Home comforts to help Brenko revive NRL career
He's the NRL player who elected to leave an apartment in Sydney's trendy Glebe to live at home with 11 siblings, four to a room, with hardly any privacy.
Yet Brenko Lee, preparing to make his club debut for Gold Coast against Melbourne in Brisbane on Saturday night, wouldn't have it any other way.
The utility back comes into the struggling Titans line-up for the first time since injuring his knee in the opening trial of 2018 in Toowoomba.
With six sisters and five brothers, the oldest child of Aboriginal father Lloyd, and Tongan mother Aiaga, lives in the same rented house the family have inhabited since he was six.
He left home at 16 to play SG Ball Cup with the Raiders in 2012, joining cousin Edrick Lee. After almost six years away, he was yearning to be back home with his close-knit family with the dream of his undoubted footballing talent enabling him to buy his parents a bigger home.
Signed to a one-year deal with the Titans, the 103kg three-quarter who scored 12 tries in 15 appearances as a winger in Canberra before a season that began well but ended disappointingly with the Bulldogs, admits he is still on trial at age 23.
"There's no better way to make your [NRL] return than against the reigning premiers in front of 30,000 at Suncorp," Lee said.
"It's a massive occasion for me personally – it's Indigenous Round, I'm playing in Brisbane where I'm from and making my club debut against the reigning premiers. If this doesn't make you step up, I don't know what does."
Lee was a juggernaut in under 20s, representing Queensland at that level in 2013 and 2014 before playing for the Junior Kangaroos with Titans teammates Ash Taylor and Jai Arrow in 2015.
Yet he has played just 33 NRL games as hamstring and knee injuries hampered his progress at the Raiders, as well as a hot backline that included Jarrod Croker, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana.
Des Hasler gave him the opportunity to play in then centres at the Bulldogs where he played 18 matches while living with his grandmother Midiana, a fanatical Bulldogs fan, in inner-city Glebe.
"I was just struggling with homesickness. I was thinking of my folks back in Brissie and I really wasn't switched on and, with what was going on with the Bulldogs too, I always thinking of home.
"I'd been away since I was 16, and it kind of hit home last year. In Canberra I was always around good mates who kept me company, like my first cousin Edrick. Big Josh [Papalii] was there and he's from Logan where I came from, so I was always around people I knew. But Sydney was so fast and kind of got better of me, to be honest."
So new coach Dean Pay, who was an assistant at the Raiders during Lee's time there, granted Brenko a release.
"He realised it was about me personally away from footy and he was very good," said Lee. "I am so lucky he granted me release; he just wanted me to be happy again.
"I spoke with Garth [Brennan] and he told me where the club was going and loved what he was saying, and stoked it is so close to Logan. I was just wrapped to be coming home."
But to a household where he is the oldest of 12 at 23, with the youngest just five? "It's heaps cosy; I wouldn't have it any other way.
"Part of my motivation to play good footy is to buy mum and dad a bigger house for everyone to live in.
"That's one of my dreams. At the end of day, we can all talk about it but it's doing it that counts."
The next few months will determine whether Lee is genuinely on the road to that ambition by gaining a new contract.
Part of that puzzle is whether he is better suited to the wing, where he can be a powerful finisher and ball-returner, or in the centres where he wants to play but where he has been exposed defensively at times.