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Asu ‘AJ’ Kepaoa: From dark times to mental health advocate

Wests Tigers NRL player AJ Kepaoa talks openly about the highs and lows of his so far short but impressive career.

Portrait of Asu 'AJ' Kepaoa

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Asu ‘AJ’ Kepaoa: from dark times to mental health advocate

Asu ‘AJ’ Kepaoa was just 17 years old when he got his big break with the NRL in 2020, after signing with the Sydney Roosters as a junior. After just two games with the Roosters, he moved to the Wests Tigers and started his NRL first grade career.

However, it wasn’t an easy move to Australia from New Zealand for the young AJ. “Family is massive to me,” he says, “I hold it close to my heart. Relocating was pretty tough because mum and dad weren’t there, so homesickness really hit me. It was a really tough time – I wanted to move home after a week.

“Sydney was very different to Auckland, which was a bit slower,” he says. “All my friends were there, and I had no friends or family moving over,” he adds.

AJ lived in a house with eight other young players who were also on contract to the Roosters, under the guidance of house parents. “It could be fun but also pretty tough,” he says. Nevertheless, he persevered and made his first grade debut for the Tigers in Round 13 of the 2020 NRL season.

“Going into my debut, I was real keen but had mixed emotions,” AJ says. “I was a bit excited but scared as well because it was during COVID, so my family couldn't come over. I was a bit nervous, I felt like I was going into that game by myself, and it showed.

“I had a couple of errors on my debut,” AJ explains. “I just wanted to forget it all. I copped a bit after the game as well. I doubted myself and thought I wouldn’t play first grade NRL again. I was drowning in emotions, thinking I wasn’t good enough.

“I kept asking myself if I should just give up or fight through it,” he says, describing his mental state at the time. His parents continued to call AJ every day; checking up on him to see if he was all right. “They said, ‘Just keep training hard’, so I did, and I got the chance to prove myself again,” he says.

AJ scored his first try in Round 18 against the South Sydney Rabbitohs, and the following week, he scored his first double against the Melbourne Storm. His career started to take off, and he went on to score four tries in five games in his rookie season.

‘Complacent and arrogant’

AJ was playing well and getting good results through to 2021. However, his form started to slump as the 2021 season progressed, and he was dropped from the side in Round 5. “I wasn’t playing good footy at the time,” he says. 

“I was overweight, and I got complacent. I felt I was on top of the world because I was playing first grade and starting every week. That got to my head, and I got carried away and started playing bad footy,” he adds.

“My dad had a talk with me, and a couple of the boys had a chat with me too and said, ‘Bro, you’ve changed. You used to be hardworking and look at you now. You’re arrogant. Just because you’re starting every week doesn’t mean you can take it easy’. There was no real competition underneath me as well, and I took that for granted,” AJ continues.

AJ took the words and advice from his father and fellow players on board and knuckled down immediately. “I lost a couple of kgs and put my physical and mental health first, and I got picked again the next week,” he says, “I played a good game after moving from the wing to centre.”

First injury – ACL tear in 2021

However, disaster struck AJ in the Round 6 match against the South Sydney Rabbitohs after he suffered a torn ACL ligament during the game. “It got taken away just like that,” he says. “I was struggling after the game. I was in tears. My dad was over, which helped because he was right there next to me when it happened. I was devastated. I had the whole world in front of me and just got taken just like that,” he says.

Reflecting on the nine months of rehabilitation he had away from the game, AJ explains that he took some positives and negatives from the time. “The negatives were I was a bit dumb because I wasn't playing as good, and I got injured. I was angry at myself because I left in that way, being bad, playing bad footy, and that's how my last game was for the season.”

However, on the positive side, he took solace from the fact that he was able to remain in Sydney and continue his recovery with his partner Jade, who had recently given birth to their first child, daughter Jade.

“Every time I looked at her, it just took all the negatives away,” he says. “I couldn't think of anything else but her. I was a bit lucky – not lucky in the footy sense – but lucky I got to watch her grow. I wasn't so busy with my footy.”

‘More to life than footy’

“It distracted me from the fact that I was injured and distracted me from the fact that I was a footy player,” he explains. “It made me realise I'm not just a footy player, I'm also a father now. There’s more to life than just footy.”

AJ’s supportive father also came over to Sydney for the first two months of his rehab. And, even after returning home to Auckland, he continued to call every day to check up on his son. “He’d tell me to pray, stay honest in my rehab, make sure I'm doing the little things right so that once I'm back in the field, I'm up and running, I'm not a few steps behind, I'm already a few steps ahead,” AJ adds.

Again, AJ followed his father’s advice and was in good shape heading into the 2022 NRL season. “I felt good. I felt way better than before I got injured. I felt like I was flying,” says AJ. “I felt ready to go. I was so eager and keen to play again – so excited. I felt the light at the end of the tunnel was right there in front of me. The boys were backing me to start Round 1, and I felt confident in myself that I would.”

“Trials were coming up in a few weeks, and during training, I went to go score a try, and that's when I tore my pec. I cried on the spot; I was just yelling. I knew straight away because, in 2019, I tore my pec as well.

“At that moment, I really wanted to give up because, again, I felt I was right there. I was ready to go, and it got taken away just like that. I knew it was another lengthy recovery, and it would take time again,” he explains.

Focus on family and state of mind

This second injury hit AJ hard. “After it happened, I was kicking stones. I was in bed just eating food. I'd order food and be lazy, just play video games and watch shows. Madge (Wests’ then-coach Michael Maguire) wanted me to come back into training. I went and had a talk with him and said, ‘Madge, I'm not ready to train. My headspace is not there. I'm not all in,’ he says. 

“He gave me 10 days off, and I went away with my daughter and my partner to the Gold Coast. That helped me because I got away from footy and just focused on me and my family.”

However, this second blow had a big impact on AJ’s mental state. “I went out one night with the boys, and I drank too much, and the emotions started to fill my head,” he says. “That's when it all hit me. I started to doubt myself and thought I couldn't get through it.

“I thought I wouldn't be up to scratch when I came back. I started saying stupid things like I wasn't good enough. I even said I wasn't a good enough father because I was always injured and couldn't help out. It was pretty dark. I hit rock bottom,” he confesses.

Reached out for support

During this dark time, AJ reached out to fellow NRL players Christian Tuipulotu from the Manly Sea Eagles and former Samoan and Kiwi international Joe Galuvao. “Christian was there for me,” he says. “We came up in the Roosters together. He told me: ‘You are strong, you've been through heaps, you fight through the pain, just keep going bro, keep praying and stay true to yourself’. I'll always be grateful for that – he stuck by my side,” AJ says.

“I also reached out to Joe,” he adds. “I told him I was starting to see cracks in myself. I was starting to feel weak mentally, that I was at the point where I couldn't do any more. I just want to give up. He helped me through the process. We shared a few tears as well. He said he’d been there before, and he could understand. 

“Joe put me in touch with a counsellor, who I used to see once a week. I did mindfulness activities, like what I was grateful for every day. It changed my mind to think positively,” AJ adds.

Successful return in 2022

A combination of physical and mental recovery put AJ back into the form he once enjoyed as a premier athlete, and he returned to the Tigers in Round 8 of the 2022 season against the St. George Illawarra Dragons.

AJ learned a lot from the ups and downs of his journey. This led him to become an ambassador for the NRL’s State of Mind program, which helps improve the mental health and well-being of rugby league players and communities.

“I know there are other footy players who are going through what I went through, and I wanted to share that you're not weak to speak, and we can all help each other. Especially us Islanders, as our culture affects how we live our lives and how it affects us emotionally and mentally.

“I just want to share my story to let all the boys know that no one's weak. Don't be scared to speak that there's always someone there to help you, and the only way when you hit rock bottom is up,” he concludes.