It's unclear whether Cronulla prop Sam Tagataese will play again for the Sharks this season (due to a shoulder injury) – but what is clear is that he has the trip of a lifetime awaiting him at the end of the year as a result of all his hard work with both troubled youths and local Polynesian communities.
Tagataese is one of the NRL's State of Mind ambassadors taking a proactive role in raising awareness of mental health issues. He has delivered countless speeches to local high schools, footy teams, PCYCs. He has taken an active role in local Pacific Island community programs.
As a result, Tagataese was recently handed the Pasifika Leadership and Excellence Award along with retiring Warrior Ben Henry. He will join Indigenous Leadership and Excellence Award winners Dane Gagai and Way Thompson and NRL Education and Wellbeing Manager Nigel Vagana on a cultural learning trip to the US during the off season.
Speaking to NRL.com at the recent announcement of the 2016 NRL-RLPA Academic Team of the Year, Tagataese felt similarly blessed.
"It's the trip of a lifetime you could say, it's my first time over to the US so I'm really privileged and honoured to receive it and the chance to go over as well and just to experience that kind of culture as well," Tagataese said.
Expanding on the work he had done to earn the chance, the Samoa international listed talks at local schools and rugby league clubs about mental health and work with troubled youths, as well as Pacific programs run by local schools where he talks about his own journey and development.
While he is going into the trip with an open mind, he is expecting the chance to learn from Native American and Pacific American students and athletes as well as share his own experiences with them at a series of talks, primarily at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
"Learning how they got to where they are and obviously share my experiences and share our cultural values, share how we do things over here in Australia and especially here in the NRL," Tagataese said.
"What I've heard is a lot of their communities over there and different cultures and even just the cultures in UCLA, they don't have that bond with other unis or other teams.
"Whereas for us here, I play for Cronulla Sharks then I could turn to a Panthers player like Suaia Matagi and have a coffee with him or grab every other Polynesian brothers around and we can all come together and share in our beliefs and our faith. I don't know if that's true about over there but I'm keen to learn and keen to find out for myself."
In a video address at the same presentation, Henry – forced into retirement this year at the age of just 25 due to a chronic knee injury – hoped this would be the start of a bright new chapter.
"I'm very honoured and humbled to receive this award. I've had a tough year, but I guess there's a light at the end of every tunnel and this is it for me," Henry said.
"It's going to be an enjoyable experience. I've talked to Jerome Ropati (a Pasifika award winner in 2014) and he enjoyed his time over there, so I'm very much looking forward to it."