In the words of Max McKinney, Panthers media intern...
Suaia Matagi is a man who has found meaning and purpose in a footballing life. His unique rise in the sport of rugby league can be put down to his key, core-life values of family, faith, and hard work. While the simple ideals have taken him a long way in a relatively short period of time, they are the principles that continue to drive and shape his life.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand to Samoan parents, Matagi has been able to realise a childhood dream of playing in the NRL. He debuted for the New Zealand Warriors in 2013, played for the Sydney Roosters last year, and is now making an impression at the Penrith Panthers. The quiet and unassuming 107kg-prop has represented both his heritage and origin by playing for Samoa and New Zealand respectively. One of six boys, he always wanted a big family of his own and now has four kids with his wife, Fai. He is a self-proclaimed man of faith, and a sharp and heedful individual who knows where he is going and what he is about.
But Matagi has traversed a very different path. He is an example of what it truly means to start from the bottom and climb to the top.
As a teenager, Matagi was arrested on assault charges and sentenced to three years in a New Zealand prison. It serves as the most-defining moment in the Kiwi’s life, overwhelmingly changing him as a man. Locked-up and with the nothing but time to dwell on the consequences of his actions, Matagi used the period to reflect on who he had become.
"I kept surrounding myself in the wrong crowd, and going down this path where I thought I could do anything I wanted to do," he says.
"Eventually, consequences had actions and I learnt the hard way."
It's a personal history that holds a lot of emotion for the 28-year-old and a time that he recognises took a great toll on his family. The family that were there to support him during the difficult times, and the family that served as his initial inspiration and motivation to change the person he was.
"I came out really determined to take the shame away that I put my family through, and really try and make them proud," Matagi says.
"I wanted to show my daughter at the time a message that I did fall down, but I was going to pick myself back up."
Matagi's personal transformation began with writing down a five-year goal that he chose as a path of reinvention. It’s a simple process the he believes is critically important for anyone to chase their aspirations.
"I remember writing down my goal, my five-year goal was to play in the NRL and it was way out of my reach," Matagi says.
Proving that where you start matters less than where you take yourself is Matagi's modest occupation in the early stages of his five-year plan. Beginning as a rubbish-truck assistant, Matagi was able to use the role to build fitness while charting his rugby league pathway. After three months hurling trash, he got a new job working as a delivery driver for a linen-cleaning company, which proved to be a test of both strength and commitment. Working 12-hour shifts and fitting in a daily training schedule created a grueling regime that tested the mental and physical fortitude of the kiwi strong man, but the exhausting devotion proved to be an emotional test as much as it was of the body.
"I’d come home exhausted, I wouldn’t even see the kids. I’d leave early in the morning at dark, and come home when it was dark," Matagai reveals.
"I’m really grateful that that sacrifice paid off. But there were times when I nearly gave up, because it was draining having those 14-hour days."
During those tough early years, two clubs – Te Atatu Roosters and Mount Albert Lions – gave Matagi the chance to learn his trade in the Auckland Rugby League competitions. While Matagi admits there are too many people to thank, he values the time and effort people gave up helping him.
"They definitely know who they are; I’ll always be thankful and cherish those people who invested in me during all those years," he says.
"I’m really thankful for the teammates as well."
Proving his humility again is Matagi's stark admission that he was a complete rugby league rookie when it came to knowing the inner nuisances of the sport.
"I learnt that I didn’t really know the game, but I learned if you be like a sponge and just soak up any experience you can, and anything new, you’ll learn a lot," he says.
"Going through those clubs, I learnt so much. I always look back to the steps that I came through."
The humble beginnings aren’t lost on the Kiwi international, and the challenges and experiences coming from oblivion, to cementing a place in an NRL squad, allow him to provide valuable advice to many of the players in the Penrith system.
Fellow Panther, Leilani Latu, is quick to attest to Matagi’s devotion to help out those following a similar track.
"Every day he puts in the effort helping others, he’s the first to put his hand up to help out," Lani says.
"He’s an awesome dude; an older brother to the some of the graduates and he just pours wisdom into the young ones."
Despite being five-years younger than Matagi and an NRL rookie himself, Lani is able to provide an honest and respected assessment of a player who he concisely describes as “very wise”.
"He looks after his family; puts the family first and his faith as well," Lani explains.
"He’s truthful to himself and to the boys, and that’s all you can ask for in a team environment.
"Suaia depicts the honesty and trust that we’re trying to build this team around."
Clearly making an impact both on and off the field, Matagi has been able to utilize his background in an effort to inspire others. While playing for the Warriors in 2013, Matagi took part in a live stage show called 'My Story'. It involved the rather reserved man overcoming a fear of shyness to verbally retell his story live on stage. He also had the opportunity to repeat the two-show performance to his former Warriors’ teammates.
"I thought that was the hardest experience I’ve been through in all my life," Matagi ironically explains.
"That was definitely out of my comfort zone, but at the end of the day my motivation and goal was; if I could give someone hope, then it was worth it."
While the show was designed to help others and one he hopes he can bring to western Sydney, it allowed Matagi to grow in confidence and realize that being out of his comfort zone helped him develop as a person.
In 2015, that comfort zone was tested again when he moved to Australia to play with the Sydney Roosters. Moving countries without his family would prove to be no easy feat, but Matagi credits his wife’s support throughout the process.
"She’s been my number one supporter," Matagai says. "When times did get tough, she’s always been there to pick me up; keep pushing me forward and reminding me of how far I’ve come."
With eight games to his name for the Panthers in 2016 and not a hint of slowing down, just how much further will Matagi go? For the time being, his focus remains on the here and now. His main aim is to cement a spot in the side on a consistent basis. No doubt a goal written down somewhere, but how will he achieve it? Just like any other.
"What you do today, determines your tomorrow," he says.
A simple mantra that can have life-changing influence.