Nomadic former All Black Norm Maxwell opens up on the 'trauma' of test rugby, being ill-equipped to handle life in the spotlight and what he's been up to since he walked away from rugby at just 28.
by Phil Gifford
Norm Maxwell played 36 test matches for six years from 1999 for the All Blacks as if his life depended on it.
The passion he showed then is now devoted to helping children develop in ways he would never have dreamed of when growing up in Northland, or locking the Crusaders' scrum from the time he was 20.
Back in Christchurch from his home in Spain, where he lives with his partner, Jesica Buezas, and their son, Francis, Maxwell is running a pilot scheme called the Aotearoa Heart Project at Seven Oaks school in Halswell. He works as a volunteer, aiming to expand the pupils' sense of self, and develop their potential.
"To be more self-sufficient, to be able to own the ability to respond to their own life, that's a huge element of what the project is all about. We're always going back to that self-awareness. To look inside yourself, and bring kindness, everyone has the ability to do that. If you think, 'I'm not going to beat myself up, I'm going to build my own trust', that's a very powerful tool."
If it sounds like a big change for a man who on the field was a fearless and fearsome tackler, it is.
There was always something almost reckless about how Maxwell played the game, dating back to own childhood, when he switched from playing league to rugby as a 13-year-old.
His coach at Whangarei Boys' High, teacher Te Wai Piripi, has said, "Norm's problem was that he was six foot tall, which is exceptional for a 13-year-old. But he was about six inches wide. Being so gangly he was uncomfortable about playing rugby. When he agreed, I knew very quickly I had a future All Black on my hands. He flew into everything at a million miles an hour."
Today he looks back on his rugby career with mixed feelings.
"It wasn't until I was 28 [and retired from rugby], and I was travelling around the world, and spending time with myself that I started to unravel the life that I was living.
"Some aspects of the rugby were really beautiful, and I was given amazing opportunities, but in some ways it was almost traumatising. It was sometimes overwhelming for me, because I didn't have the tools or life skills to deal with it.
"When I was in that period with rugby, there was so much pressure. As a professional you don't get a rest, because if you play one bad game it could be over. Pressure builds, and then you have campaigns where this week it's the most important thing in the world. So you end up living your life like that. Then you take yourself out of that." He laughs. "You think, 'Well, actually, there are other things'."
For Maxwell, now 43, the changes started when he began to lead the nomadic life, where, with the earnings he had from rugby, and then a single man, he was able to travel the world at will.
"I could just think, well, I'll go to Nepal. Then I'd think, I'll go to Thailand and do yoga there. Rugby had given me the chance to do whatever I wanted, so I had a sense of freedom, which is probably quite rare in a lot of ways.
"I also had a purpose, because I wanted to heal my body. That was a driving force. I couldn't even walk properly. I was so stiff, just moving was painful, and I suffered headaches."
He recalls at times digging his fingers into his legs trying to loosen up muscles.
As a player there was never time to fully recover from injuries. He had missed games with broken fingers, injuries that should have been given a couple of months to mend.
"But you have to keep doing weights, so you're strapping them up, and you're straining them, so they're not healing properly. Dealing with the old injuries is a daily thing for me.
"My physique wasn't probably ideal for a rugby player. I might have been better off being a volleyball player, or a swimmer, or something like that."
As he travelled the world he carried a backpack, but he rarely stayed in hostels, or sought out the party hot spots.
Instead he found solitude a welcome friend, whether on a cliff top in Portugal, or, although he isn't a religious man, in a quiet church. "I learned to sit, and be by myself. From being a young schoolboy in Northland, when I came to the rugby scene, my life just changed so dramatically. It was so fast. It overwhelmed me a lot."
On the road his priorities began to change. "You think, 'What do I really want from life? What does life hold for me?' It was a difficult process because I was used to a life where I was always on the go, so learning to unwind it took some time."
In 2012 his ideas started to coalesce.
"I travelled on my own to a lot of third world countries, and some of what I saw shocked me, especially the way that some of the children were being treated and some of the situations they find themselves in. I've always had a soft spot for children, especially vulnerable children. So for me I wanted to play a part in supporting the world functioning in a different way. That was all swimming around inside of me."
The return to Christchurch for a term long trial of Heart Aotearoa was sparked by a friendship with Bruce McIntyre, who in 2009 founded Seven Oaks, a school for 5 to 13 year olds, where emotional intelligence, and helping children develop that, is a core value.
In basic terms Seven Oaks aims to change the traditional method of learning by memorising, to learning by children thinking for themselves.
McIntyre comes from a highly successful business background.
At 19 he bought Macpac, his parents using their house as collateral, and developed it into a world renowned outdoor clothing and equipment company.
A committed environmentalist he came to see the education system as "purely economically oriented".
"We've had the same education system for 200 years, with an agenda which has nothing to do with helping the planet, or even the people on it. So for me education was a way where I could do something to help. The school came from that very personal growth, environmental situation, waking people up."
Maxwell found his ideas aligned immediately with the school's methods.
"When I first went there it was good to be at a school that was open, and already working in that direction, looking at kids more holistically, getting outstanding academic results by looking at the kids' social and emotional development. Not just their intellectual development."
In the term-long trial Maxwell sometimes worked beside a teacher, sometimes on his own.
There are exercises each day, some as simple as just sitting quietly, or going for a gentle walk, while every Monday there have been yoga lessons from Tilak Raj, a yoga dosen specialist from Lincoln University.
"Every week or two we have an experience," says Maxwell.
They range widely, from a walk over the Port Hills, to paddling a waka, to going to the City Mission and baking goods that they donated to the Mission, to spending almost a day at the Crusaders' headquarters, getting the essence of what they do to build teamwork.
McIntyre says the response from the children to Maxwell has been heartwarming.
"He knows how to work with the kids. They respond to him, they look up to him. He is so at ease with them it's remarkable."
Maxwell hopes the pilot will be taken on by other schools, and he's already including some global elements.
Pupils at Seven Oaks have Skype visits with a school Maxwell visited in Kenya during his travels, chatting and singing songs for each other. There's been fundraising in Christchurch to help in a material way with the Kenyan school, but Maxwell sees it is a two way street.
"It's not one sided, because the kids can give to each other. The needs are different. Some are struggling with the means of survival, but in New Zealand there's a different type of poverty. A poverty of awareness.
"We're giving the kids a chance to work with each other, and not interfering too much. With technology the veil is very thin for connection, and easy to break through. At this time in history it's a lot easier to connect than in the past."
Life for Maxwell himself, who will soon return to Spain, is not always easy. Neck and spine injuries from rugby make him susceptible to migraines. Bright artificial light can be a trigger.
"Sometimes I'll be wearing dark glasses in a supermarket, which is embarrassing."
But his enthusiasm for Aotearoa Heart, enhanced by the success at Seven Oaks, is undimmed.
"When you see the needs of kids who are struggling and very vulnerable, it's only natural to want to support them and to do what you can."