When Butch Fatnowna left Mackay and headed to the big smoke to join Wayne Bennett's Brisbane Broncos in 1991, his sister Marion Healy asked the club for some special consideration.
''I asked that they let him come home to us all the time,'' says Healy, an indigenous education counsellor and friend of Ben Barba's family in Mackay. ''I told them that education was important to us and we didn't want to just send them off without them keeping in contact with their families. Butchy at the time was 16, and Wendell [Sailor] went there with him.
''Benny's a bit older than they were. But I remember we were adamant that they put in the allowance that, if the kids get homesick, they have to be allowed back home. The thing is, to make it in a white man's world, you've got to play the rules like them. There's no running away from a contract.''
Barba didn't so much run away from his contract on Monday as have it frozen by Canterbury, whose chief executive Todd Greenberg described the superstar player as ill and requiring professional help.
Barba returns home ''quite a bit'' to Mackay, Healy says, including during the recent holiday season.
''You know when Ben's home,'' she says. ''When he's home, he's in his element, with all the boys. Benny's still a kid but he's done us proud. The news was a shock. But I'm proud of him, proud that he's recognised that he might have a problem.''
The issue - or ''issues'', as it seems - caught out others, too. Laurie Daley, the coach of the Indigenous All Stars, for whom Barba scored three tries a little more than a fortnight ago, said he'd felt no hint of the 23-year-old Dally M medallist's inner turmoil. That's not surprising to Charlie Hunter, the life coach who counselled the then-troubled Todd Carney through his Dally M-winning season.
''None of this is anything new. It's happened plenty of times,'' Hunter says. ''You just change the name, the colours, the uniform.''
It keeps happening, Hunter says, because there is no way to prepare players for the unique off-field demands of professional sport. Prevention attempts are noble, but the cure remains the only real avenue.
''These boys are prepped from a young age to score tries and make tackles. And suddenly there's real pressure to do well. You've got all this money, your family's counting on you, all the motivators are completely different. Their minds aren't wired for that.
''There are great mentors around in clubs, warning young players about dangers, but there's nothing you can really do to get someone ready to have huge pressure at a young age. And, we all have different backgrounds, different histories and different levels of self-esteem.''
Throw in relationship trouble, Hunter says, and things become amplified. One suggested trigger for Barba's problems was his split from long-term partner Ainslie Currie, mother to the couple's two children.
''Usually with these boys, their woman is everything,'' Hunter says.
''It's their spine, the reason they play, the person they're trying to impress and keep happy. When the rock is taken away …''
Far from home, with a frayed relationship, and with the looming obligation of being this year's NRL publicity machine, Barba reportedly started spending time with some good-time boys, known as the ''Epic Bender Crew'', in the Sutherland area and even, apparently, got the acronym ''EBC'' tattooed on his body.
Law enforcement authorities said they had no record of such a group and a manager at a major drinking spot in the area said: ''People down here don't even know them. The only reason I know them is because I know a couple of the blokes and they're always crapping on about it. I couldn't believe that it got that much publicity. Because it's Ben Barba, I guess.''
Barba's parents, Kim and Ken, flew to Sydney on Tuesday night. Healy - who got to know the Barba family closely when she was the president of a rugby league club in Mackay - expects it to be an emotional but positive reunion. ''Ken might need to call on the family way of doing business,'' Healy says. ''If his father's going to pull Benny's head in, so be it. Let Kenny do that. Or his mum, his mum's very strong with him.
''I tell you, every young boy up here wants to be an NRL player. But that world is a hard world to be in. You've got to call on family and friends when the going gets tough. The club can be a family, but only your real family can be there for you when the going gets really tough.''