In rugby league, your team mates can become your second family; but for Jayden Nikorima this season, there’s no degree of separation.
Nikorima will, on Saturday, run out to play in Rugby League Brisbane’s Intech Division 2 North men’s competition with Brighton Roosters; flanked by members of his family including his dad and younger brother.
The team formed to honour his uncle Buddy who passed away last September who “always spoke about putting together a family team” and this season finally presented them with the opportunity.
“How this all came about, I wasn’t going to play footy at all this year (after the shutdown) and then – I have two little brothers – and the one under me, Isaiah, said if we play park footy, he will play with me,” Nikorima said.
“So, I put a status out there on Facebook and I just said if there are any clubs that are looking for players – I don’t want any money, I just want my medical bills paid for – (my little brother and I) are a package deal.
“And then the status went off, and my uncle commented on it and said ‘neph, why don’t we do a family team?’
“All my uncles and my dad talk about how much better they are than us and you hear all these stories about ‘back in their day’.
“We thought we’d start a family team ... and that involved my dad, my little brother. My uncle and his three kids are playing and my other uncle and his son; so, I think there’s four dads playing in the team with their kids and the rest are all my other cousins too.
“It’s a pretty cool story and it’s cool just that we had been talking about it for so long, so to actually live it this weekend, is going to be something pretty special.
“I think I’ll be playing fullback – trying not to tackle – and if my brother plays in the halves, I’ll play next to him just for a little stint.
“I can’t wait, I know it’s only open 2s (division), but I am more excited about this than a first grade game I think.”
For Nikorima, who played four games with Redcliffe Dolphins last season, Saturday’s match will be just another signpost highlighting his continuing growth as a person; one who is learning from his mistakes and grabbing tightly to his second chances.
He openly acknowledges his “rat bag days” and what his past decisions could have cost him; but to hear him speak now, the contrast between past and present could not be more stark.
Nikorima has emerged from the COVID-19 period with a new mindset and now, an idea for him soon crystallises into a conviction.
“We talk about surrounding yourself with positive people and people that will up-bring you. I have always been close with Cullo and Miersy and have been fortunate to know them, but we sort of weren’t using our strengths and abilities with each other,” Nikorima said.
“When we used to meet up with each other, it would sort of just be for a beer and not really impacting our community; but now, me and Jack go to Wavell in the mornings and help our old school; me and Cullo did the Image Property Academy, helping kids.
“I think now that we have realised that we have a platform; we can actually help people be better and do better.
“It’s taken surprisingly the coronavirus for us to realise that, but now that we have realised it, we have brought other people along with us on the journey and they are impacting their communities and their families and it’s actually really good to see.
“I am grateful now for the mistakes I have made. I do regret some of them – not going to lie about that – but, it’s obviously opened up my eyes and showed me that you can live a different life, you don’t have to keep on going down the same path and finally realised that.
“I have been to hell and back and done a fair bit during the journey – (but) it’s been good.”
There is no hiding from the fact Nikorima was in the news in the past for the wrong reasons, but recently he made headlines again, this time for his inspiring fundraising efforts.
Alongside his uncle Rob Tanielu, who he had begun running training with, Nikorima completed an 100-kilometre run in 24 hours to raise money for the family of young Brisbane boy fighting brain cancer.
“Hendrix is a little boy who was at a footy breakup last November, and collapsed... they later found bleeding on his brain as an eight-year-old; a young kid who looked up to my uncle,” Nikorima said.
“My uncle played footy with his dad, but every time they were at footy games, he’d always ask about uncle and cheer uncle on instead of his own dad.
“So, he sort of looked at uncle as his hero, as our whole family do; and uncle came to me while we were on the path running and just said ‘neph, I want to a fundraiser and do good for his family’.
“They family will be so appreciative of that ... (so) I just said ‘yes, of course’.
“I love helping people, first and foremost, but if it means something to my uncle, it means something to me too and I was fortunate enough to meet Hendrix before the run ... and that kicked up a fire in my belly.
“I am very fortunate, I have got two arms, two legs, a heart that works well and I can function properly, so I am grateful and I wanted to give back to people that are less fortunate than us – so we came up with the idea that we were going to fund-raise.
“It started off that we were just going to get a couple of prizes, do a raffle and do a 100km run and we got business to sponsor it.
“But when we put it out there, we had so many people wanting to sponsor and help out this cause – people were just offering prizes.
“It was awesome to see the community come together; obviously it was a massive feat for me and my uncle to get through the 100km.
“We ended up raising $63,000 and doing 116km, ‘cause we were going to go for 24 hours, so we started on Saturday at 8am and finished Sunday, 8am with no sleep.
“It was actually quite challenging, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
The walk will not be the last of their efforts for Hendrix, however, as there is a long-term goal in mind to build a house for the family to better service the needs of both Hendrix and his older sister who has cerebral palsy.
“She is in a wheelchair as well, and the house they are in now isn’t medically conditioned for it... we have a project manager on board, a few people have offered to do the aircon and the flooring, but we still need to get builders on board to build them a house or renovate a home (to help them out),” Nikorima said.
“That’s the bigger picture – that would be a massive tick in our books if we could get that done, it will definitely be ongoing for us, that won’t be the only challenge we do.”
Hendrix and his family are also not the only people Nikorima has helped in the recent period, with his efforts alongside Cullen and Shea, while not as widely documented, were great appreciated by the family of Mitch Cronin.
“Cam called me on a Saturday morning when I was out running and he told me the news of Mitchy passing away and obviously it sits close to Cullo, losing his brother,” Nikorima said.
“He knows what it is like to lose a family member, and everything that comes with it and that the last thing you think of as a family, paying for a funeral, but you sort of have to do it, even though you just want to grieve.
“And Cullo took it upon his shoulders to start this whole thing and got me on board. We obviously know a fair few people in the rugby league community and if you talk about Mitch Cronin to anyone who knows about Cup, he definitely comes in the top three players that has ever played the game, and how it happened, so suddenly – we knew we had to do our part.
“Redcliffe weren’t a big part of Mitchy’s footy career, so you couldn’t really do a trophy or anything, but, he had an impact, not just on our competition, but all of rugby league and as Redcliffe players, we wanted to do something; we are a pretty respectful club and ... we like to look after players we respect, so we took it upon ourselves to do the fundraiser, the 1000 board.
“We gave ourselves three to four weeks to (sell out the board), but it took us nine days. We ended up raising $21,000 to $22,000 for his family.
“(And) Ben Shea, he ended up doing the Cronin Challenge where every four hours for 48 hours he ran seven kilometres and the last one he did nine kilometres, ‘cause that’s the number Mitchy wore and he pumped a fair bit of money though the Go Fund Me page.
“The three of us personally delivered (the funds raised) to the Cronin family which was hard to go see them grieving through that tough time, but it was awesome to share what we have done and they respected it and loved it so much, they said we will never forget this moment.”
For now though, there’s a fresh energy and focus on football with his family; with the team preparing well for their first game.
However, the training sessions have also been an eye-opener for some of Nikorima’s family, who love their footy and have strong opinions on the NRL and on his brother Kodi’s performances in the competition.
“The last two to three weeks have been proper training ... my uncles who have been running it have sort of handed over the reins to me in some of those sessions as well and it’s something I am comfortable with and something I want to do in the future so, it’s awesome,” Nikorima said.
“As a family, we watch footy, we watch the Warriors and we critique it; and to put (my family) through the paces of the NRL stuff, not to the standard or the intensity, but to do the drills that they do and realise how hard it is, I think it has given them the perspective that NRL is actually harder than you think.
“You can’t really judge it until you put yourself through it, so that’s been pretty cool and hopefully they won’t give Kodi too much grief now that they are actually playing footy and they have to do the work.
“My family are pretty harsh. My little brother Issy is pretty harsh and the reason we gave him the no. 7 jersey is so he can try and do better than Kodi.”
Speaking of his older brother, Nikorima hopes to return to the Dolphins next year to capitalise on the work the team had done during the pre-season this year, and also to see where the new affiliation with the New Zealand Warriors may take the club.
“I am definitely hoping to go back to Reddy ... the plan is to definitely to sign back at Redcliffe, we are building pretty good culture there with the likes of Ben Shea and Cullo and others like Jordan Grant,” Nikorima said.
“What we created last year, I think we were in for a big year, we created something pretty special in the pre-season which I was pretty excited for, I have only played four games in four years so I was getting itchy feet.
“And now with that link with the Warriors, there is bit of a pathway ... it’s exciting and maybe the lucky stars will have myself and Kodi lining up next to each other again.”