A south Auckland boy who was laughed at by sideline bullies for being a "big boy" said he is "feeling good about the rest of the season" following an international outpouring of support for his rugby league playing enthusiasm.
Eljae Pukeiti-Mara, 10, was the subject of mirth among parents of his own under 10s league team at the weekend - prompting a heartfelt message from his mother Rochelle Mara in a widely shared post on Facebook.
She slammed the parents who stood near her on the sidelines of the Manurewa Marlins game on Saturday "laughing at" her son, calling him "a 'big boy' and not 'an asset to the team'".
By this evening her post had garnered more than 139,000 'reactions', more than 17,000 comments, and had been shared more than 10,000 times. It also gained support from celebrities, including All Black Liam Messam and choreographer to the stars Parris Goebel.
Messam posted the image on his Instagram account, telling his 157,000 followers that people "need to be there to support our kids not tear them down".
We need to be there to support our kids not tear them down #ourfuture #letkidsbekids #igotuEljae. Number 8, Eljae. My boy. The one you so freely stood on the sideline this morning laughing at. The one you were talking about being a 'Big boy' and not 'an asset to the team.' The one you laughed at for not being able to run as fast as your kid. Obviously not realising I, his mother, was standing right next to you listening to everything you were saying - Until I told you. Ha! You couldn't move to the other side of the field fast enough. Can I just remind you, Eljae is out there training with his TEAM twice a week, he turns up every weekend to play alongside his TEAM, the same team your kid plays for! Eljae is out there on that field supporting your son in the game just as I'm out on that sideline supporting them - your son included! I'm all for having your own opinions and freedom of speech but when you use this right to talk sh*t about my son please don't expect me to stand there and take it. Be glad he didn't hear it himself. For a kid whose never played rugby prior to 4 weeks ago, he's doing a damn good job and I tell him this every week. He does not need to hear your negativity. He, nor any of the other boys/girls, need to hear you talking down about them, so please - for the love of Beyonce - stand there on that sideline along with the rest of us parents and support OUR boys and girls! ALL OF THEM. Win or lose. It's a game. They're all out there playing the best they can. Number 8 included.
But Eljae - who has only being playing league for four weeks - is not letting the nasty comments get him down. He told Fairfax he was happy with the support he's received since his mum posted her open letter on Saturday morning.
"There's a lot of people supporting me and my team. It feels good," he told media.
"I'm feeling good about the rest of the season."
Mum Rochelle said she was inspired to pen the letter for "every other kid who goes out there and gives it a go, no matter their size".
"I just want other parents and supporters on the sidelines to be aware they might think they're talking amongst themselves, but our kids do hear these things - and it knocks back their confidence," she said.
"Everyone's entitled to say what they want to say, but they should do it somewhere else, do it at home or something, not in front of our kids."
It was the second time this year she had overheard parents making comments about her son, she said.
Ms Mara told her son's detractors he trained twice a week and turned up every weekend "to play alongside his TEAM, the same team your kid plays for!"
"[My son] is out there on that field supporting your son in the game just as I'm out on that sideline supporting them - your son included!"
Her son had never played the sport until four weeks ago, she wrote.
"[He's] doing a damn good job and I tell him this every week. He does not need to hear your negativity. He, nor any of the other boys/girls, need to hear you talking down about them, so please - for the love of Beyonce - stand there on that sideline along with the rest of us parents and support OUR boys and girls! ALL OF THEM. Win or lose.
"It's a game. They're all out there playing the best they can. Number 8 included."
Ms Mara wasn't available to comment this afternoon, but said she had been inundated with private messages in response to her post, including requests for interviews from media in New Zealand and overseas.
Listen: Geoff Barry speaks to Newstalk ZB about sideline bullying
Many people shared their support in heartfelt messages online.
One wrote that children were encouraged to "get out there and have a go" and most of the time it was parents "that wreck it".
"Any child getting out there and having a go big or little is a star in my eyes."
Another wrote a plea for people to treat all children as they would their own.
"If we could just love each and every child is if they were your own, the world would be a better place."
Trudie Field, Manurewa Marlins Rugby League Club executive secretary said the club did not tolerate abusive or disrespectful behaviour, and was doing all it could to support Ms Mara and her son.
"You have to, you can't run away and ignore it," she said.
"It has to be acknowledged."
The club would now review its current processes for stamping out such behaviour to see if it was robust enough, she said.
"We're going to look at our values and how we support the community more, it's not only the boy, but also within the whole community, because this is a prime example of how some people's comments can hurt unintentionally and the trauma is on our player and his mother," Ms Field said.
She continued: "We need to look at how we can advocate better for families, because this boy has every right to be on the field, like any other child in Manurewa who has passion for league."
Club management were "saddened" by the sideline comments, she said, especially because they came on the same day that Warriors star Shaun Johnson was acting as waterboy for the club.
Manurewa Marlins was speaking to Ms Mara about the best way to move forward from the incident, Ms Field said, as it didn't want her son to be subject to any further comments or "to unfairly discriminate him further".
"We're talking to his mum at the moment and the management of that team are here as well fully supporting her, so we're just going to think about, 'ok, how do we address this now as a club with this team'," she said.
"We are going down to meet with the team at the training and talk to the parents, give them pamphlets of code of conduct which NZ Rugby League and Auckland Rugby League distribute to every club in New Zealand and just reinforce that there needs to be consideration of our kids, because they're our future, and at the end of the day they are our future of league."
Ms Mara's son was doing well after the nasty comments, Ms Field said, describing him as being in good morale.
He's such a bubbly kid. But on Saturday it could have been a different story and that's what we have to take into consideration," she said.
"He's only a young boy, he deserves to play out there and his mum deserves the right to be able to enjoy that game watching him."