When Charlie Fetoai signed for the Queensland Reds ahead of the 2007 Super Rugby season, life was peachy and his future seemed pretty clearly mapped out.
Having already represented Australia in Rugby Sevens at the Youth Commonwealth Games and also playing for his country in Rugby at Schoolboys and U19s level, returning to the code after two years with the Brisbane Broncos was not a daunting prospect.
“I had two seasons with the Broncos’ extended squad, working as a carpenter apprentice, training after work and playing with the Aspley Devils and Toowoomba Clydesdales in the Queensland Cup,” Fetoai tells RUPA. “I’d been lucky enough to be brought into the Broncos training squad for a couple of weeks during State of Origin, and I’d had a good taste of things. Midway through 2006, (Broncos’ Head Coach) Wayne Bennett pulled me aside and said that they were looking at offering me on a fulltime, top 25 (players) contract for the following year.
“(Then Queensland Reds’ Coach) Eddie Jones had been watching me play too and my management were able to speak to him and Reds came forward with an offer as well. I weighed up the two deals and the opportunities, and I decided to switch to the Reds because they made the better offer and I wanted to be in a position to help my family.”
A Super Rugby debut in the centres against Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu followed, as Fetoai made six appearances off the bench for the Reds in his first year. He made a further sixteen appearances over the next two seasons as his star continued to rise, before disaster struck in a Club game for Sunnybank; still six months’ shy of his 23rd birthday, Fetoai would never play Rugby again.
“I was in New Zealand on holiday, seeing my Nan after the 2009 Super season ended, and then the coach from Sunnybank called and asked if I wanted to have a run; I thought it was a good way to give back to the Club and the game,” Fetoai explains.
Fetoai went into a tackle against Wests and connected with the hip of a Wests opponent, sustaining a cracked C1/C2 vertebrae and hairline spinal fracture which led to some initial thoughts of him being paralysed and never walking again. The prognosis changed a myriad of times along the journey, when at one point there was a genuine consideration that he would return to professional Rugby after a twelve to eighteen-month rehabilitation program, but the reality was that Charlie had a long and painful road ahead of him that included needing to find a new profession.
“I had absolutely no idea how to handle being in hospital for nine out of the next twelve months, and looking back at that time, I was seriously depressed,” Fetoai says. “I was sleeping during the day and only awake at night or when Mum came in to feed me. When you first injure your spinal cord and you’re lying in hospital, you start thinking about movies like Remember the Titans, and you can’t quite believe that it’s happening to you. I kept questioning what I was even thinking, because the reality was that I didn’t get paid to play for Sunnybank so I didn’t need to be out there.
“I felt like I had let myself and my family down because I didn’t know how I was going to make a living, and I was just trying to work out how I was going to get through it. My friends and family dropped in to hospital a lot, as well as my pastor Andy Gourley, and the medical experts at Mater Private Rehab Centre were amazing and had helped immensely with the occupational therapy.
“I had to learn how to use my hands again; to feed myself, have a shower, walk and all this stuff we all take for granted. That rehabilitation, to learn how to utilise my body again, was a huge learning curve for me and I didn’t realise just how much strength it was going to take.
“Through this experience, I decided to look at the entire situation as if I’d been given a second chance in life. It was important to accept that Rugby was no longer an option, and look at the options and pathway which would put myself in a position to best utilise my experience and skills, but also grow and further develop myself.
“Somehow, at the end of it all, I decided to look at the entire situation as if I’d been given a second chance in life, and then it was time to work out what pathway I was going to choose to go down.”
Fetoai threw himself completely into new opportunities as he began to return to a normal lifestyle, albeit without Rugby, and the former carpenter apprentice and powerful centre became a barber, a youth worker and a (very successful) dance teacher!
“Youth work had always come quite easily to me as connecting with young people was something I was passionate about,” he explains. “The Queensland Reds and Mission Australia brought me on as a Program Mentor with Indigenous Employment Program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, which included career placements, post-placement support for both the employee and the employer, and individual mentoring. This was a great stepping stone for me to further develop my skills and by 2013 I was promoted to be a Program Manager for Mission Australia, which I did until about eighteen months ago.
“This experience of going to work every day outside of the rugby environment was great; learning life and people skills, customer service, general compliance and emails, these little things I learnt were all necessary workplace tools which Rugby players aren’t necessarily exposed to.
“While going through the rehab phase, re-learning how to use my fingers was frustrating so I looked into being a barber and that was also when I was first exposed to a retail environment. Being part of a barber shop, using eftpos machines, banking, and paperwork; this was all new to me.
“Finally, I started up a dance program called Academy of Brothers as I was continuing to learn how to use my body again. It started out with 12 kids that I was mentoring, and then it grew to 25 and soon we had to have a top squad operating separately as we had around 70 kids. It went further than I could have ever imagined.
“We went to the USA three years in a row to compete at the World Hip Hop Internationals, with our best result being fifth in 2013 as we competed against over 40 countries, and then finally we decided to go on Australia’s Got Talent that year where we finished third. We were never going to win, because we couldn’t sing, but it was an amazing rollercoaster. I looked at those kids as if they were my own and they played such a huge part in giving me a completely fresh perspective on life.”
These days, Charlie is in a great place personally and professionally, where he is a Business Development Manager with MIGAS Apprenticeships & Trainees. MIGAS is a Not-for-profit Group Training Organisation that provides apprenticeship, traineeship, school-based and labour hire services to businesses and organisations across Australia, placing candidates into roles with a focus in the Air-conditioning and Refrigeration, Construction, Engineering and Electrical industries and more.
“My passion is providing youths with opportunities to learn, develop and succeed,” Charlie says. “I want to let them know it’s okay to make mistakes and that failure is just part of the process, and I want to empower them to be the leaders of tomorrow. They are also the leaders of today and that’s where my journey continues with MIGAS.
“Meeting my wife has helped me wash away any anger I felt about my injury, because she has given me the inspiration to use that energy and motivation towards looking after our family.”
While he knows it may appear clichéd, Charlie can’t stress enough how important he feels it is for today’s professional Rugby players to have one eye on what they’ll do when their time as a professional athlete comes to a close.
“It is absolutely instrumental to have contingency plans in place and it’s amazing to look in hindsight at the things that Rugby players don’t see; I am living proof that your situation can change very quickly. Every single former player says the same thing when they look back now, that they would change the way they prepared to come out of Rugby. That transition is very tough and it definitely takes a couple of years to find your feet, so players should plan as best as they possibly can.
“The reality is that when you are a contracted Rugby player, your first priority is making the starting team. If you don’t make that starting team, your next priority is working out what you have to do to improve and make the starting team. If I could go back in time I would train harder, but I would also utilise the spare time to study or work or keep my mind occupied doing different things. A big part of what I do for living now is teaching kids to add different skills to their toolkit, which they’ve then got for life.
“In my toolkit, I have carpentry skills, youth work skills, dancing and coaching skills, retail skills. I still have barbering skills, so when a family member needs a cut or the kids I mentor come around I can give them a nice little fade out back. I don’t use these skills every day, but I still have them. If you try something and don’t like it, then you know not to pursue it when you finish playing but you can still put it down on your resume
“Players need to think outside of the world of Rugby, as you never know when you’re going to play your last game and the timespan of a professional Rugby career is pretty short. Utilise your networks and resources, and find out who might be open to provide advice or an opportunity to get some work experience. Players should be asking their Club if they can do some work in the office, and I hope that the coaches are driving that through to the players as well because I think that a good work-life balance will actually help players perform better on the field to. Coaches are mentors and have a big role to play in looking after their players holistically.”
And as for Rugby, Fetoai has no regrets about what he was able to achieve and the friendships he has made.
“In terms of highlights, playing for Australia at the Commonwealth Youth Games and winning a Gold Medal in Rugby Sevens was amazing, and in Super Rugby my highlight would be making my debut and getting to wear the Queensland Reds jersey in front of the home crowd and my family,” he says. “Being coached by Eddie Jones and playing alongside absolute Reds legends such as John Roe, David Croft, Sean Hardman, Ben Tune was incredible.
“The Rugby family is very special and every teammate you play alongside becomes your family from that point onwards. I don’t catch up with my former teammates regularly, and a lot of the boys that I came through the system with such as Daniel Linde (Japan) and Poutasi Luafutu (France) are still playing overseas, but it would be great to reconnect with the boys.
If you are a former player wanting to get in touch with Charlie Fetoai, or a current player who would like to speak to him about life away from Rugby, please speak with RUPA and we will pass on Charlie’s contact details.