Paul Broughton Medal winner Moeaki Fotuaika finished the 2019 Titans season a broken wrist, a syndesmosis injury in his ankle, a torn meniscus in his knee – and a swollen ear from his mum.
The 19-year-old Titans prime mover was a revelation for the Gold Coast in 2019.
In just his second season of first grade, Fotuaika was named the Titans Player of the Year – consistently among the team’s best performers despite a string of injuries that would bring down most players, let alone a teenager playing the most physically demanding position on the field.
“It was definitely tough to get the energy to play hard every week,” Fotuaika said. “In saying that, I had a lot of great people at the Club in the medical staff and the training staff making sure that I was right come game day.
“They really helped me with minimising my training during the week to make sure that my body is fit and ready to go by game day.
“It was definitely a hard one to take, being the season that we had. But I can definitely be proud of myself for the season that I had.
“I was definitely shocked when I got the award, but I will be grateful to take it. I was lost for words when I got the award. I didn’t expect it.
“I am just grateful that I was able to play some good footy, even though I had injuries and that, and be able to come through and get the award.”
The silver lining to Moe’s injury cloud, to go with the golden glow of the Paul Broughton Medal, was the opportunity to spend time with his mum Ilaisaane – who came over from New Zealand to stay with her son while Moe recovered from knee surgery.
The first part of Moeaki’s rehabilitation program was recovering from the clip over the ear from his mum for not telling her about his long list of injuries.
“He just kept quiet. It is more the manager that is ringing me, and I speak to him,” Ilaisaane said of her battered and bruised son.
“But I know my boys. They are just like their dad – very tough. I won’t hear anything from them, they won’t complain.
“It is really hard for me, being a mum, when the kids are going through a tough time like that. You want to be there and comfort them. But I am here now, and I am really happy to be here.”
PBM MEDAL: Paul Broughton Medal Winner
Ilaisaane said Moe’s incredible toughness was evident from his younger days.
“He has always a footy boy,” she said. “Every time we had to go to the shop, he would get a football. He was always running around in his gumboots playing footy.
“If we go to the shop and he didn’t get his football, he would be really angry.
“He played for his school, and this guys was always saying : ‘Where’s my star?’
“He called Moe his star. He was special.
“I am super proud. At the same time, I am really humble. First of all, I would like to thank my father in heaven for allowing (him to play), and at such a young age.
“At the same time, I would like to thank the Titans club for their welfare and how they look after my son. I am really happy with how they look after him.”
The source of Moe’s toughness is not difficult to find.
The Fotuaika family has had to endure more heartbreak than any family deserves, and have somehow found the strength to keep going through the pain.
Ilaisaane lost a child not long after birth before Moe was born, and then in 2013 lost Moe’s older brother Mosese at age 20, just as he was starting out on an NRL career with the Wests Tigers.
“It has been really tough for us from past experience,” Ilaisaane says quietly.
“My eldest son… we learned from it. We really learned a great deal to handle Moe.
“When my son passed away, we didn’t know anything. But from there, we learned.
“That was a big loss, but at the same time we learned so much to look after Moe and my other son (26-year-old Feao) who is playing for Queensland (Reds).
“It is experience that I’ve had to learn through tough times.”
Ilaisaane understandably gets emotional talking about Mosese, and the impact his loss had on a young Moeaki.
She sheds a tear when she recalls how while dealing with the grief of losing his brother, Moe’s first concern was the welfare of his mum and dad.
“Moe was learning the hard way, because his brother was always looking after him,” she said.
“The thing that always gets to me when Moe is making it, the time when we were about to say goodbye (to Mosese), and he cried to his older brother: ‘Who is going to look after Mum and Dad, if you are gone? Who is going to look after Mum and Dad?’
“In our culture, the eldest (kids) look after the younger ones. It was very tough, and I know (for) my other son and Moe – and all my kids – it was very tough.
“In saying that, I have learned things. It is always a learning experience looking after them, because they are all rugby boys.
“I am grateful to my son in heaven that he gave me the strength… it makes me stronger.”
Moe also draws his amazing strength from the memory of Mosese, using the love of his family and the chance to honour his brother as the fuel that drives one of rugby league’s biggest motors.
“It definitely is, it is always in the back of my head when times get tough,” Moe said.
“When those tough times come, he is always in the back of my head, and that keeps driving me to train hard and do all the extra work to make sure that I am getting the best results.”
The love of his family is helping to heal the heartache for Moeaki – both with his family in New Zealand, and in the house he shares with his brother and sister, and Feao’s partner Caroline and their two children, Moses and Elena.
“It is tough having my parents back in New Zealand, but having my brother and my sister here makes things a lot easier for myself,” Moe said. “It is always good staying with family as well, you have that family bond. It makes life on the footy field and off the footy field that much better.
“It is definitely good to have my mum here for a couple of weeks. Her being here makes everything pretty good. I am grateful she is here to look after me, and she is definitely doing a good job.
“Probably her Tongan dishes that she cooks (are the best part), you can’t get past them. I really like them, and it is always great to have her here to cook them.
“I can’t have too much of them, because I am injured at the moment, and not doing as much training. I can’t really dig in as much.”
Ilaisaane said knowing Moe has been adopted by his extended family – the Titans club, Members and fans – makes being apart easier on the family back in New Zealand.
“I am really happy with the way the Titans see his potential and make him a great player,” she said. “From past experience with Mosese, we weren’t there for him.
“Being a close-knit family, I am really happy that he is here together with his brother and sister. With the Titans, I am so grateful that you guys make him a great player and see his potential.
“I was really happy that I got my visa (to come stay with Moe), and the Titans helped me with the letters and stuff.
“I couldn’t imagine staying there and thinking about my son going through this. Everyone is busy, so it is great to be here and looking after Moeaki and give a bit of support as a mum.
“I know there is pressure, I know there is stuff going on. I know my boys don’t talk about it, but as a mum, I can see though what they are going through.
“When I am not here, I can hear through the sound of their voice. As a mum, you have that intuition they are going through something.
“I am really happy and grateful for everyone around him that makes it possible for him to reach his talent at a young age.
“Having that position that he is playing in the middle, it is really hard at a young age to be playing against guys that are bigger than him and more mature.
“But this is a talent that he has been blessed with, and I am proud of him. I am really grateful.”
That gratitude is reciprocated by Gold Coast Members and fans, with Moe to remain a part of the Titans family until at least the end of 2022 after signing a contract extension earlier this year.
The Paul Broughton Medal that hangs proudly in Moeaki’s loungeroom is an indicator of what a special player the Titans have to build the team around under new coach Justin Holbrook.
But it is 20 minutes talking to his proud mother that reaffirms what everyone at the Club always suspected – that in Moe we also have a remarkable young man that we are proud to call a Titan.