From his humble beginnings with the Newcastle Knights, to playing internationally as part of both the Kangaroos and Wallabies, Timana Tahu’s career journey is one many footy players would envy.
But the dual international rugby player, who played for 19 years across league and union, says some of the proudest moments he’s had on the field are playing alongside his Indigenous teammates.
With a Māori dad and an Indigenous mum, Tahu has played for both the All Stars and New Zealand Māoris and says this experience has deeply connected him to his roots.
“It becomes more of a spiritual journey and when you go out and when you walk out into the field it's different,” he told Living Black.
“Doing the Haka and doing the corroboree is a spiritual feeling – you're a part of something special, you're a part of history and you're with your own people.”
Tahu has been outspoken about Indigenous representation and discrimination within league, which nearly brought down his career.
The most high-profile incident was in 2010, when NSW Blues assistant coach Andrew Johns made a racial slur against Maroons player Greg Inglis.
Tahu hung up his blue jersey and left the team in protest. He made it clear to the press that this was not an isolated incident. He claimed there were numerous times he overheard disparaging comments about Indigenous players.
“I have no regrets, but I probably could have done things a little bit better,” he admitted.
“I felt like if I didn't walk out or if I didn't stick up for myself, then I don't think I would have been a man. I wanted to show my kids too that you don't have to put up with it if you don't want to, you can stick up for yourself.”
Tahu was slammed by the public for his decision, his family facing death threats from fans who believed he was abandoning his post.
It wasn’t just the public that rallied against him; he became a target within the NRL too.
The situation escalated when he was falsely accused of racial vilification at a Koori knockout game by another player, damaging his reputation.
“I lost a lot of respect off a lot of people because they didn't know the true story,” Tahu said.
“NITV done the game, they had visual, they had audio, they had the refs, linesman and everyone said it didn't happen.
“When the evidence came out I don't think they even printed that because the papers love a bad story.”
In the fallout, Tahu was released from his contract with the Parramatta Eels and there was little hope of him playing NRL again.
“For about four or five months I didn't have a club and a lot of clubs said I was too much baggage,” he said.
“Everything that I had in place, deals with NRL to make NRL safer for Indigenous kids, that bloke just put a big pin in it and popped it.”
He was eventually given an opportunity when coach Matthew Elliot signed him up with the Penrith Panthers.
Tahu was then picked up again by his original club Newcastle Knights, where he wrapped his NRL career in 2014.
He then did a brief league stint in the US for the Denver Stampedes, before officially hanging up his boots to join NITV screens as a panellist on Over The Black Dot.
Tahu believes family support was monumental in ensuring he survived the trials and tribulations of his career.
“My wife and I were childhood sweethearts and we've been together since high school. She taught me how to stay focused and keep on going,” he said.
“But it wasn't until I had my first daughter that I had to be a father and be a man and step up."
He and his wife Kasey have also kick-started a health journey they hope will inspire the rest of the Indigenous community.
“It's hard when you see people die at a young age of chronic diseases,” Tahu explains.
“And we're going, ‘Oh, that poor fellow, he had a heart attack because he was eating the wrong foods,' and not learning from it and going, ‘well I'm gonna change my life and live a better life’,” he said.
Tahu says he changed his life for the better by turning vegan and encourages others to research the best ways to improve their health.
“I don't want to put pressure on people to go vegan because that was just my choice, but if there's a way that suits you to live a healthier lifestyle, go for it because your life is precious. Life's short.”
Watch the full interview on Living Black, Wednesday 9pm on NITV (Ch. 34) or catch up at On Demand.