Towering Eels centre Jacob Loko has spoken of almost going off the rails last season and the debt he owes to his close friend and fellow Eels first-grader, Vai Toutai.
Loko and Toutai have been friends since playing together for Campbelltown City under-10s and while Toutai was slowly working his way up to first grade – by Round 20 last year he was playing NSW Cup for feeder side Wentworthville – Loko was, for the first time, dealing with a life that no longer featured rugby league.
Parties, late nights and missed training sessions all became a part of what was quickly becoming the end of a once-promising career.
“For probably half the year at the end of last year, that’s when I was really dangling on the edge,” Loko tells Big League this week. “I thought rugby league would be over because of what I went through with the injury and it leading away from my footy… I was getting distracted by going out and missing training sessions. I reckon any other club would’ve let me go.”
His mother almost admits she would have too.
“Oh yeah, because of the choices he made,” Joanna Loko. “At times, I would back off and think, I’ll let him learn. But you can’t. You’ve just got to let him know that you’re there and you’re keeping watch. You’ve got to keep reminding him of his destiny.”
For years Toutai had always covered for Loko. Growing up they always had each other’s backs. But last year was different. For the first time in a long time the kid who had always grown up in Loko’s shadow had to warn him of what he was throwing away.
“I didn’t like to see him going through that stage. It was sad. I probably covered for him a lot of times, but you know, I’m always going to be there for Jacob,” Toutai says.
“We always spoke to each other and I just had to tell him a few times to pull his head in. I had to be there for him.”
Just last week, Loko signed a lucrative two-year extension that’ll keep him at the club until the end of 2016. In many ways, he owed it to the club, particularly physio Vicky Locke who has helped him back into the NRL after an injury-plagued start to his career.
But he’ll also have to thank that tree back in Claymore, and the people that helped him almost break it.
“Growing up with someone like Vai, he’s helped make me the person I am today,” Loko says. “He taught me to be humble, to be a good person. That’s the type of man his dad was. Growing up, I didn’t have a dad, and his dad was there for all of us boys on that street.
“Last year, we had talks here and there, but he just stood by me and helped me get through it. If he didn’t, I’d probably be trying to get a career as a barber or something.”