Josh Kerr was ashamed of his Indigenous heritage as a teenager until he learnt to embrace his own culture by seeing the shared happiness of his "Maori brothers".
If any player personifies what is great about the NRL Indigenous and Maori All Stars week it is the 25-year-old prop from St George Illawarra.
Who can forget his memorable debut in this game two years ago, when plucked from the Dragons without a first-grade game to his name he chased down a Tyrone Peachey kick to score in Melbourne and announce his arrival on the elite stage.
Josh Kerr wins the race to a Peachey kick
Kerr is a player who has not just thrived in this arena, but has grown into his own skin by immersing himself in the cultural overload that encompasses a week in camp with the Indigenous All Stars.
It is a week unlike any other in sport anywhere in the world. Teams mingle together in a shared hotel, players sing in the corridors, talk in their own language and rehearse war dances or hakas on the grass outside hotel rooms. They immerse themselves in each other's culture, visit local schools and share the stories of their own heritage.
Match: Indigenous v Maori
Round 1 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Johnathan Thurston never knew much about his heritage until the Indigenous All Stars concept was launched in 2009 and it's the same for Kerr who admits he was just a confused high school boy once ashamed of his heritage until he began to hang around Maori friends who showed him a world much more connected to their culture than what he'd ever known.
"My mother is half Indigenous. She doesn't know who her real father was and she was adopted when she was young," Kerr said.
"But the lady who adopted my mother she was an absolute angel on earth, the most loving person you could meet, and she kept all the records and all the documents from my mum's real mum so that when my mum was older she could reintroduce her to her family and say 'this is your actual mother'.
"When I grew up mum wasn't really connected with her culture coming from that white family and raised by them, but we knew we were Indigenous.
"So coming into high school you want to fit in at school and there wasn't a lot of Indigenous kids there. You make friends in groups and they start making Indigenous jokes … and everyone would laugh at you and you would just feel so ashamed and so cold inside because you didn't want to be that kid at school everyone was laughing at and teasing.
"I just felt so ashamed and I felt like ashamed to be Aboriginal because all I heard was [negative comments].
"I was a bit ashamed about it and just wanted to fit in so I would laugh with them just to fit in but I grew up with my best mates being Samoan and Maori boys and they were very strong with their culture so seeing those boys and how proud they were of their culture made me want to learn more about mine.
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"My mother was on a journey too learning about her culture and her family too.
"It's been a bit of a wild ride coming into football and wanting to be a bit of a role model. This week is a chance for me to learn more about myself so I can stick my chest out and be proud and say who I am. I can go to schools and say I'm a proud Quandamooka man.
"It's just such a change. I would never understand what my grandparents, my mum and great grandfathers went through because it obviously is different times and I'm very grateful to grow up in the era that I grew up in but I want to make sure when I have a family they grow up in a world that while there will always be racism it's minimal.
"It's shameful to hear racist shit and I don't want my kids and my family to go through that growing up."
Now, as he prepares for his third Indigenous All Stars game in 2021, Kerr stands prouder than ever.
He has cemented his spot as a regular Dragons first-grader. He is on the verge of Origin selection having been part of the Queensland Origin squad last year without playing. This is his year to shine.
By embracing all that encompasses his culture he has shed the shame and found pride in who he is and what he stands for. It even means he is no longer shy to 'shake a leg' with the rest of his teammates during the war cry because that is a way to respect his culture.
Being almost two metres tall he knows he might look a bit awkward doing it, but hopes it may also inspire pride in a young person sitting at home who may feel the same confused shame he once felt growing up Aboriginal.
"I cannot do shake a leg for my life. Something about when they clap together I fall down and it's disgusting, I'm like a baby giraffe," he joked.
"There is just a feeling that overtakes you. I cannot shake a leg like I said but last year was probably the first time in the war cry that I did it.
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"Josh Addo-Carr came up to me and said it's not about how good you do it, it's about you doing it. It shows how proud you are of your culture and I never thought about it that way.
"I was just embarrassed and ashamed to do it. But then I just thought if there was another Josh Kerr out there sitting and watching TV hopefully it can inspire him to be proud of his culture."
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