Petero Civoniceva is one of the biggest, toughest men of league, and I made him cry.
193 centimetres, 110 kilograms and 95 per cent muscle, Petero looks like he’s carved out of stone, but he’s much more than an impressive set of numbers.
The 35-year-old is a role model to younger players, a man the women of league love representing our sport, a doting father of four, a loving husband, and an eternally grateful son.
And it was a question about the women in his life that saw the big prop’s lip start to tremble at the Harvey Norman Women In League lunch in Sydney last week.
We’d just presented him with this year’s Favourite Son Award, and I asked him about the women in his life and how they’d supported him in his incredible 14-season career.
"My mum is a single mum who sacrificed a lot for me to get to where I am," he told the crowd of 200 mostly women to a collective sigh, and that’s when the gentle giant began to crumble.
Embarrassed, he claimed to be suffering from nerves, but everyone present could see and hear the emotion taking down the massive forward in a way no Blues player ever has.
"I guess I just got a bit emotional seeing my wife in the audience and just acknowledging the sacrifices she has made and reflecting on my mum's sacrifices as well," he said.
Thoughtful, loving, and also funny, Petero later joked, "I'll probably get kicked out of the front rowers' union for that.”
After the speech I chatted to his wife Bonnie about his surprisingly beautiful speech. The two have been together since they were 16, and she told me people have been making the wrong assumptions about him for years simply because of his size.
Petero told the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Voices of Australia project in 2005 that people have been
jumping to conclusions about him since he was at school.
"I often felt that I was seen as a big guy who was good at sports, in particular footy," he said.
"A lot of people never really got to know me; that changed in my final year when I was made Boys' School Captain.
"People got to see a part of me that they otherwise wouldn't.
"It enabled me to show a different aspect of my character - they got to see what I stand for."
It got me to thinking that Petero is not alone there. There are more than 50,000 senior rugby league players in Australia, more than 500 at elite level, and they’re often full of surprises.
I asked a girlfriend who always shakes her head at my love of the game about her poor impressions of league players. She cited group sex scandals, cover-ups, attacks on women, inarticulateness, and intimidating thick necks and stocky bodies as cause for her dislike.
Over the years there have been numerous incidents that have rightly brought shame to the game, and the fact that they also sully the reputation of all league players only makes it more vital that the perpetrators are punished severely.
But most league players deserve more than a one-size-fits-all label - too many to list here - but I’ll pick a few from those I’ve met.
Petero is well spoken, sensitive, and funny; Brad Fittler is quirky and punishingly annoying with his constant photography; Luke Ricketson could charm the birds from the trees; Jamie Soward sponsors the Wagga Kangaroos and visits every year to give out head-gear and mentor the kids.
Anthony Minichiello is quiet, shy, and tenacious; Steve Price graduated with a Masters of Business Administration last year; and I’m told Fuifui Moimoi sometimes fakes inarticulateness for the cameras only to drive his teammates up the wall with his clever jokes and pranks.
Don’t get me started on their wives and girlfriends … the fact they’re often dismissively described as WAGs, and thus defined only as a group and by what their partners do, drives me wild. But that’s a column for another day.
Let’s end with Petero and his mum Tima. She wasn’t able to attend her boy’s junior games very often because she was working long hours as a cleaner at Redcliffe Hospital to support him and his sisters.
But she’ll be proudly watching him take to the field in Origin III on July 6. I’ll tell you what she won’t see there, and that’s the Blues making him crumble, the way he does when he thinks of everything she sacrificed to help make him the man he is today.