It took a split second for Chris Eaton's carefully constructed life to fall apart. With the help of his daughter, he's put it back together again.
Chris Eaton looked at his bedside clock. It was nearly 8am. That mundane fact alone surprised him.
He was never a big sleeper, so he was pleased he'd got some decent shut-eye before his debut for Western Force. It wouldn't make the hours leading up to tonight's match against the Waratahs in Sydney drag on for so long.
He would have slept longer, too, except he'd been woken by his coach banging on his hotel room door. A former front-row forward, Michael Foley was not a man to waste words.
"Get up, we're going to the team room, bring your phone," he instructed.
Eaton dragged some clothes on and did as was told. He noticed the team doctor, Mike Cadogan, was with Foley.
Nobody said anything as they rode the elevator downstairs. The Hawke's Bay halfback could tell that something wasn't right. A sinking feeling descended.
"F...," he thought, "I'm in trouble. I've been busted for drugs."
As this thought started to ping around his frazzled mind a counter-argument was tugging at his logic.
"Wait a minute, I don't take drugs. I don't use drugs. Why is this even running through my head?"
Foley doesn't say a word until they get to the team room and he tells Eaton to take a seat and starts talking: "There's been an accident," he starts.
"By the time he started talking I had kind of figured what had happened," Eaton recalls. "I was just waiting for the words to come out but at the same time hoping that they wouldn't."
Eaton's wife Hannah had been driving from their home in Hastings to Tairua where the couple's 4-year-old daughter, Layla, was staying with her parents for Easter.
She was tired. Having not long finished studying to be a midwife, Hannah had been working shifts in her new job. Just south of Thames it is believed she fell asleep at the wheel as she approached a corner. Her BMW hit roadside gravel before over-correcting and across State Highway 26 into the path of an oncoming Ford Territory.
She didn't survive the accident.
Eaton knew his daughter was safe. That was one thing. The other thing was… well there are no words, just a visceral, achingly human reaction.
"I just broke down. I lost it. I couldn't function."
It might seem overly simplistic or even trite, but Eaton's life can be divided into pre- and post-accident.
His life before might not have been all blue sky and idyll but it was, in its own way, classically Kiwi: barefoot, chasing an oval ball around various Hawke's Bay fields, wanting nothing more than to be an All Black.
He got closer than most kids with similar dreams.
After progressing through St John's College, a brief stint at Havelock North was followed by a more enduring connection to Taradale Rugby Club and Hawkes Bay.
Progress to the next level, the real money-making level wasn't as swift or seemingly pre-ordained. He made it to the Hurricanes wider training squad in 2009 as a 24-year-old and even got to sit on the bench for one game at the end of 2010 (though he didn't enter the game).
His path in the capital was blocked initially by the big personality and game management of All Black Piri Weepu and then rising star TJ Perenara.
Still, 2011 was something of a breakthrough, with Eaton starting several games in Weepu's absence. The following year, however, he was relegated to bit-part status.
At this point Eaton had to face the fact that the All Black dream had receded.
"When those Super Rugby doors start closing you know you're not going to get a look in," he says.
When that reality hit he decided to concentrate on being the best halfback he could be. A pro's pro, giving 100 per cent to whatever team would pay for his services and, as 2013 rolled around,he found the Super Rugby door remained slightly ajar.
With a wife and young daughter he felt it was important to get his foot in that door, even if it meant temporarily moving 5500km away to Perth.
Signed as injury cover for Brett Sheehan, Eaton was elevated into the squad proper when the Australian took longer than hoped to return from ankle ligament damage. (In what was a fairly horrific Easter for the Force, Sheehan's infant son Brody was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis and given a 50-50 chance of surviving. He made a full recovery).
It was while waiting to make his debut that he received the devastating news.
He'd spent most of his adult life focused on footy. Now that seemed so trivial. His goal immediately shifted to being the best father he could be.
"I'll always be the dad that will play Barbies with you, darling; I'll brush your hair and take you to ballet. I'll also take you to rugby," he said at Hannah's funeral, a line that resonated with the mourners.
Looking back, Eaton says it was really only recommitting to a goal he'd made to himself when Layla was born.
"Even before the accident I was an active, hands-on father anyway. I always planned to be no matter what happened in my life," he says. "Obviously after the accident then it was like, I had my own things to deal with but I had a four-year-old so I had to put my shit aside and try to get through the day for her.
"It became my main driver. As much as it was for her, it was also what I needed to get myself out of bed, if you know what I mean? Because I had her, it kept me going.
"I had to be the rock. When you see your kids are struggling and there's nothing you can do to fix it or make it better, it's the most difficult thing you can see."
Life fell into a pattern. He'd be strong and upbeat during the day, trying to alleviate the confusion that a four-year-old who loses a parent must feel. At night, when Layla was in bed, he'd try to process his own grief and anger.
Rugby was just adding to the tumble-dryer of emotions. It was the game he'd played all his life, the one thing he most wanted to be good at, but he just couldn't find a space for it. Part of him had toyed with the idea of returning to the Force, but with all his family in the Bay it would have been too traumatic to uproot Layla.
Instead he decided to retire.
The Force came to Wellington to play the Hurricanes three weeks after Hannah died.
Eaton got to present his former teammates with jerseys. He also had a connection with most of the Hurricanes squad so it was a "nice night"; a reminder of what his life could have looked like.
Deep down, though, Eaton was struggling. The mountain of things to organise in the days after the accident had subsided. The offers of help from friends and family were still there, but the constant stream of people was gone.
"I just remember having so much to deal with. You're trying to make sure you function somewhat, though I didn't sleep for maybe three or four days. I don't think I ate in that period of time. I was just grinding it out," he says.
"Once all that stuff came to an end, that's when mentally things start to hit the fan a bit. There're so many people around you and everyone's willing to help and eventually life goes back to normal for everyone and you're left sitting at home by yourself. That's when the really tough stuff starts to happen."
Eaton developed what he coyly described as some "pretty self-destructive" habits. Painkillers started playing an increasing role in his life.
Through the Players' Association he was offered help and took it initially but there was a socially conditioned roadblock in the way.
"Because of the way I grew up, you don't talk about your problems: you're the man so just deal with your shit," he says. "I went to a couple of sessions and just thought that I had a problem that no one can fix so talking to someone is not going to solve it.
"Whether that's the healthiest way to deal with things is debatable but… yeah, I don't know."
The turning point, the pinprick of light, turned out to be sport. Eaton was a martial artist and had entered a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament and done well.
"That made me feel like I remembered feeling before playing rugby: you get the butterflies, nervous. It made me realise within myself that was a feeling I needed," he says. "The need for competition, that drive was ingrained in me. I didn't realise that what was missing in me until I had that again. I needed to keep playing for my sanity, to keep going."
The NPC season was in truck but friend and coach Danny Lee, another paid-up member of the halfback club, had held a spot for him should he decide to come back to the fold.
"I probably started playing some of the best rugby I'd played in a long time because I couldn't care less about the result. The sole purpose of me playing rugby was to escape myself and the misery I was in at the time."
Hawke's Bay were good to him. Eaton was allowed to do his strength and conditioning work on his own – even at 35 looks like he has been carved out of granite – and on team training and game days Layla was as much a part of the squad as anybody.
"My daughter was always there and the managers and coaches all knew her, talked to her and made her feel comfortable," Eaton recalls. "She was always in the changing rooms. It was so good."
Hawke's Bay made the final of the second-tier Championship, travelling to Tasman to try to win promotion to the Premiership.
It was a minor classic. Tasman were well on top but Hawke's Bay chipped away to trail 20-26 with a minute to go. They were backed up on their line but somehow broke free and Eaton snuck across in the corner, giving Ihaia West the chance to win it all with a conversion from the sideline.
"I just remember thinking: 'Fuck, I don't care if he gets it or not.' That whole period made me realise it just wasn't that important."
Did he kick it?
"Nah, he missed it. I couldn't care less. I was just there to run around with the boys, to get the ball, to tackle and run; all the things I loved doing when I was a kid. You lose that a bit in professionalism.
"The camaraderie in rugby is massive and I didn't realise it until that point in my life, and now again at this point when I know that I'm coming to the end.
"I can understand the rates of depression that professional players get once they leave that environment. We're Peter Pan-ish. We don't have to grow up for a long time and eventually when we do [retire], we're suddenly missing a big chunk of our identity."
Eaton has future-proofed himself in ways that should mitigate some of that. A fibrous plasterer by trade, he decided that wasn't going to fill the void so trained to be a strength-and-conditioning coach.
"When I was playing I was still training clients on the side so I put a lot of that money into building my own gym at my house," he says. "I needed to be able to train without leaving the house because I had Layla there. I'd buy enough gear so I could get by. I'd put her to bed and go to the shed and get on the treadmill or pump some weights.
"I kept investing in that until I had enough gear so I could train clients out of my house and stuff. Same again, my daughter's there so I can get clients in and out and get by that way."
From being effectively retired six years ago, Eaton has stretched out his playing days by taking unconventional jobs and playing in out of the way places.
Oh, and he fell in love again.
A year after his wife died he met Yahna. It wasn't easy for her, he admits.
"I was not in a great space. I was in no spot to be in a relationship and I was being a bit selfish," he says.
At the heart of the issue was his decision to keep Yahna and Layla separate.
"I made a conscious decision that I didn't want different women coming in and out of Layla's life," he says.
He needed to be absolutely sure of his commitment to another woman before he'd let his daughter establish another strong bond. It is not, he admits, the easiest of circumstances for a relationship to blossom in.
Despite the uncertainty and the angst, it worked. Eaton and Yahna married in their native Hawke's Bay in August.
Because of the accident and his desire to give Layla stability in her upbringing, Eaton had missed his window to cash in by playing professionally for big clubs overseas.
He and Yahna both wanted to travel, however, and just because the big clubs weren't knocking it didn't mean there wasn't lots of little clubs out there, so Eaton took a contract in Valladolid, a couple of hours north of Madrid. It enabled them to travel through continental Europe.
At a soulless restaurant in Auckland International Airport, Eaton talks about his next adventure. He's heading to Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia near the Black Sea and the border with Georgia.
He'll be playing a few games for RC Kuban and seeing more of eastern Europe.
After that he'll likely return to the Bay and keep building up his training business, keep brushing his daughter's hair and keep the things that matter in his life close at hand and not worry about things that don't.
As dusk enveloped another gloomy, winter Auckland evening, Eaton, his new wife Yahna and daughter Layla headed under the big sign that says "Departures", a future full of hope and, yes, a little uncertainty, beckoning.
They'll be back but for now they're off.
To Russia, with love.