Former NRL star shares battle with depression
A FORMER Cherbourg resident and NRL legend has opened up about his bout of depression and he wants others to be brave enough to share as well.
Willie Tonga retired from professional sport more than a year ago.
This has meant starting a new life away from the sport he loves.
The transition has proven a struggle to come to terms with.
"It has never gotten to the point where I'm thinking of suicide, but it does put me in dark places," he said.
"The thing is, I am only starting to become comfortable talking about it.
"Whereas before I would come home and sit in a dark room and it would just be myself and my thoughts."
"That is not a good place to be in."
Tonga, who played in several NRL teams as well representing his state and country, said having his time over, he would've placed more of a priority on life after football.
"I thought I was invincible and rugby league was going to last forever," Tonga said.
"When you're in your early 20s, life after football is the furthest thing from your mind.
"There are welfare officers who will help, but ultimately it is your decision whether you want to start a course or whether you just want to go home and play Xbox and sit in front of the TV.
"Sadly, I chose the second option."
Since retiring from professional sport, Tonga is now in an office environment and he said the transition was the hardest thing he has had to face.
"I have been retired for a year now and I am still trying to find my feet," he said.
The former State of Origin star said his mental anguish was obvious to see for his new office colleagues.
"I was a couple of weeks into the new job and the lady that sits next to me, she came over and sat down and said 'Will, are you ok?'," he said.
"I said 'yeah' and she said 'are you sure?', because she knew I wasn't.
"I had only known this lady for a couple of weeks and she picked up on it straight away."
It wasn't long before other people in the office would mention it as well.
"I didn't want to show people I was vulnerable and weak," Tonga said.
"I got angry at myself because I was allowing the signs to come out.
"I would then think I need to hide it more, I need to be even tougher."
Tonga stressed the importance of asking the question if you think someone is struggling.
"I make a habit of sending a text message every day to people just to ask how they are going," he said.
Tonga has had close dealings with depression and suicide in the past which were widely publicised after he saved the life of his former team mate and close friend, Reni Maitua.
After a game in 2013, Maitua's severe depression had gotten too much and he attempted to take his own life.
Tonga believes if he had gotten there 10 seconds later, Maitua would not have survived.
"Reni and I were best mates and I knew he was going through some stuff but because I knew him so well I didn't see any change in him," he said.
"I think a lot of people who go through it (depression) are able to mask it so well and put on a brave face in front of the world but then you never know what they are going through behind close doors."
The support of other players has been a big reason why Tonga has opened up about his mental struggles.
"The one person who has helped me be more comfortable speaking up about it is my good mate, Sonny Bill (Williams)," he said.
"He is encouraging me to bring it to light."
Tonga will play for the Cherbourg Legends at the Legends of League game in Cherbourg on February 9 and he is excited to give back to the town that he owes so much to.
"I am very proud to go back to Cherbourg after the career I've had," he said.
"There were times when I made the rep teams and we didn't have the money to pay for it, so the Cherbourg council stepped in and would help me and my family out."
Tonga said he still has lifelong friends who live in Cherbourg and can't wait to stand beside some of his former Cherbourg team mates and battle it out against the Australian NRL Legends.
"The Cherbourg boys have something they want to prove," he said.
"A lot of those boys should've made it (to the NRL), 100 per cent."
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