class communities, and for so many young players, the rough-and-tumble code offers a path to a better life.
Although sex scandals and doping allegations have grabbed most of the headlines in recent weeks, there are also heartening tales or self sacrifice, determination and redemption.
From playing football with an empty Coke bottle, to extreme poverty, prison cells and a tragic death – these are the NRL stars who’ve overcome the toughest of odds to reach first grade as they prepare to lead their teams into this weekend’s preliminary finals.
Justin Olam – Melbourne Storm:
Although Justin Olam, 26, is now regarded as one of the game’s fiercest outside backs, as a child in a remote Papua New Guinea village the sight of a football was extremely rare.
‘At primary school we would play touch footy with a coke bottle and we would put dry, dead grass in there to make it heavy so it wouldn’t get blown away by the wind when we kicked it or passed it,’ he told NRL.com.
‘For someone to have a rugby league ball was a big thing… I actually never owned a rugby league ball.’
He dreamed of playing in the NRL but didn’t think it would ever happen until a string of impressive Queensland Cup performances in 2016 caught the eye of Melbourne Storm super coach Craig Bellamy.
That same year, the hard-running centre also graduated from the PNG University of Technology in Lae with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics.
The Melbourne Storm are set to take on the Canberra Raiders on Friday at 7:50pm.
Villagers where Justin Olam, 26, (left) grew up in PNG gather around a small TV (right) to watch him play for the Melbourne Storm
‘At primary school we would play touch footy with a coke bottle,’ Olam said (pictured, a huge crowd gathers in Olam’s PNG village to watch him play for the Storm)
Apisai Koroisau – Penrith Panthers:
After the traumatising and sudden death of his former girlfriend when he was just 21, Apisai ‘Api’ Koroisau wasn’t sure he’d ‘ever make it back’.
The NRL star, considered by many to be the buy of the year after transferring from the Manly Sea Eagles, had returned home after celebrations with his football club to find the lifeless body of his de facto girlfriend, Cordelia.
The heartbreaking tragedy weighed on his emotions and hampered his on-field performance at the time.
‘After it happened, my mindset at the time was that I was just happy to be in the mix,’ Koroisau told the Daily Telegraph in 2017.
He credits his new wife Amy with helping him work through his immense grief as he finds career-best form at the Panthers.
The Penrith Panthers will clash with the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Saturday at 7:50pm.
Api Koroisau (pictured with new partner Amy) says he learned this year that there was ‘a lot more to life than just being around’
John Bateman – Canberra Raiders:
John Bateman was a troubled schoolboy sitting in math class when he was told he was going to be a dad at the age of 15.
The pressure of becoming a father was a frightening prospect for the Canberra Raider’s ball-playing second-rower.
He was raised by a single mum in one of the toughest council estates in the UK’s Bradford area and admits fights and skipping school were a common occurrence.
‘Being a dad so young has made me into who I am today, to be honest,’ the 27-year-old told Region Media in 2019.
‘Being a 16-year-old lad from where I am from is not the best thing. But becoming a dad made me grow up a lot faster and realise that I was responsible for a little girl and that I had to step up.’
The England international signed with the Raiders in 2019 and took the competition by storm, but has vowed to lead his team to Grand Final glory before returning home to play with the Wigan Warriors next year.
John Bateman found out he would be a father at just 15-years of age (pictured with his daughter after a rugby league match for UK club Wigan)
Tyrone May – Penrith Panthers
When the Panther’s utility was growing up in Sydney’s tough western suburbs, he would wake up at 4:30 every morning to pick and pack fruit at a plant called StarTrack before heading off to school.
A little over two years ago, Tyrone May, 24, was living out of his car and sleeping on friend’s couches.
But things would get a whole lot worse in 2019, when the utility player faced the prospect of time behind bars after being charged with four counts of intentionally recording an intimate image without consent.
The ordeal left him ashamed and embarrassed but May says he’s now turned a corner and is seeking redemption.
‘I want to prove a lot of people wrong. That I’m not the guy they picture when they hear about me,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘I just want to make amends for what I did and justify the support people have shown me to help me get through it. It wasn’t that long ago I was sitting in the little cell at Penrith police station. I genuinely thought I might be going to jail.
‘If it wasn’t for people like Ivan [Cleary], Nathan [Cleary], Gus, Ciro, my old boy … I don’t know where I’d be.
‘Probably back at StarTrack, telling everyone how good I was when I was young and what I could have been.’
A young Tyrone May is pictured with his father at their Tregear housing commission home in Western Sydney
Braidon Burns – South Sydney Rabbitohs
As a child, South Sydney Rabbitohs outside back Braidon Burns, 24, watched his mum and other relatives struggle with drug addiction as his convicted armed robber father bounced in-and-out of prison.
But one fateful day would forever mark the life of the Dubbo-born Indigenous star.
‘Looking in, I thought she was dead. Whenever I’m struggling with a decision, I think of finding mum. Of being rocked, then ringing the police,’ Burns told the Daily Telegraph in a tell-all interview.
His mother’s battle with addiction was so bad she once turned up to a South Sydney training session asking for money.
Burns said he had no choice but to turn her down and watch her cry because he couldn’t in good conscience give her money not knowing what it would be spent on. But when it came to food and living essentials he was always willing to help.
Although Burns will miss the final series after dislocating his kneecap against the Bulldogs in July, he has grown into a strong community leader and uses his time off to visit remote communities where he teaches young people about the importance of a good diet and a healthy lifestyle.
After football he plans to become a police officer.
Braidon Burns is pictured with his partner at the Mater Private Hospital in Sydney after undergoing knee surgery in July
Josh Addo Carr – Melbourne Storm:
In 2012, Australian Test winger Addo Carr had just finished his first training session with the South Sydney Rabbitohs – 24 hours later he woke up in a jail cell.
One of 13 children, the Blues’ flyer got pulled down ‘a dark path’ in his early teens and was eventually locked up for breaching bail conditions.
He says the short stint behind bars was the wake up call he needed to turn his life around.
‘My mum was great. Dad was great. But there’s something that happened in my family’s life that backfired. It’s too personal and people will get hurt from it if I talk about it. But from then I went out on my own,’ he told NRL.com.
‘I just wanted money. And I did whatever I could to get it. At first, I was basically trying to survive. I was on struggle street. I was couch-surfing with friends and families.’
Josh Addo Carr was one of 13 children and got pulled down ‘a dark path’ in his early teens, eventually ending up in jail
Stephen Crichton – Penrith Panthers:
Rookie of the year contender Stephen Crichton, 19, has set the world on fire in 2020 and is expected to make his State of Origin debut for the Blues at the end of this season.
But just a few years ago the Panther’s young star was on struggle street – literally.
The Samoan-born centre grew up in Mount Druitt on the same street as the controversial SBS documentary series Struggle Street – a show that critics described as ‘poverty porn’.
‘At school, I was teased a fair bit. Kids would laugh at me and say ‘oh, you’re from Struggle Street’. ‘It hurt but after a while, it also became my motivation,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.
Now the utra-talented athlete says he plans to buy parents a house with the cash racked up playing rugby league.
Panthers star Stephen Crichton grew up in Sydney’s struggling outer west at the same time Struggle Street was released
If you or anyone you know is in need of mental health support, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.