Shark Sam Tagataese, a Pasifika leadership and excellence award recipient in 2016, embarked on a cultural and educational trip to the US with a delegation from the NRL in November, one which opened his eyes to some of the advantages enjoyed by his NRL colleagues compared to their US counterparts.
Tagataese was part of recent visit to LA – hosted by NRL Education and Wellbeing Manager Nigel Vagana and Indigenous Welfare and Education Manager Dean Widders.
The hard-running Sharks prop was also joined by Warriors Ben Henry, Ray Thompson of the Cowboys and Newcastle Knight Dane Gagai in an experience aimed at broadening their horizons and gaining insights into how Pasifika and Native American athletes in the US deal with their unique challenges.
Tagataese was left with the impression that NRL athletes get more in the way of welfare and personal support – particularly below the top level – compared to their US counterparts.
"In high school they're taught to try and get into college because the only avenue to get into NFL is to get into college," Tagataese told NRL.com. "By the time you play professional NFL you're in the 20s whereas for us we get picked up at a young age, 14 or 15 and they groom us. They've also got a higher standard of education and marks they have to reach to stay within their sport."
Having spoken to some student athletes in his time staying at UCLA, Tagataese was shocked by what an average day looks like for the hopefuls.
"A couple of the football boys said they wake up around 5am for 6am training which goes for three hours then they've got class from 10 or 10.30 to lunch, then they have a bit of a break, then another class, then afternoon training for another three hours and they get home about 8 or 9pm and then they have to do some study," he said.
"I'm not saying we [in the NRL] are not driven but their work ethic, their whole perception is 'dream big' and 'achieve big'."
The tiny number of hopefuls who actually earn a career in the pros (an estimated 3-6 per cent of high school players become college players and around 1.6 per cent of those make it to the NFL) led Tagataese to wonder how successful the remainder are in their chosen areas of study and what happens to them.
"I'd love to know the stats on how many don't make it and what they end up doing," he said.
"It would be interesting to hear from the footballers as well to get their views on their goals and if they don't make it if they have backup plans and how their studies are going.
"It's driven in them since they're young to train hard, to be persistent to be perfect and I guess that's the mentality in America.
"They train hard, they work hard, they're driven at a young age. There's pros and cons. If you're driving every kid to make it and succeed in every dream they have but what happens if they don't reach their goals," Tagataese pondered.
The production-line nature of the sport and the massive resources and scale were also eye-catching for Tagataese.
"It feels like they're just filtering, to make it so hard to get into college and do all these things to filter out kids and the ones that don't work hard to just cross them off. It's like they're filtering who can handle the pressures and who can excel," Tagataese said.
"And the money they spend at colleges is crazy, just their football facilities, it's way better and bigger than any NRL club here. It's all business over there, it's a massive business.
"But I learned we've got it good over here just with how the NRL deals with communities and the athletes, our welfare programs."
Having had the chance to interact with some local Pasifika athletes in LA, Tagataese hoped the chance would come to develop more lasting relationships across the Pacific.
"Hopefully we can build a good relationship with colleges over there to see how we can make a difference as well within our communities and culture," he said.
"We went over there to impact the Pacific Islander students. If you can make it in the NFL you have a voice – like us, we have a voice and can impact the game and make the game acknowledge cultural differences and express that in a way people can understand. You can impact your communities as well."
Since his well-earned break following the Sharks Grand Final success and after returning from his American trip, Tagataese has been hard at it on the training paddock preparing for 2017.
Look for the big, bustling front rower to again have a major impact at the Sharks, both on the field and as a leader to the youngsters at the club and those with Pacific Islander heritage.
**Article excerpts first published by NRL.com