Matured Gagai now a natural leader
Newcastle Knights centre Dane Gagai may live more than 1600 kilometres away from his hometown of Mackay but he's teaching the Indigenous community in Newcastle everything he's learnt from his proud heritage north of the border.
Dane's mother is a proud Kiwi while father Ray has a strong Torres Straight Islander background from Thursday Island near the top end of North Queensland.
Following in his father's footsteps to join the Brisbane Broncos was always the ultimate goal for Gagai, along with playing alongside his childhood friend and first cousin, Eels winger Josh Hoffman.
Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman was another Mackay-born athlete who inspired the 26-year-old to chase the dream of representing the community.
Gagai is not one to dwell on the past but has always used his sacking at the Broncos in 2012 as a lesson to teach young students of the importance of education.
The indiscretions that forced then-Broncos coach Anthony Griffin to tear up a contract that Gagai had only signed six weeks earlier were minor. Gagai skipped training sessions, turned up late on several occasions and had an overall poor attitude, taking the career ahead of him for granted.
Having watched Gagai's career unfold from the beginning, Hoffman told NRL.com he was proud of how far Gagai had come since joining the Knights and his work within the Indigenous community in the Hunter.
"He was a little mischievous kid," Hoffman recalled.
"I lived with Dane for a couple of years and remember coming down to Redcliffe in 2007 when he bordered at college.
"Being a shy kid from Mackay moving down to Brisbane he was the total opposite to what he is now.
"He's come a long way, believe me. Seeing him as a proud father and growing into the man he is with his little family compared to back in the day is huge."
Gagai is now the biggest face within the Indigenous community in Newcastle and engages with more than 160 Indigenous and Torres Straight Islander students during Deadly Skills clinics at several events across the year, passing on the message of the importance of education and culture. Since starting those clinics he's never missed one.
He was the driving force behind the 2017 NRL Indigenous All Stars match in the Hunter back in February and played a dominant role in the game.
"What he brings to the Indigenous community is a voice," Hoffman said.
"He is very vocal now and gets his message across. He wants to see the Indigenous community in Newcastle grow and it's something that opened my eyes in how far he's come as a person."
Gagai's talent on the paddock speaks for itself. The Knights centre has become one of the most experienced in Nathan Brown's line-up with 121 games to his name and he's a pivotal man in the club's bid to turn results around.
But the work he is now doing off the paddock and within the Indigenous community is just as important.
"What it means to me is recognising the traditional owners in Australia and embracing that," Gagai said.
"It's great I get to do that by doing the thing I love [in rugby league].
"We're a multicultural and diverse country that should all live together in peace and get along."
To recognise the contribution Gagai has made to the Indigenous community, the Knights approached the Queensland Maroons representative about the prospect of designing the 2017 Indigenous jersey for Sunday's clash with the Raiders.
Gagai jumped at the opportunity and said the focus in the design focused around unity and culture.
"With this jersey we've got the Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander coming together where the water [in the blue segments] meets the land [in the red segment]," he said.
"We also put the Southern Cross on the top, and that symbolises that we want to include all Australians.
"You don't have to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to be proud of wearing this jersey."