NSW enforcer Andrew Fifita isn’t a big fan of talking about all the work he does off the field to brighten the days of those less fortunate but in Blues Origin camp in Kingscliff he has provided a rare insight into his tireless work off the pitch.
The 27-year-old is a true believer - that what you give comes back to you - and makes time every week for the youngsters he coaches while also making regular pilgrimages to hospitals and the like to help in any way he can.
Fifita also believes it’s important to never forget where you came from and his time growing up in poverty in western Sydney and some tough times after deciding to make the trek out to Griffith as a 16-year-old have paved the way for his current determination to always give back wherever he can.
Sitting among a group of reporters in Kingsliff’s Mantra Hotel before a big Saturday training session, Fifita recalled taking the Sharks’ premiership trophy on a tour of every school in Griffith.
“I always remember where I come from… I’m a big believer in how you made it,” Fifita said.
"I’m always giving back to Griffith no matter what… For a country town, they’d never get to touch that [premiership] trophy.
“I got around to every school around Griffith and on the outskirts… I think they were in disbelief when I brought it down.”
Fifita said he had to convince Cronulla to let him have the original rather than a replica but did so because he felt it was important to the kids of Griffith. He took along a bunch of platinum Cronulla memberships to hand out to Sharks fans in the western NSW town – which prompted Fifita to relate an amusing anecdote after showing up to perform his modern-day Santa routine.
“Funny story, me and my little cousin [Shaun] rocked up to a random house and got out with a bag, we were walking up with this big suitcase, it was about twilight, [the homeowner] was out there hosing and just seen two big dark guys get out and thought I’m [in trouble]!”
The man ran inside to get a bat to defend his home but once Fifita explained the reason for his visit, however, he immediately made some new friends.
“I explained who I was and he pretty much dropped everything, couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t speak to be honest, he called his wife, his kids came running out, told me to come inside, they gave me a drink and we had a feed and he was just in disbelief.”
Fifita also still helps out with coaching kids at his old club, Patrician Brothers Blacktown, and there are plenty of other examples of him living out his belief that what you give you get returned.
“It’s about gratitude. I’ve always said it, my missus knows it, if I see someone homeless I pull over and give them $50 because at the end of the day I was a kid with no money and trying to get something and I just know how it feels,” he said.
Which leads him to a more recent example.
“Those days when I see something like that I end up playing and performing. The other night [before a match-winning performance against the Cowboys] I heard there was an ex little Sharky in hospital.”
Fifita roped in teammate Joseph Paulo to go and see the former Sharks NYC player, Sage Wilder – a former teammate of Val Holmes and Nu Brown, among other – who is battling leukaemia.
“I didn’t really know who the bloke was until I went into the hospital and found out he was one of the old 20s players for Sharks. The club never knew anything about it. So I went and sat with this kid and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Fifita said.
“Two years ago I was scrimmaging against the kid… I gave him my Test jersey.” Fifita had two Test jerseys from the last-ever mid-season Anzac Test. He kept neither, giving the other to an Army veteran.
“The next day I came out and had a really good game against the Cowboys. That little bit of gratitude. I give and I get something in return. I just have that mentality,” he said.
Fifita isn’t worried if the media and public is more preoccupied with his support of childhood friend, convicted one-punch killer Kieran Loveridge. He says he knows what he’s about and those he comes into contact with figure it out for themselves.
"I try and keep that [generous] side to myself. The media can put a picture on you [but] I know those people who I’ve been out to or working with my club, they’ve got families, they tell other families… I go out to hospitals, the nurses see me.
"I go to footy but I also do the kids as well. I train them so my family get me on my weekends depends when we play. Sundays I’m always busy, I don’t care if we play that day, I’ll go out and do the boys as well. I’ve got my son’s training on Friday. I’m that busy through the week by giving back and doing my family stuff there’s nothing better.
“I grew up in western Sydney where we’ve had nothing. I lived on the streets and I loved it. Moved to Griffith and that was all by myself. 16 year old boy – who’s going to tell their 16 year old boy to go to Griffith? It was my choice, I thought I was a man and I made the better of myself.”
Fifita is also studying a diploma of mental health, inspired by his own mental health battles. He publicly went into rehab a couple of years ago. He went back more recently despite being in a much better place to fulfil a promise to himself.
“I’m studying at the moment. I’m doing a diploma of mental health. That comes from my last stint in rehab over Christmas. I just had to do it, it was one of those things,” he said.
“To go back in and to realise how far I’ve come and complete my goal – I always said from two years ago I’m going to go back in and complete that course.”
Once he finishes his study and his footy, Fifita has an even nobler goal.
“I really want to work with kids with struggles… I really want to work in juvenile justice,” he said.
“Out west they’ve got Cobham and there’s one up the coast, [Frank] Baxter [at Kariong]. I want to do the hard kids. I think I’ve earned their respect by who I am. It would mean the world to me.”