Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

James Gavet - a Warrior among men

James Gavet has been through a lot in his 27 years, on and off the football field. Now he’s using his profile and his life experiences to help those in need, writes Michael Burgess.

Most professional league players work in the community.

They might visit sick kids in hospital, read books in a classroom or help promote a charity. It is all tremendously worthy but few spend their own time and money doing "random acts of kindness".

Warriors prop James Gavet spent a day off last week handing out food parcels around west and central Auckland. It wasn't the first time he had done it.

During his spell at the Broncos, he regularly visited homeless people north of Brisbane, offering a smile, food and drink. Earlier in his career, Gavet and his brother volunteered at a soup kitchen in Sydney.

Gavet is on a mission. Aside from establishing himself at the Warriors after a turbulent, troubled past, he also hopes to make the world around him a better place, bit bybit. It might sound sentimental but it's not meant to be.

The 27-year-old was a reluctant interviewee for this story. "It's not about me," he says.

"My family collectively have always been givers, doing random acts of kindness in our community. It's nothing new to us but, if I can use my profile and it is going to push the cause, then that's great. I'm trying to inspire people, not just through sport."

There was a time earlier in his life when that seemed unlikely.

Gavet struggled with alcohol abuse from his early teens and was also exposed to drugs, gangs, violence and tragedy.

He told the Herald earlier this year he "went through a stint where [he] was suicidal", and he bares telling scars on his arms.

Gavet was a promising youngster but couldn't convert that across the Tasman during spells from 2012- 2015 at the Bulldogs, West Tigers and Broncos.

He struggled with depression and homesickness and the drinking culture at Australian NRL clubs wasn't a good mix.

Perhaps the biggest psychological blow was three season ending injuries in four years.

"At times I wondered what I was doing," says Gavet. "When you are constantly doing rehab and can't play you don't feel that good about yourself or your future."

He's in a good place now-back in Auckland, playing first grade and surrounded by his family-but he has never forgotten.

"Everyone has a past," he says.

"There were times in my life when I was struggling with a few demons and to overcome it I needed good people around me, whether it was family, friends or just a random person.

"A lot of people don't have family or friends any more, as hard as it is to believe. All it takes is for someone to randomly come up to them. Whether it does or doesn't change things, even if it is just 1 per cent help, we are willing todo that." Gavet and his sister Riverlina went to a New Lynn supermarket last week and filled their trolley with food and bottled water.

Warrior player James Gavet feeds the homeless of Auckland with his sister Riverlina. Photo / Doug Sherring
Warrior player James Gavet feeds the homeless of Auckland with his sister Riverlina. Photo / Doug Sherring


They then set up campchairs out the back of their car and spent the next hour making food bags filled with chicken buns and fresh fruit. It is like two parents making lunches for their kids, only their kids don't know they're coming. Once finished, they jump back into the car and head around to the New Lynn mall, finding people who look like they need help. It doesn't take long.

Just metres from where they park up, a dishevelled, middle-aged man holds a cardboard sign asking for help. His face lights up when he sees Gavet and his sister approach and offer a food parcel. "Giving it out is the coolest part," Gavet says later. "It's why we do it." Around the corner, a busker warbles as busy shoppers scurry past.

His voice is strong but his bank account clearly isn't, given his thin clothes and Jandals on a cool Auckland day. "Man, that guy is doing it tough," Gavet says, before wandering over. He offers a food parcel, which the man gratefully accepts. Not everyone does.There are some who don't want help. 'I don't want your charity,' they say. It's usually the older guys. They usually want money. "There were a few different reactions.

"Most are really thankful, others were just, 'Sweet, thanks'. And that's cool, too. "It's nice to help out, make some people smile and it makes you feel good, too. It's only a small thing but I know what it's like. Small things count."

And Gavet's good deeds - however small they may be - have come at an opportune time. The homeless population of central Auckland is 2½ times higher than it was three years ago, according to a recent report.

The Auckland City Street Count of Central Auckland found 177 people were sleeping rough within 3km of the Sky Tower on a single night this year. It is the most recorded since 2004 and is significantly higher than the 68 counted in the same area in 2013.

On Wednesday Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett outlined plans to pre-purchase motel rooms to use as temporary accommodation for the homeless. It came in response to the issue of people living in cars and garages in South Auckland, as the Government came under pressure to control the housing market. On a whim last month, Gavet and his siblings made a video of a food drop.

Initially it was just for Snapchat, where individuals share images or videos, but they decided to post on Facebook instead, attracting more than 10,000 views. Riverlina recoils when reminded of it. It's an uplifting video but for every three messages of support, there is one usually anonymous individual questioning their motives and using strong language to make their point.

Gavet has learned to let hate mail wash over him through his time in the public eye. Riverlina has less experience with social media trolls and is still clearly upset. It's not the reaction she expected.

James Gavet has four sisters and brothers. He is 1.92m tall and 110kg and plays in a position at the Warriors where physicality is essential. He's also the smallest of the Gavet boys. Gavet comes from a generous family but it was when he returned from four years playing league in Sydney and Brisbane that he realised how munificent they were.

Last Christmas his extended family hosted a street barbecue when anyone was welcome to pop along for a feed and a chat, no questions asked. It was rewarding for Gavet and a feeling he wanted more of. He was reminded of how he had lived previously. He often attended the local Denny's, with its big glass windows looking out over the main streets of New Lynn. He enjoyed the food, not the experience. "We used to eat out a lot," he says. "People would walk past and stare in, people who didn't have much, and it was not a good feeling."

He wanted to do something about it. "You know that person you walk past every day asking for money, that person may have a drink problem or a drugs problem but it is not our job to ask," says Gavet. "It's good just to lend a helping hand, if you can, and food is an international language, always appreciated.

"We like to give to those in need. It helps you appreciate what you have and you hear some heart-wrenching stories. When we go out, most people will accept [help] but every now and again people are too polite, or don't want to take charity. And that's all right, too.

"You don't know their situation and their circumstances but, as a family, we take everyone at face value. We start neutral with everyone, whether they want it or not. There is no harm in trying."

After moving on to Avondale, Gavet comes across a young man who went to school with his brother. Gavet doesn't know the full story only that "something happened at home and he's now on the street". He wanders over and offers a friendly face and a food parcel. He gets a thanks in return.

Former All Black Michael Jones has closely observed Gavet's journey, as their respective families have been friends for more than two decades and attend the same West Auckland church.

"We are proud of him but it's how he has been raised," says Jones. "His family have a huge amount of aroha for the community. That's what they do. "James has been through a lot. He's a rough diamond but the diamond is starting to shine through.

"As he gets older he's recognising his mantle of leadership and using his platform as an NRL player to try to influence," says Jones. "He does things out of sight but has a tremendous influence among our community, particularly with the youngsters. He can relate to them."

Gavet doesn't know when he will do another food run. "There's no set time," he says. "It's more of a feeling, although pay day has a lot to do with it." His Warriors team-mates are impressed. "I saw what he was doing on Facebook and thought it was great," says utility Thomas Leuluai.

"He's a pretty quiet guy around training so it was awesome to see. He was doing something really good and it was nice to see some positive stuff on social media for a change."

Gavet also wants to give back to the local league community, and has become a regular at Richmond Rovers training sessions in Grey Lynn.

"Over the past two months, I've made it a personal goal to go down to my local club and help out a different team every week - just jump in and help out randomly,"he says.

"Last week it was under-13s, another time it was the under-7s, the under-10s, the under-16s-giving them little tips, how to improve. It's been great. The kids love it and even the older boys appreciate it, learning some of the drills we do."

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 10 Dec 2016 20:26:55 Processing Time: 1304ms