Eljae Pukeiti-Mara returned to the footy field yesterday a winner.
The 10-year-old South Auckland boy turned out for his beloved Manurewa Marlins club side six days after the pleas of his mother, Rochelle Mara, for an end to sideline abuse directed at her son over his size.
In a Facebook message last weekend, Rochelle wrote of the hurt of her son being labelled "a big boy" by spectators watching his under-10 team. Others said her son wasn't "an asset to the team".
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 yesterday there was only cheering when Eljae got the ball during his team's 32-4 win over Howick.
Eljae told the Herald on Sunday that the hurtful sideline comments had made him "sad".
But he was committed to his team-mates and was encouraged by the comments of friends, family and complete strangers who told him "who cares about them? Keep going".
"I love the friends I make and our team," he said.
Eljae's grandmother Marietta Mara was among those cheering him on proudly yesterday.
She told the Herald on Sunday the family had received an "overwhelming" amount of support from people around the world after Rochelle's online posting.
Celebrities to post messages of support include All Black star Liam Messam and dance choreographer Parris Goebel.
Sir Peter Leitch has also secured a Warriors jersey for Eljae and season passes to the club's home games for his family.
"They've all said good on him. A lot of them have children in Eljae's situation and it's good my daughter has spoken out. "She didn't realise the response she would get."
The shy 10-year-old's confidence was growing thanks to his supportive team-mates and coach, Marietta said.
"Eljae's been through this before so it's nice to get this out there," she said. "He is very self-conscious [about his weight]. I have seen him having a cry in the last week. It hurts."
Marietta said she hoped the people who made the comments reflected on their behaviour and the example they were setting for their own children.
The Maras are a tight-knit family and were working hard to build his confidence back up, she said.
"We don't want him to be angry, we want him to move on. He knows he's getting support."