If you watched Malakai Fekitoa help New Zealand to its 2015 Rugby World Cup title, or if you've seen his impressive play as a starter for the All Blacks, then it's probably difficult for you to imagine there was a time when the Tongan star wasn't sure he'd be able to walk again. For the 2017 edition of the Body Issue, Fekitoa talked to ESPN The Magazine's Morty Ain about his traumatic childhood injury, the pride of becoming an All Black and, yes, even his spearfishing skills.
I came from very humble beginnings on a small Island in Tonga. I have overcome some big challenges over the years, but here I am today, playing rugby for the best team in the world, the All Blacks; it's surreal when I think about it.
Rugby is the national game in New Zealand -- it's almost like a religion. Just like Lebron or Messi in their sports, every little kid who plays rugby in New Zealand grows up dreaming of being an All Black. Even just walking around the streets, going to the supermarket, people stop us all the time and want to talk about rugby, congratulate us, grab a quick selfie. It's pretty cool. So in New Zealand, there really isn't anything bigger than the All Blacks.
GROWING UP IN TONGA
I'm from a small island off the mainland of Tonga called Ha'apai. Looking back, it was very simple and quite poor. We lived off the land, grew vegetables and crops, lived on small village farms, raised pigs and chickens and caught fish. Soft drinks or anything like sweets, chips, etc., were rare!
We had a big family; I am one of 14 kids. I lived in a small hut, which we called the boys' house. I lived in there with all my brothers and some of my male cousins. I think there were about 10 of us sleeping in the hut, on mats on the floor, so as you can imagine it was very cramped. We walked everywhere or biked, but we didn't really have shoes. I remember getting a pair of sandals once, and I really didn't want them to get ruined or anyone to steal them, so I remember playing rugby with them, wearing them on my hands so no one would steal them.
Growing up, I guess I got taught at an early age to be independent. I had to help my family a lot with chores, farming and providing for us all -- as well as doing normal things like going to school and getting an education. Also, my father was very strict and enforced a lot of discipline. If I stepped out of line, I would get punished, usually with a smack in the head or body.
But the biggest obstacle for me was when I moved away from my family in Tonga to New Zealand on a school rugby scholarship when I was 16. I didn't really speak English. It was so different. The first thing I noticed was the cold! Coming from the islands, I found it freezing. I didn't have any jerseys or long pants when I arrived, so I remember my manager at the time had to take me shopping. I found life was very hectic, with the chaos of so many cars and people. I found it really hard to learn the school work because of the language barrier, as well as meeting friends. I was put with a local family to live, and they lived quite far away from my rugby club. I couldn't drive and didn't have a bike, so I would have to run 10 kilometers to training, do the team training for two hours, then turn around and run 10 kilometers home again. I felt very alone and homesick for many years. But I didn't really ever let on to anyone. Whenever I got sad or homesick, I just focused on my family and what I was going to achieve for them: becoming an All Black.
THE TRAUMA OF HIS CHILDHOOD INJURY
When I was about 6, we were running around the church building on the island. It was made of thatched roof and bricks and had a big solid wooden door. I went to open the door as I was running around, and it fell off its hinges and landed on top of me. All I remember was the pain. It turned out that it smashed my left hip.
I was taken to the local hospital on the island, which was by no means what you would think of as a hospital. It had only the very basic medical equipment, and the doctor had no idea what to do to fix me. So my family decided to send me away to my grandma's village on the island, and she would treat me the traditional Tongan way. I couldn't walk, so I remember lying around a lot of the day wrapped in healing leaves. Every day my grandma would stretch me, pull my legs and hip. All I remember was the pain of that; it was excruciating. It was a very tough year for me. I was ready to come back to my family. It was a very hard time for my body -- both mentally and physically.
When I got back, I had a limp, and I couldn't really play with the other kids. They used to tease me and call me names like "polio," which meant "cripple." That bullying really affected me. But I think it was then that I knew I wanted to prove people wrong and really make something of myself. It could have been easy to just be lazy and say, "I can't play because of my leg." But instead I did the opposite. I used to try to compete against my older brothers. I wanted to run faster than them, be stronger than them. Then one day I remember entering a running race and ended up coming in second place. That was when I knew I could be anything I wanted to be.
My body tells a story: from being the small boy with a bad injury who was told he could never play sports, to becoming what I am today. I know what I have overcome to achieve this body and become an All Black. I am reminded of that each time I look at myself.
"I'VE BEEN TOLD I'M TOO SMALL TO PLAY MY POSITION"
If I could change anything about my body, I would probably like to be a bit taller! I have been told in the past I'm too small to play in my position. I play midfield, and they said I should be on the wing. The midfield guys can be pretty big. But I feel what I lack in height, I make up for in muscle and strength, which is a hugely important part of my position. Also, with my childhood injury, my coaches and trainers say that I tend to favor my right side. Sometimes I can't sidestep as fast on my left, so I work hard on this. I don't really notice it anymore. But I feel I have proved a few people wrong over the years by getting stronger and faster. To be at the top of your game year in and year out, it is important to always improve and change. I know my position in the All Blacks is always threatened by other young players, so I am always adapting to what my body needs to do to be the best it can be.
I feel proud of the strength I have. My leg strength has been a huge asset to playing rugby and the skills I need in the midfield -- speed, agility to get past my opposition. My arm and upper body strength is also something I've worked hard at, and I feel it really helps me in my defensive game when I am defending my opposition; they can be huge players.
I do a lot of weight training. I love gym work. Also, one thing I really do like is, on my day off, changing the intensity of my training. I love to head out to the beach and just go for a jog or walk surrounded by nature. We travel a lot, so I always explore different sights and beaches when I am away. Nowadays with my team, generally speaking, the intensity peaks and tapers in and around games. It can be pretty intense with two trainings a day, as well as fitting in nutrition sessions, personal development sessions, mental skills sessions and all the promotional work. Our weeks are very busy. We generally have one day off per week, which is when I like to head out of the city to a beach to get away from it all.
HIS UNIQUE PHYSICAL SKILLS
I can climb coconut trees! I remember once when we were playing in South Africa, the [All Blacks] all dared me and made bets to see if I could climb a coconut tree. I hadn't done it in a long time, since I had moved away from the islands, so I was a bit nervous about it, but I managed to pull it off. It was like riding a bike -- a skill you never forget! It was funny watching a few of the other guys try ... and fail. So I guess it's a pretty cool thing to be able to do.
I guess being able to hunt for food is something else that most people can't do. When we grew up, we had to catch our own fish -- and not with fishing lines either. We had to dive underwater, hold our breath for a long time and spearfish. Also, hunting pigs. I won't go into the gory details, but yeah, it was also something that was pretty tough on the body.
HOW RUGBY COMPARES WITH AMERICAN FOOTBALL
I've never played American football, but rugby is a hugely physical game, and the challenge of international test rugby is as big as it gets. You have to be strong physically to compete at the international level, because all other teams are just as big, so you have to be physical, especially around the collision and tackle area. So gym and strength work is important. All players need to have high aerobic fitness to play at high intensity for 80 minutes, because that's what it's like at test level. It's a high-impact, nonstop game played at pace.
Mental conditioning is also key. You need to know the game plan and what is required. You need to be able to make quick decisions in the heat of battle, stay calm when things don't go your way and execute your skills to the highest level.
It's hard to compare rugby to football. While there are some similarities, they really are different games with different skill sets. But rugby is promoted as a game for all shapes and sizes with big forwards and fast backs, so maybe some American footballers could do well if they tried their hand at rugby. There are world-class athletes, trainers and facilities in U.S. sports, so the framework is there, but it would take time to learn the game and develop the skill sets and the different type of fitness to play the game at the highest level.
It's been so great getting to play rugby in the USA. We've played two matches in Chicago over the past two years, and both games were sellouts. So it's great to see that the U.S. fans are starting to embrace rugby, and we are really enjoying bringing the game to the USA.
PLAYING FOR HIS FAMILY
First and foremost, my family drives me. Everything I do I want to make them proud. My father passed away [when I was 14, following a car accident], and my mum has been incredible bringing up us 14 kids since he has gone. She still lives on the island with some of my younger siblings, and I think about that life often. I love to go back to visit, and each time I do, it really empowers me to see how far I've come.
From a team perspective, doing the best I possibly can for the All Blacks is really important to me. The All Blacks have such a rich history and heritage, and I'm so proud and privileged to be a part of it. As of November 2016, there have been 1,157 men named as All Blacks since 1884. We all have a number, and I was named as All Black No. 1,131. I think of those 1,000 or so men before me and remember all that being part of the All Blacks represents. It's a hard one to explain, but doing the All Black name proud is something that really drives me.
Becoming an All Black certainly has given me a lot of mental strength. When I first made the team, I would read everything the media and journalists would say about me and really take it to heart. It would sometimes be good but also sometimes really negative. At times, this really affected my confidence. I have had to learn to trust in myself, believe in what I am doing and trust what my coaches and teammates say.
For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki