Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons debutant Steph Mooka puts her whole heart into the game of rugby league.
The heart can handle a lot, and while it is full for the opportunity to represent her state on Friday night, her heart is also completely shattered.
The tough-as-nails centre, who hails from Mabuiag, a small island in the Torres Strait, fights back tears as she previews in her own mind the moment she looks to the stands and won’t see two very important people.
Instead, Mooka will look down at her wrist and up to the stars to feel older sister Martha’s presence with her at North Sydney Oval.
"It’s my older sister’s birthday on the 21st of June and we lost her last year, so I’ll be playing for her,” Mooka said.
The stars aligned and what will be Mooka’s State of Origin debut will also be one of the hardest days for her family - Martha’s first birthday since her passing.
“When I told my older brother that I had made the Queensland team he offered to pay for my mum and 19-year-old nephew, Martha’s son, to come down and watch.”
In camp, Mooka is recognisable - by far the tallest player in the squad, but has taken some quiet time to reflect on how incredible it is to be playing for Queensland on such a special but difficult occasion for herself and her family.
“She was a massive die-hard Cowboys fan,” Mooka said as she fondly remembered her big sister. “She loved footy, she would have definitely come down to watch me if she was still alive.”
Far from her home and her family in the Torres Strait and Far North Queensland, the mother-of-one has sought the advice of her Maroons teammates, who have been nothing but supportive.
“I have asked a few people how I deal with that, because the day is going to be very emotional," Mooka said.
Just as Martha would have wanted, Mooka is not backing down from the challenge.
“I want to use it to my advantage; use it for motivation, for strength.”
Mooka’s nine-year-old son Tyrique will be watching from home, but it is her younger brother whose absence will be felt as she makes every run and tackle.
“I lost one of my younger brothers to suicide,” Mooka said, revealing a rare insight into the heartbreak she has suffered and the resilience required to get to this level.
“It’s been overwhelming and I’ve got emotional a few times,” she said of her time in Camp Maroon.
“If there’s one thing others can take away from my journey, it is perseverance. If you really want it, you just keep going at it and you never give up.”
When she runs out alongside her teammates, Mooka is playing for more than just the jersey, more than playing for her state, even more than playing for her family and the loved ones she has lost.
“I’m going to give it my everything; I am doing this for my people," Mooka said.
I am really proud to represent where I came from, because it’s such a tiny island with only 200 people.
“All of these little girls who have been watching me at local indigenous carnivals for 10 years have been commenting on social media saying ‘you’re my idol’.
“For those young girls to say that and feel that, I’ve already done my job. I’ve inspired these young girls and given them hope that there is a chance to make it to the big time.
“I’m only just starting to realise how important Women’s State of Origin is, how big this is and how much it means - not just to me, but all of my friends and family and the whole Torres Strait.”
Match: NSW Women v QLD Maroons
Round 1 -
Venue: North Sydney Oval, Sydney