Lying in an Auckland hospital with a broken neck, a 13-year-old Mike Uluakiola was told he'd never play football again.
He was the victim of a vicious assault where street thugs "popped him in the head" with a hammer in a robbery gone wrong.
A promising prop who would later play under-20s with New Zealand Warriors, Uluakiola spent six months bedridden in hospital and was forbidden from walking, wearing a heavy jacket to restrict his movement.
But after proving doctors wrong, he will attempt to help West Belconnen Warriors to their first Canberra Raiders Cup decider in seven years in Sunday's preliminary final against Queanbeyan Blues.
"I broke my neck in a fight," Uluakiola said.
"Some guys beat me up for my phone, I ran back to get it off them and I didn't know they had a hammer. They popped me in the head.
"I was in a neck brace for seven months. I missed a season and a half before I played again, they said I would never play footy again."
Frustrated by his plight, Uluakiola defied doctors orders by going for a run around the hospital midway through his time there.
"The doctors came in and were looking for me but I was outside having a run, I wasn't supposed to be walking," he said.
"I wasn't paralysed at all, but I had a broken neck and they wanted to be cautious.
"When I went for a run I had to tie my catheter to my thing. It was uncomfortable but I had to do something, I couldn't sit around for that long."
Uluakiola signed with the Warriors when he was 15, an incredible turnaround after facing the prospect of never playing again just two years earlier.
But it wasn't long before he was seduced by the gang culture that exists in the south Auckland suburb Otara.
"When I was about 16 some of the boys got together and said 'let's make a gang'," he said.
"It was just that pride, that manhood, but looking back on it now it was stupid, I wasted all that time.
"I just grew up around that stuff, it's a lovely neighbourhood but I was mixing around with the wrong people."
Religion helped Uluakiola escape the street life, the bad decisions that affected his football career.
"I have a pastor in New Zealand Allan Vaa, he was my rugby league teacher at school and he said I could make it far, so I came to church," he said.
Frustrated at his lack of opportunity at the Warriors, the 19-year-old signed with West Belconnen this year.
It wasn't long, however, before he saw the inside of a hospital again.
After dislocating his thumb on a scaffolding job, he reacted badly to anaesthetic and began having seizures.
He spent a week-and-a-half in hospital, four days of which were in intensive care, but has worked his way back onto the football field.
West Belconnen has won all seven games since his return, with his impact off the bench a major factor.
"I wasn't allowed to drive or play for a while, the worse-case scenario was they thought I was epileptic or had some serious injury with my head," he said.
"I'm all good now, I had heaps of support from the club and the team.
"Gits [West Belconnen coach Justin Giteau] writes on a piece of paper for everyone individually what he wants from them.
"Every time I come on, he wants me to lift the intensity for the boys."
Uluakiola is one of three Aucklanders, including centre Johnny Faletagoai and halfback Howie Brown, Giteau recruited this year.
"He gives a lift in energy off the bench and is a powerhouse," Giteau said of Uluakiola.
"It's a matter of him getting some match fitness and stripping some weight off, he could be anything to be honest."
Giteau and assistant Jeremy Braun have told the club they will quit their posts at the end of the year, largely due to family reasons.
It's a big blow given the duo have transformed them from a winless laughing stock in 2013 to genuine premiership contender.
They lost 98-0 to the Blues in late 2013, after which Giteau and Braun began the rebuild.
"We'll be leaving the club at the end of the year and leaving it in a state where it's better than when we came," Giteau said.
"I don't want to make it a big deal because it's not about us, it's about the team doing well."
Giteau visited Uluakiola in hospital frequently, and he'd love nothing more than to repay the favour by sending him out a winner.
"Gits and Jez [Braun] have been putting in heaps of time for us, especially us guys coming from New Zealand," he said.
"It's going to be a big motivation because they've been a big help to everyone."
Canberra Raiders Cup preliminary final: Queanbeyan Blues v West Belconnen Warriors at Seiffert Oval, 3pm