David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

The Big Read: A story of hope and redemption

Most NRL players have scars etched on their bodies. They are constant and visible reminders of the toll league can take.

New Warriors recruit James Gavet opens his arms. His left wrist carries reminders of self-inflicted wounds.

Gavet's mind is also scarred from mental and emotional wounds that were the result of a troubled life and career affected by alcoholism, drugs, gangs, violence and tragedy.

"[I went through] a lot of the normal pressures that young kids go through here in New Zealand, especially in Auckland," he says. "There's a lot of gang influences, alcohol and peer pressure.

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"I went through a stint where I was suicidal. I had drinking problems real early and a kid pretty early. It was something I wasn't proud of for a long time. I've got a lot of physical scars on my arm here and had a lot of emotional and mental scars for a very long time and I was embarrassed."

This is not a story of struggle and depression but rather a tale of hope, love and redemption. It took a long time to get to that point, as well as guidance from his former Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, but the critical thing is he got there.

Gavet was consumed by inner conflict and turmoil during a four-year stint away from his young son and family as he tried to escape his past and chase his dream of playing in the NRL.

He took with him the baggage of a tumultuous upbringing that saw him drinking and smoking marijuana before his teens and ill-equipped to adjust to life in Australia on his own.

The 26-year-old showed glimpses of his undoubted potential at the Bulldogs (2012-13), Wests Tigers (2014) and Broncos (2015) but three season-ending injuries added to his feelings of worthlessness.

His inner demons grew louder as he struggled with the deaths of close friends, former teammate Tyrone Filiva'a (2012) and Tigers youngster Mosese Fotuaika (2013).

"We had to hold his [Filiva'a] casket and it was a really bad thing for me because I was in their shoes once and I was their age and I was thinking that way," he recalls. "I just never saw the bigger picture until I had a few more years under my belt, of what more to life there is to look forward to."

Efforts were made to stay clear of the booze but depression, homesickness, isolation and the guilt from being apart from his son were intensified by the frustrations over his stop-start career.

James Gavet: Photo / Michael Craig.
James Gavet: Photo / Michael Craig.

A shift to the Broncos last year promised a new beginning but quickly soured after his debut when he was suspended for three games and a training accident soon after left him with another serious knee injury.

"I thought it [drinking] was in the past but, once I had that bad run with getting suspended and then having my third season-ending injury, and being all on my own, it was a bit much.

"Whatever pressures are here were tenfold over in Aussie. And if you don't have a support system behind you, the drinking culture over there, you end up folding into that eventually. And when things don't go your way, you're even more susceptible to that.

"Because you've got no close family members or loved ones to say, 'Hey man, you've got to wake up,' you just end up staying in that rut. I was backed into a corner where I had to eventually come home to find myself again."

Bennett helped him get there. He's more than just a coach. He looks out for troubled players, and has helped the likes of Darius Boyd and Alex McKinnon. He can add Gavet to that list.

"I got the hard word from Wayne Bennett, who is a good friend and someone I really admire," Gavet says. "He told me a few wise words and it was mainly to get some loved ones around you and spend some more time with your son to ground yourself.

"His philosophy isn't to make good league players, it's to make good people. He was just trying to help me become a better person and help me love myself a lot more."

Today Gavet will come off the bench for the Warriors against Wests Tigers in Sydney for their season opener. It's not something he expected when he came home. In fact, he didn't even aim for a return to the NRL. "I didn't really come back to play footy. My initial reason for coming back was to make up for lost time with my son and be there for my family and just get a job, and if anything happened in footy then it did."

Gavet is in a good place now. It doesn't mean he always will be, that's the hold depression can have on people, but things are looking up.

Where once his sense of shame over his depression prevented him from asking for help for problems he believes are too often ignored by Pacific Islanders and Maori, he is now happy to open up to others.

"It is an illness, so it's really tough to overcome when you're at a young age, especially being of Pacific Islander descent," he says.

"It's not a manly thing to speak out and tell everyone, 'I'm feeling a bit sad today' or 'I'm feeling a bit weak today' because we're already naturally big people.

"So it's hard to be looked at as the big softie or be vulnerable in any way because there isn't really much room for that.

"It's a really tough one to come out of because you've got that fake face on, just saying, 'Yeah, I'm sweet - I've just finished a two- or three-day bender but I've recovered now.'
"But you're never really good and there are a lot of sleepless nights behind that fake 'good'. It's a major problem that a lot of us don't like facing."

For a lot of people, how well the Warriors go this season seems like a matter of life and death. Gavet is determined to take advantage of his latest opportunity but he's also realistic. He's a prop who plays with mongrel and passion, but he carries deep perspective and knows he can cope with disappointments.

"There's good competition for spots here," he says.

"Even if you don't get that spot, you're bettering yourself anyway. You're better than you were yesterday so, yeah, I'm happy to be here."

Where to get help
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7), www.lifeline.co.nz
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633, www.youthline.co.nz
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7), www.kidsline.org.nz
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm), www.whatsup.co.nz
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7), www.depression.org.nz
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7), www.samaritans.org.nz
If it is an emergency and you feel as if you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

James Gavet. Photo /Getty Images.
James Gavet. Photo /Getty Images.

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