Life-changing … Reni Maitua, left, enjoyed his stint as a lifesaver with Randwick council while banned from the NRL. Photo: Brendan Esposito
IF Reni Maitua needed any reminding of the celebrity rugby league players enjoyed it came the day he was on patrol as a lifesaver while he served a two-year drug suspension and he noticed a boy struggling in the surf.
Maitua, who had played for Canterbury and Cronulla before he tested positive in 2009 to the banned substance Clenbuterol, a stimulant used to boost muscle mass, yelled to the boy's father asking whether his son needed help. He did, and urgently, but in what Maitua recalled was a bizarre situation the man suddenly became very happy despite the drama that was unfolding in the booming waves 50 metres off the shoreline.
"It turned out he was a massive Bulldogs supporter - massive - and he was more worried about shaking my hand than me rescuing his son," Maitua said. "It's all a bit of a laugh now and I remember after the boy was dragged in to shore they posed for photographs with me."
As the old hand of a youthful Parramatta squad, the former international often finds himself talking to his club's Generation Next about his life experiences, and they're riveting because they cover saving lives, rebuilding a career from rock bottom, realising the pitfalls of arrogance, sacrifice and the importance of ''manning up'' about inconvenient truths.
Sometimes Maitua doesn't realise his brain is being scoured for pearls of wisdom by the up-and-comers, including 23-year-old prop Mitchell Allgood, who Maitua insisted was a master of extracting information without making it an interrogation.
For his part, the 30-year-old has a lot to offer them. After all, Maitua scaled rugby league's heights and with the world seemingly at his feet he slipped and tumbled into the abyss. However, he said his two years in the wilderness taught him what life-and-death pressure was about - and there was never a football in sight.
"I did plenty of rescues as a lifesaver for the Randwick Council ," he said. "Thank God I didn't have to do any resuscitations but every week there was a rescue … and they didn't always go according to plan. One day, I'd only just started, and I had to rescue a teenage girl. I was on the board and got to her and everything seemed to be going to plan … she was on the front of the board and I was paddling away. However, a wave sucked up on the sandbar and the board nose-dived straight into it. We were absolutely hammered and it was scary because the conditions were dangerous. I lost my grip and when I resurfaced I thought, 'Oh my God, I've lost the girl!'. Thankfully, she was clinging to the board and I felt so relieved when I got her back to safety."
While the footballer is regaled for his on-field heroics, Maitua was amazed the lifesaver who gets to a hapless swimmer just before they go under for the last time is sometimes lucky to be thanked. "People are embarrassed when they're rescued and once they get to the sand they might offer a quick thank you and take off," he said. ''But it's a pretty rewarding job, you don't think of it at the time but when you rescue someone it's … well, it's special."
Maitua said while it was not in his character to "preach", he realised the knowledge he has as a senior player meant he was a magnet for the likes of Allgood to talk about life and his football career, of which the highlights include a 2004 grand final winner's ring for his role in the Bulldogs' victory over the Roosters, a City Origin jumper and an Australian jersey.
"I don't go out looking to talk, but if someone wants advice I'm more than happy to chat,'' he said. ''Sometimes people ask me what happened about my suspension and I don't shy away from it.
"I explain to them the situation, the substance that was in my system, I explain to them the effects my decision had on my family and my partner of the time. I tell them there are ramifications to mistakes and they should learn from mine. I learned you have to man up and talk. I am happy to be at a club where the young guys all seem to have their heads screwed on.''