History tells us that Wednesday 7th of December 2011 was a largely uneventful day.
However it is a day Paoa Faamita will never forget. It started, as these things often do, as a normal day. Another day working as a storeman followed by pre-season training with the Easts Tigers Intrust Super Cup squad.
It ended with him in an ambulance, in an induced coma and rushed to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital.
This fit, healthy, 23-year-old semi-professional athlete had suffered a heart attack.
Current West Brisbane Panthers coach Craig Ingebrigsten, who was coaching Easts at the time, remembers Paoa well.
“He’s a great bloke, a really good club man who other players loved playing with.
“He had come out of a good system in Sydney and had a fantastic knowledge of the game.”
His memories of the day are equally clear.
“We were running a drill, there was a bit of a ruckus on the ground and I headed over. I thought he had done a knee or something.
“The time it took for the ambulance to come seemed to take forever, he was slipping in and out of consciousness. Everyone was starting to panic, but our trainer Ray Greishaber did an amazing job of keeping everyone as calm as possible.
“Honestly I was pretty scared. I was thinking about a young man coming to training and maybe…” Ingebrigsten said without finishing the sentence.
Faamita spent the best part of a month in the hospital, had a pacemaker fitted and had the conversation he most dreaded having with his doctors. At 23 his playing days were over.
For someone who had signed with the Canterbury Bulldogs as a 15-year-old, moving to Sydney at 17, and had played 87 Intrust Super Cup games, this was devastating news. He slumped into a deep and dark depression. At his worse, Faamita was paralysed with depression and anxiety, as he recalled emotionally.
“It (playing football) was all I knew. I had no trade, no career behind me. My wife was heavily pregnant with our eldest daughter and I had no idea what I was going to do,” Faamita said.
Luckily for him his wife Courtney had some experience of dealing with depression. In a time before campaigns like RUOk, and organisations like Livin and Beyond Blue, she was crucial in his recovery.
“She was my motivation, my inspiration, my everything. She sat me down and got me to focus on what I wanted to do with my life.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t be here today without her. I couldn’t ask for anything more in a wife and partner. I’m blessed to have her in my life,” He said.
The other key aspect in turning his life around was his faith.
“My faith played a big part in my recovery. The love and support of friends and family was amazing. I realised how lucky I was. People die from heart attacks, but I was alive.”
By 2016 he was ready to get involved with the game again; he went to the Greenbank Raiders to help coach the Under 7s side.
It was not long before he started to get ‘itchy feet’ though.
“The passion and desire were still definitely there,” he said.
As the senior team approached their second game of the season it became apparent they did not have the numbers for a full team. No one at the club knew what had happened to him and immediately the questions began; ‘would he play, could he help them out?’
He tried deflecting the questions, “I told them I didn’t have boots or shorts, but the stuff just appeared.”
In the end he agreed to play in the second game of the season.
“I was pretty nervous to be honest. But the first time I got the ball in my hands I just ran and didn’t think about it (the pacemaker). After that I just played like I didn’t even have it.”
They lost that day but Paoa was back doing what he loved, and success followed. They won the premiership that year, the club’s first senior premiership in 25 years.
He could not stay at Greenbank though; he had promised his father-in-law Brian that if he ever played again, he would help out Brian’s beloved Northern Regional Rivers Rugby League side the Kyogle Turkeys.
“I like to think I’m a man of my word, that’s pretty important to me. So, once I realised I could play and contribute again there was never any doubt, I was going to Kyogle,” and so the 2.5 hour commutes began.
“The club were so good to me. It’s a small town and they were so welcoming, they welcomed me with open arms. I’ll never forget my time in Kyogle.”
In 2017 he suffered a compound fracture of the ankle (think Jharal Yow Yeh) while playing for the Turkeys. However, he stayed involved with the club, coaching them and getting them to within one point of the semi-finals.
As Brisbane swelters through the start of another hot summer, Paoa Faamita is undertaking a gruelling pre-season. He may play reserve grade side, he may play A grade. He could even coach.
In truth it does not actually matter. This is not a story about him playing rugby league again, it is a story about a man who had his dream snatched away and who has fought tooth and nail for the opportunity to pursue that dream again. This time, when he hangs up his boots – whenever that may be – it will be on his own terms.
His life is good. He is surrounded by people who love him and people he loves. His family is happy and healthy, he has a job he enjoys and good friends.
“I’m blessed man. I can’t really think of a word that sums it up better.”
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