Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson convinced Junior Vaivai to stick with rugby league - now he's off to the World Cup

Family values: Junior Vaivai with cousin Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson. Photo: Supplied
Family values: Junior Vaivai with cousin Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson. Photo: Supplied

Sick of sleeping in his car and disillusioned after undergoing a third knee reconstruction, Junior Vaivai sought the counsel of his cousin as he contemplated giving rugby league away.

It had been years since Vaivai had played in the NRL and a return appeared unlikely. Struggling personally and professionally, he turned to his family for advice.

The message was clear: go back and find your passion for the game.

It would have been a directive easy to ignore had it come from anyone other than Dwayne Johnson, known as "the Rock" and "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment".

"We started chatting in the kitchen and I said I didn't know if I wanted to play, with so much politics in the game and things out of your control like injuries, that I wasn't enjoying my football," Vaivai said of his heart-to-heart with cousin Johnson, among the biggest stars in Hollywood.

Big league: Junior Vaivai in action for the Panthers in 2011. Photo: AAP

Big league: Junior Vaivai in action for the Panthers in 2011. Photo: AAP

"He goes 'Why don't you start again and try to find your passion because if you're passionate about something, things seem to work out'.

"He said to go back and restart. Do it because you want to do it, not because everyone else is doing it."

Before he went on to become a global phenomenon via his WWE and movie exploits, Johnson too was a footballer at a crossroads. Passed over by the NFL and cut from his team the Calgary Stampeders, Johnson suffered bouts of depression before continuing his sporting career in the ring. History suggests it was a prudent move.

It was only after their chat that Vaivai was star-struck.

"It's crazy. To me it was getting advice from an older cousin," Vaivai said.

"After our conversation, it clicked that he's an international Hollywood star. At the time, it was just family time, just talking with his mum as well. When I left my auntie's house, he's all over billboards over Los Angeles. He's doing very well for himself.

"He's an international star doing what he's doing. I'm just grateful to have that time with him and get that advice.

"I'm proud of what he's done and that he inspires people around the world."

Back to basics: Junior Vaivai takes on Thirroul during his stint with Wests in the Illawarra league. Photo: Georgia Matts

Back to basics: Junior Vaivai takes on Thirroul during his stint with Wests in the Illawarra league. Photo: Georgia Matts

Vaivai will get the opportunity to showcase his wares on the world stage. The 27-year-old has been chosen to again represent the US in the upcoming Rugby League World Cup. It's an accomplishment he felt was out of reach just a few years ago.

After making his mark as a member of the 2009 National Youth Competition team of the year - which included Kieran Foran, Gareth Widdop and Daly Cherry-Evans - Vaivai made his first-grade debut for South Sydney that season. However the Rabbitohs sacked him following off-field drama and his stint at Penrith, where he was Phil Gould's first signing, was thwarted by injury.

In 2013 his ACL buckled for the third time.

At that point he was sleeping in his car, wondering where it all went wrong.

"There was a time when you just want to be alone," he said.

"When I was at the Dragons I found myself sleeping outside of WIN Stadium, getting ready for training the next day.

"It was a case of sacrificing a lot. At the time I was only on training wage, there was no contract or anything. I stayed in the car because I was travelling from Bondi every day and found myself sleeping there until the next day instead of going all the way to Bondi and back."

Fighting on: Junior Vaivai will play for the US in the Rugby League World Cup. Photo: Robert Peet

Fighting on: Junior Vaivai will play for the US in the Rugby League World Cup. Photo: Robert Peet

Vaivai knows a thing or two about cramped sleeping arrangements. As one of nine siblings growing up in Brisbane's western suburbs, things were tight. So was the family.

"We grew up sharing the same blanket," he said.

"We didn't have the things kids have nowadays. My kid has his own room and own bed. I didn't have that.

"I used to live in a two-bedroom apartment with eight kids. We used to sleep on the lounge and share a blanket. My childhood is something I won't forget, but I'm grateful because it makes me appreciate the things I have and not be angry about the things I don't have."

He may not have had an NRL contract, but Vaivai refused to give up.

The speedy centre - he clocked a 100-metre sprint time of 10.72 seconds at the age of 15 - joined Western Suburbs Red Devils in the Illawarra league and rediscovered his love of the game under the tutelage of Brett Kimmorley.

"I had a goal when I first went to Wests to play in the World Cup and hopefully secure a future deal," he said.

The first of those ambitions has been achieved. Off contract and without a manager, Vaivai - whose full first name is Taioalo - is hoping to impress NRL talent spotters during the season-ending internationals.

If he fails to do so, all is not lost. Armed with a new perspective that comes from being a father of two, he knows there are other outlets, such as his personal training business, if he doesn't return to first grade. Not that he's given up.

"To be honest, my chances may be slim," he said. "But you've got guys like Cody Walker who debuted at the Rabbitohs at 26. I'm 27. It may be far-fetched, but my form will determine if I can open doors or if they close.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity to play in the World Cup and if something comes of it, I'm happy. If something doesn't, I'm happy.

"For a long time it was hard for me to let go of the fact I may never play NRL again. I've come to terms that there is life outside of football and there are other ways you can inspire people. I'm passionate about helping people and in the course of my ups and downs in life, I've come to realise that."