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A former Warriors star who was sent to prison for importing hundreds of thousands of dollars of meth says “jail was probably the best thing that ever happened to me” and credits his stint behind bars with saving his life.
Manu Vatuvei has spoken exclusively, for the first time since his release from prison, about the dark spiral that saw him end up in jail, how his time inside helped him turn his life around, and his hopes for the future.
The 37-year-old, who was jailed last year for importing drugs, doesn’t want people to forgive or forget his stuff-ups. But he is hoping his lesson and his message can help others suffering from drug addiction or mental health issues.
Vatuvei - nicknamed The Beast - joined the Warriors in 2004 and throughout much of his career was at the top of the NRL mountain, earning international honours for the Kiwis and Mate Ma’a Tonga, and making some serious cash for a boy from South Auckland.
“I was a beast on the field and tried to maintain that lifestyle and image off it,” Vatuvei told the Herald.
Manu Vatuvei in action for the Warriors in 2016. Photo / Nick Reed
But an Achilles injury ended his career in 2018 and started his decline, Vatuvei said. He and his wife also separated, adding to his mental anguish.
“I went through a real dark time on and off the field and I ended up making bad choices,” Vatuvei said.
“Like I said, I was a beast on the field and, because I’m a strong person, I didn’t want any help but I knew I was struggling mentally.
“Ending my rugby league career with a ruptured Achilles was tough because my career was ended but not on my terms and that was hard to take.
“Things just spiralled from there. I even had thoughts of taking my own life.
Manu Vatuvei. Photo / Joseph Los'e
“I was getting deeper and deeper and things just built up. I was doing things out of character and made bad choices and ended up where I was - incarcerated.”
Vatuvei said when he was playing rugby league, he always knew what his motivation was.
“I had always known what was my ‘why’. It made me play rugby league and every time I played it was for my family - and my mum and dad,” he said.
“I knew what my ‘why’ was but then I lost my ‘why’ and forgot what was important.”
“Everything was falling apart. There was [mental health] support out there, but I was too stupid and ignored it because I thought I could do it myself.
“Had it happened to me today, I would have reached out for the support from the likes of [former Kiwis and Warriors player] Jerry Seuseu and others.”
Vatuvei was last year jailed for three years and seven months for importing around $200,000 of methamphetamine from India.
His fall from grace was a long way down but a short time coming. After spending 15 months in prison, Vatuvei was paroled in May.
Former Warriors star Manu Vatuvei arrives for sentencing at Manukau District Court. Photo / Greg Bowker
He is adamant that had he not gone to jail last year, he would have been in a far worse predicament now.
“In prison, it gave me time to reflect on life and reflect on where I was and all my problems I was trying to run away from,” Vatuvei said.
“Being stuck in four walls on your own reminds you.
“Jail was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because I would have been in a worse position than what I am now.”
Manu Vatuvei celebrates winning Dancing With the Stars in 2019. Photo / Mediaworks
He said he met a lot of people in prison from all walks of life and had plenty of time to reflect.
Last week Vatuvei started at Dave Letele’s BBM gym, helping to run fitness classes, among other roles.
“Being incarcerated and then coming back out was tough because in prison there’s no judgment. Everyone in jail had made a mistake but outside is different,” he said.
“I got back to training and feeling more comfortable around people. I met with Dave and he offered me a role at BBM, and I’m loving it. It’s great seeing people on fitness journeys.
“I am enjoying every single moment.
“It has been an incredibly humbling experience, alongside the foodbank, to see what Dave and his team do.”
Vatuvei said he’s not asking for people’s forgiveness, but he would like an opportunity to be a person young people can look up to - not because of his past but for what he will do in the future.
“If I can overcome what I went through, I’m sure anyone can,” he said.
“In prison, I spoke to the psychologist and it was hard at the start to talk but now I feel more comfortable talking about my situation. It gets easier.
“I want to share my story and help people because of what I experienced. I can’t go back. I have to go forward.”
Dave Letele and Manu Vatuvei. Photo / Supplied
Letele said Vatuvei was proving a big hit with the BBM and wider community whānau.
Vatuvei is helping with the BBM youth and employment programmes, and also doing food deliveries for the foodbank.
“It’s important to have people like Manu talking to youth about the other side of crime. Too often they only see the bling. They don’t see the pain and heartache. When Manu talks, people listen,” Letele said.
“Manu is a real humble guy and is trying to do the right thing and earn back the trust and respect of his whānau and his community.”
Vatuvei was offered a voluntary mentor role with the Warriors on his release - an offer which sparked a mixed reaction from the team’s fanbase.
Warriors chief executive Cameron George said at the time the club decided having Vatuvei share his story with young aspiring athletes could stop them from making the same mistakes.
“I’m fully supportive of using his story, on a voluntary basis, to stop kids making bad mistakes,” George said.
WHERE TO GET HELP • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7) • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7) • Youth services: (06) 3555 906 • Youthline: 0800 376 633 • What's Up: 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) • Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7) • Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155 • Helpline: 1737 If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111
Joseph Los’e is an award winning journalist and joined NZME in 2022 as Kaupapa Māori Editor. Los’e was a chief reporter, news director at the Sunday News newspaper covering crime, justice and sport. He was also editor of the NZ Truth and prior to joining NZME worked for 12 years for Whānau Waipareira.
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