Lino Salafai is a former NRL player and the Program Coordinator of In League In Harmony. This is his story.
I didn’t have the best upbringing at different stages growing up. I was born in New Zealand and had a fantastic early childhood, but everything changed when we moved to Australia.
It started when my Dad lost his job in New Zealand. He came over here looking for work.
He was obviously suffering from some issues from losing his job, I guess, and that transferred into my personal life where there came a cycle of violence and alcohol during my teenage years.
I didn’t see it or have any experience of that in New Zealand so at the time I didn’t really understand it. All I knew was that I was scared. All my brothers and sisters were, too.
We didn’t have the necessary tools to deal with it back then. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so it affected me well into my adult years. Big time.
I don’t know how I got through that. I turned to alcohol, and football.
People who knew me and grew up with me knew how talented I was. But no one knew about the issues that I was facing off the football field.
I’d make every single junior rep team without even trying, but I wasn’t present at the time. They still picked me because they saw my talent. I made it through every single grade and then I remember receiving my first actual professional contract at 18, playing with the big boys at Penrith. But I still didn’t appreciate it. I took it for granted.
I wasn’t focused on making a career or realised how far I could go. Football was just an escape for me, and I’d find excuses not to play, or I would make any injuries out to be worse than what they were. Because I just wanted to, all I wanted to do was party back then.
I couldn’t mentally stay switched off because I was thinking about my Mum. How is she doing? Because she would get battered up pretty bad. And I was always thinking about it.
And so I’d go to training and then I’d go straight to the bottle-o. That’s how I’d deal with it. There were times for years where I’d turn up to training after a big night out, and I’d still get picked to play. I didn’t deserve to be picked, but the coaches still did because they thought I was talented.
As long as I was getting paid, that’s all I cared about.
It wasn’t until I was like, 27, that I got a random phone call asking me if I was available to represent my country. And that moment was a lightbulb moment. It changed everything.
So for the next three years I got off the drink. I was sober. I trained the house down and I ended up getting a contract from Parramatta, and from there I played the World Cup.
And then I got an offer from Penrith to go back when I was 29.
I was okay for a little bit. But then I’d have these dreams where I’d bounce back to when I was a little kid in New Zealand.
I remember vividly when I was eight years old watching my first game of rugby there with my Dad.
And I said, “Dad, I want to play that game”, and that I just wanted to play for the Kiwis. It would come on in moments where I was depressed by myself. I couldn’t deal with the depression and the memories, so I turned to alcohol.