Simply put, Leon Panapa is a grateful man.
When the 26-year-old strapped on the boots for the Souths Logan in the Intrust Super Cup a fortnight ago, it was probably the most appreciative pre-game routine of his career.
Just 266 days prior, Leon was lying in a hospital bed in a neck brace thinking his rugby league days had passed him by.
It was following a match against the PNG Hunters last August where a regulation tackle went awfully awry.
“It was a falling motion where my legs got taken away … I put my hands out, but Ianded on my head,” Leon explained.
“I heard something because it was so close to my ear … I knew I’d done something bad.
“Something wasn’t right, but I played the ball and went off to the side, I walked off, but I couldn’t look around.
“I was concussed so everything was quite smoky and I was trying to figure out what was going on. I couldn’t look right or left.”
Rushed to hospital at halftime, he received the news that his C6 vertebrae was broken and his C5 had been partially fractured.
Panapa had broken his neck and in the words of doctor, he’d done ‘a pretty good job of it’.
“I was devastated … just completely overwhelmed,” he said.
“Just laying there on my back with the brace, my whole family was there worried sick.
“I thought ‘that’s it, I’ve done one run too many’.”
However, through those scattered thoughts came an odd sense of relief – the scenario could have been so much worse.
The doctors ruled out surgery and the possibility of bone fusion, and there was no nerve damage.
Unfortunately though, the requirement was a neck brace for four months to allow the bones to reform.
Playing a game of rugby league was virtually ruled out, at the very least a distant last on a long list of rehabilitation check points.
Leon was given three neck braces; one to wear in the shower, one to sleep in and one to keep fastened for the remainder of the day.
Over the next few weeks, the gravity of the situation began to sink in as he watched the finals series play out from the lounge room.
Unable to exercise, he put on 15kg on in a few weeks.
“Not being able to go anywhere or drive and having people run around to get everything for you, I felt completely useless,” Leon said.
“Sleeping was hard, with big Velcro straps around my neck. It was incredibly frustrating.”
But throughout the idle time was an unwavering determination that the injury wasn’t going to signify the end of his career.
Leon says his the support of his incredibly tight-knit family kept him sane.
A watershed moment came when the all-clear was given for a return to work in his rugby league development role at Harris Fields State School for term four.
January’s check-up then provided the news he’d been longing to hear. If he wished, he could return to rugby league.
The decision was made without hesitation. Training began.
Walks through the suburbs turned into jogs and then runs, while more physical contact sessions were slowly introduced.
A handshake deal and show of faith from Souths Logan CEO Jimmy McClelland gave Panapa the control to name his comeback game when he felt the time was right.
That moment came in mid-April through the Brisbane Rugby League side Logan Brothers.
“I was nervous as hell that week, but at the same time absolutely ecstatic,” he said.
“I had to get involved as quickly as possible, ran in there and took the first hit up…. and I was away.”
“I was enjoying every second of being out there.”
Remarkably, his first Intrust Super Cup fixture came at Sunshine Coast Stadium after three BRL games.
You can sense that the time away from the game has rekindled the same passion that saw Panapa leave Auckland at 18 to pursue a shot with the Brisbane Broncos Under 20s in 2008.
He made the 25-man squad, but couldn’t crack the premiership winning 17 that included now-NRL regulars Ben Hunt, Andrew McCullough and Josh McGuire.
Playing Colts at Wynnum Manly, he signed for Easts at the end of 2009, where he enjoyed four seasons before seeking a new opportunity at the Magpies.
“Leon’s a really good story ... he's worked really hard to get back and he's a guy who just loves the game,” Souths Logan coach Josh Hannay said.
While rugby league may have been without Panapa for a brief moment, the man himself has gained so much more.
“This has given me the chance to really know who I am. I don’t want to blow my own horn, but I have learned that you can go through a great deal before you give up.
“You do what you can with what you’ve got and if you can walk away knowing you’ve given it your best shot, then I think you can be at ease with yourself.”