Humble Ponga taking accolades in stride
Kalyn Ponga isn't letting overnight stardom go to his head.
The 20-year-old Newcastle fullback credits being healthier and happier as the keys to his emergence as the hottest young prospect in the Telstra Premiership.
Such has been his dramatic rise that Ponga is among the front-runners to win the Dally M Medal.
After making the 2000km down the eastern seaboard from Townsville to Newcastle, he racked up six tries and 11 try assists in 20 games, as well as a State of Origin call-up, before an ankle injury brought a premature end to his season two weeks ago.
"I've been a lot healthier, relaxed and happier since moving to Newcastle and that's probably why my footy is the way it has been this year," Ponga said.
"The off-field lifestyle of Newcastle certainly looks after you when you're on the field. I just love living in Newcastle. There's no question about that.
"Yes, I also loved the challenge that the Knights have been faced with as a playing group, but it's simply I just love the place I am living in and everything that's going on around me right now.
Ponga's nomination for the Ken Stephen Medal – the highest accolade in the NRL for community service – shows the live-wire fullback can bring that kind of energy and enthusiasm to the people he meets in the Hunter area as well.
"To be nominated is huge, I am very grateful and thankful to be nominated," Ponga said.
"It's one of those things that you don't go out looking for; it is something that you do out of the goodness of your heart – you're not looking for the accolades.
"It's part of the job that I get a particularly big kick out of doing. I just love to give back to people because that's who I am.
"If I have made someone's day or made someone smile, and just give back to people in the community."
Not only has the 20-year-old brought fans through the turnstiles, he's turning around their lives off the field too.
In the style of his former Cowboys teammate Johnathan Thurston, Ponga gives away his own specialised headgear to young fans regularly after matches.
"Early on, no one really knew who I was, so it really wasn't a big deal," the fullback said.
"But at home games, and every now and then, it doesn't matter who the kid is – I generally look for the younger ones. Some of their reactions are priceless, but I know that I am in a position to do that – I can give back."
One of the attributes that a lot of people who meet Ponga notice is his maturity, and while the rising star admits there have been events throughout his life that have "made him grow up" quicker than others, he still likes to have fun away from the game.
"I worked hard at every sport, so if I wasn't good at it, I could work hard to get good at it – and that was just the way I was brought up," Ponga said.
While his on-field career is on a rapid trajectory, one thing he has promised not to do is stop giving back to the community off the field whenever he can.