TALK to Wests Illawarra star Taioalo ‘Junior’ Vaivai and he’ll be the first to tell you he could very easily not be playing rugby league at all today.
Such a prospect would’ve been hard to fathom back when he was running rings around opponents with South Sydney in the NYC in 2009. He certainly looked destined to play a lot more than the 12 NRL games he managed in the ensuing three seasons before injuries cruelled his career.
In the dark times that followed, he had any number of reasons to walk away from the game, but there was one that kept him coming back – family.
It’s an extended family that includes Hollywood superstar Dwayne Johnson, but his main thoughts will be with two women when he pulls on the USA Hawks jumper at this year’s World’s Cup.
The first is Malele Sialaoa Fuimaono, the grandmother from whom he draws his American Samoan heritage, the other his mother Mina Taioalo Vaivai.
“This one’s on behalf of my grandmother and my mum,” Vaivai said.
“Unfortunately I never got the opportunity to meet my grandmother but I’m just blessed that I’ve got this opportunity through her.
“When I pull that jersey on it’ll be for her and for my family and those people who have supported me from day one, the people who were there when no one else was. That’s who this World Cup is dedicated to.”
It’s also what drove the now the 27-year-old father to son Xavier and five-week old daughter Estelle through all the lonely training sessions as he eyed a berth at this year’s World Cup.
“Sometimes you ask is all the pain you’re putting your body through worth the opportunity – the answer’s always yes,” he said.
“You get thoughts going through your head when you’re training and when you’re mentally stuffed, the number one thought is your kids, your family and the people you represent.
“My son has grown up a bit now. I never forced him to play rugby league, I wanted him to pick something he wanted to do, but this year he finally asked me ‘dad can you teach me to play football?’.
“Being an ex-NRL player, it’s what you want to hear but it also was a real driver for me to try and make the World Cup squad so he could see his old man give it one more crack.”
Whether that last crack results in another shot at the NRL remains to be seen, but the personal trainer and budding fitness entrepreneur insists he’ll be happy whatever the outcome.
“Who wouldn’t take the opportunity to play NRL again,” he said.
“I’m going to play to the best of my ability. I’m going to leave everything out there and I’m going to give it 100 per cent.
I’m OK if my 100 per cent isn’t good enough [for the NRL] anymore. If that opportunity presents itself, I’ll take it with both hands.
“If it doesn’t, I’m happy just to have the opportunity to play on a big stage like the World Cup.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to win a premiership or do anything big but I’m so grateful I’ve got some NRL games next to my name and a World Cup next to my name.
“I set myself a goal when I signed with Wests to make that World Cup squad and really just to enjoy my football again.
“I’m really grateful they gave me the chance to do that. Now it’s just a matter of delivering come game time.”
As for the Hawks prospects, Vaivai is confident of a strong showing if pride in the jumper counts for anything.
“I’ve been over there quite a bit through the qualifiers to show that I really want to be there for the World Cup and it’s an eye-opening experience to see some of the sacrifices the guys make just to play the game,” Vaivai said.
“They still have to work and all that sort of stuff and they have to take time off work and away from their families to get to get to those qualifiers and all the games you need to play just to get here.
“They do it for the love of the game and the best thing about it is that when they put on the American jersey they go from zero to a hundred just in the warm up.
“I know on paper that we don’t have a whole lot of NRL experience, we certainly don’t have as much as our first opponents Fiji, but I know the boys who’ve been selected will do the job.”