Learning the hard way … Lorenzo Maafu has found a new home at Parramatta after a chequered past. Photo: James Alcock
WHEN Lorenzo Maafu talks to his siblings, more like a father than a brother, about the dangers of drugs, of falling into the wrong crowd or of trying to make ends meet with a shotgun, he does so with some authority.
In 2008 he played the first of his two NRL games for the Bulldogs. Now, at the age of 25, having recently signed to play for Parramatta, the man the Eels bought is almost unrecognisable to the one who ran out for their arch rivals four years ago.
The former Ipswich Jet, having practically grown up without a dad, and not wanting to see brothers Efi, 14, and Fau, 8 go through the same thing, took up the role himself.
The responsibility meant he had to put his NRL dream on hold, although the biggest obstacles to more first-grade football were the ones he placed in front of himself.
Having fallen into the wrong crowd while growing up in Panania - the sort that carries out armed hold-ups to make ends meet - the New Zealand-born back-rower did just that.
''I was young and stupid,'' Maafu admitted. ''Everyone was in the same boat, money was something we didn't have. We wanted what other people had, I guess. What we couldn't get.''
What Maafu received, when he got caught, was a stint in juvenile detention. ''Life wasn't good, not having your freedom was a reality check,'' he said. ''The jail at juvenile justice was a wake-up call. Not being able to do what you want, not being able to walk out of your room. Always being told what to do. It was hard.''
While behind bars, Maafu was visited by two influential figures. One of them was former Canterbury recruitment boss Keith Onslow. The other was Sonny Bill Williams.
''Sonny Bill got into a bit of trouble and had to do some community service, so he came in to talk to us boys and try to get us to change,'' he said.
''It was a bit of an inspiration seeing him come in, giving us a talk and giving us advice.''
Onslow provided an opportunity to train with the team. It was one readily accepted, but the association was a short one. His Bulldogs contract was torn up after an off-field misdemeanour. But worse was to come. On a night out with some mates, one of them dropped ecstasy into his drink for a laugh. When he tested positive to the drug, and copped a 15-month ban from rugby league, Maafu failed to see the funny side.
All the while, he was trying to support a family, which included his mother, two younger brothers and two older sisters. ''My mum's divorced so I've had to jump up and be the father figure,'' he said. ''I've got two young brothers, a younger sister and an older sister. My two younger brothers are my passion, I didn't want them to go through what I did with my old man. It pushes and drives me every day to get them what they want. I try to be a role model for them, someone they can look up to. That's why I kept playing footy.''
But every man has his limits and Maafu had all but reached his.
On so many occasions, after starring for the Jets, he came close to again realising his NRL dream. Manly weighed in with an offer, then Newcastle, as did several other clubs. But at the last minute, for one reason or another, it came to nothing. ''I had a lot of promises, but nothing really happened,'' he said.
Just as he was set to pack it in for a job down the mines, there was the chance to join Ricky Stuart at Parramatta. A man who had suffered so many setbacks, many self-inflicted, was rewarded for his persistence.
''He definitely hasn't grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, he's had to do everything tough,'' Jets coach Shane Walker said.
''He's had to learn the hard way but he keeps learning, and that's the most important thing. But the time for learning is over. He's shown plenty of resolve to come back. He'll do a great job down there. We've got no doubt Ricky will love him.''