Wrestling fans the world over are more than familiar with the ‘Rock Bottom’, the finishing monouvre that’s spelled good night for countless men in the squared circle of the WWE and lit up the globe’s biggest arenas for the best part of two decades.
Sure, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s more dramatic ‘people’s elbow’ would go on and take centre stage...but the rock bottom came first. For arguably the the biggest star in the global sports entertainment juggernaut’s history, it was a case of art imitating life.
In a story he shares often with his millions of fans all over the world, rock bottom is a place Johnson has come from, a place he once thought he’d never climb out of, the place from which he grew into a global superstar.
It’s a story his cousin Junior Vaivai has looked to often for inspiration through his own struggles and why – if Wests Illawarra can beat Dapto in Sunday’s Illawarra Coal League grand final – the Devils will have the biggest action star in Hollywood to thank.
Vaivai, you see, also knows a thing or two about rock bottom. Like his cousin’s opponents in the ring, his trip there was quick, unexpected and he landed hard. Really hard.
It was a steep fall from his first season with Rabbitohs NYC side in 2009 in which he scored 20 tries and led the competition in line-breaks. He made his first grade debut that same year, had multiple clubs vying for his signature and a long and lucrative future in the NRL beckoned...and then the wheels fell off.
Three knee constructions in as many seasons and other battles in his personal life left him stranded and seemingly on the rugby league scrap-heap before the age of 25.
“I’ve had a lot of set backs, I’ve had three knee reconstructions, I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to sleep in my car,” Vaivai recalls,
“When I signed with the Dragons [in 2013] I was still living in Penrith and there were times when I had to sleep outside [WIN] stadium just so I was there for training.
“I was at rock bottom. I didn’t know what to do with my life at the time. I had a kid I needed to provide for, my relationship wasn’t going to well...my life felt like quicksand; the harder I fought to get to the top, the deeper I sunk.”
Vaivai floated around the NSW Cup on the comeback trail from surgery but, unsigned heading into 2016, he was ready to give the game away. That was before he had a chat with his cousin, who just happens to be the biggest action star in Hollywood.
“To be honest the only reason I kept playing was because of Dwayne,” Vaivai said.
“Whenever I’m over there we always try to make time to catch up. He works really hard and he’s always busy, whether it’s on set or off set, so I just enjoy the time I get to spend with him and I try to get as much advice as I can.
“I went to Wrestlemania in Dallas in April and I just said to him ‘look, I think I’m going to hang the boots’. He said ‘cuz just keep playing. If you still have the desire you need to keep chasing it, no matter what the odds are’.”
With the flame re-ignited Vaivai returned to Australia and linked with Wests under coach Brett Kimmorley, scoring 15 tries in 10 games and earning a spot in the Country Firsts squad for the end of season tour of Samoa. He has the chance to end the return season with a premiership on Sunday,
“When you have a good culture you play well so when I came back I spoke to a few clubs and the team here at Wests and the culture was what really attracted me to the club,” Vaivai said.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get where we are and I think it all comes down to the coaching staff and Noddy getting us boys together. Especially coming from different places, we have a lot of new players this year, and we had to build combinations throughout the year.
“That’s what’s got us here, hard work and being able to combine the way we have. I know I’ve been fortunate to experience playing in the NRL but I’ve learned so much here at Wests and I’m loving my football at the moment.
“Dapto are a very good side, a very experienced side and it’s games like this that we prepare for all year. You try and improve throughout the year so when we get to the business end we’re able to deliver. I’m grateful for the opportunity we have, and hopefully we can finish it off with a win.”
A Coal League crown would certainly please his aunt Ata AKA ‘the Rock’s Mom’, who’s video message of support for the Devils, filmed by her son, has been widely shared on social media but for Vaivai it would only be the beginning.
He recently traveled to the States to play for the USA Tomahawks in World Cup qualifiers and is aiming to be there when the tournament comes to Australia at the end of next year. It’s a platform from which he hopes to mount a return to the NRL and, in contrast to his first stint as a professional, Vaivai is leaning hard on his cousin’s ethos: everything starts with hard work.
“Definitely I do want to get back to the NRL. I still wake up every morning, same time, five o’clock in the morning and I go train in hope of getting an opportunity,” Vaivai said.
“You’ve got be prepared because you just never know when you’ll get your shot. When I was playing professionally, my fitness and my preparation, all those thing weren’t up to scratch.
“These are things I’ve gone back and worked hard on. Like my cousin would say, there’s no substitute for hard work. He’s always working hard no matter what it is he’s doing. Everyone sees it all around the world with his Instagram and social media.
“He’s worked really hard for everything he has. I’m proud of him and I know he continues to inspire and motivate people all around the world, including me. Hopefully one day I get to share a similar story.”
While he’ll chase the dream as long as the fire continues to burn, experience has taught he 26-year-old father of one that there’s a lot more to life than rugby league.
It’s the fact he’s comfortable with not making it back, that leaves him confident that he can. At a time when rugby league has been rocked by the suicide of young players in recent seasons, including Vaivai’s good mate Alex Elisala in 2013, it’s a message he is keen to share.
“I can deal with not getting back there, I can’t live with not doing everything I could to get there. That’s the difference now,” Vaivai said.
“There’s just so much pressure these days on young players coming through. I just want these young guys to know it’s OK not to make it. It's OK not to be an NRL player.
“Whether you make it or not, once your time’s up in rugby league that’s it, it’s finished. What happens then? There’s other things out there in this world you can be good at, don’t sell yourself short. If you don’t make it in rugby league, take the opportunity to learn from your experiences and turn them into strengths you can use outside the game.”
And he practices what he preaches. In the latter stages of a Certificate IV in fitness, he’s now working as personal trainer at Aventus, Warrawong and playing a leading role in the gym’s Wake Up program, an initiative taking people on a 12-week journey to overcome their fears and limitations through fitness and healthy lifestyles.
It’s preparation for life after football and Vaivai uses every opportunity to stress the importance of education to young footballers.
“Whenever I get the chance to talk to any kids coming through rugby league, one thing I always want to get across is that education is really important,” he said.
“I realise that because when I was down and out, I had no qualifications. I didn’t use the opportunities offered to me at an NRL level to study. I just thought my football would get me there but it didn’t. I learned that the hard way but I’m grateful for all my experiences. I wouldn’t change anything because all my lows have moulded me into the person that I am today.
“Life’s a funny thing one time you’re up and the next you’re down but if you learn from your mistakes you’ll be fine. If you don’t it’s going to be a long road back. It’s been a long five years away from the NRL. It’s taken me a long time, a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights, but I know where I was is different to where I am now.”