2 February 2021
From pro footy to community
Back in the day when Hume Housing’s new Customer Support Coordinator grew up in Campbelltown, fields and trees dominated the landscape. For William Mataka, former professional NRL footballer, kicking a ball out in the country was second nature.
His football career led him on an exciting, winding path that ultimately forked to arrive at a destination where William now helps others pick up the pieces of their broken lives. People affected by abuse, domestic violence, addiction, mental health and/or homelessness.
The son of proud Tongan parents, it was at Campbelltown’s St Gregory’s College where William’s football career kicked off. Here he excelled at the sport, eventually playing junior football for the East Campbelltown Eagles. His talent was clear, and was later spotted by Sydney’s West Tigers, signing him professionally in 2006 at just 18 years old, fresh out of school.
Although William’s NRL contract stipulated he must continue post school education, his focus was not on his post football career at that time. It was firmly on the game and on the present. Something to be expected when you are young, have the world at your feet, and are earning more money than you have before.
To fulfill the education part of his contract, William undertook a Diploma in Network Engineering which was a good course, yet the knowledge dissipated once his exciting football career took off. It was only towards the end of his time on the field that career reality hit home. It was then William knew the time had come to move on, but it was a difficult decision that he was not fully prepared for.
“If I could say to my 18 year old self ‘keep an eye on another future passion and career path’, I would have but that’s hindsight for you,” he said.
“You get so focussed on the game the future can just exit your mind. It’s training, training and training, plus enjoying life. It was my coach that brought me crashing down to reality telling me I had to either work doubly hard or get another career.
“In retrospect it would have been good to have had this conversation earlier in the piece, but as fate would have it, I was eventually lucky enough to find my current career path thanks to good friends,” said William.
“For up and coming professional sports people my advice is to look at your post sport career early on, prepare for the future and have plan A, B and C up your sleeve!”
After four years with the West Tigers, William signed with Sydney Eastern Suburbs team The Roosters where he played the 2011 season. Later a club in the United Kingdom (UK), the Huddersfield Giants, wanted to sign him however that fell through due to VISA and the Super League point system.
“If I had had a Tongan Passport it would have been easier, but at the time there were limitations with an Australian passport, so I had to give up that dream,” he said.
But Europe still called. Eventually he was signed up to play in the French Elite 1 competition with two teams. First with the Avignon Bisons in 2012 and then the Baroudeurs de Pia XIII in Perpignan in 2013.
“France was a highlight of my career, I had a great time on the field, finding new friends and enjoying a new culture - plus my French wasn’t too bad at the end either!” he laughed.
He returned to Australia in June 2013 to play half a season with the St George Dragons (pictured above) and then trained full time with them to the end of 2014. It was at the end of that year when his coach gave him his career reality check.
“I remember pondering hard on what he said, and the day is clear in my mind because the heart break of knowing the time had come to move on has stayed with me,” said William.
“My Mum had encouraged me to further my education while playing, but I hadn’t listened. I was too absorbed in the athlete lifestyle, the money, and the adversity. But looking for work after leaving the game woke me up especially when my earning potential had lessened so much, it was a shock.”
The year of 2014 was not a good one for William as it was also the year his father died, taking its toll as they were very close.
“It was a very difficult year and my father’s death was the icing on the cake. He was a warm, Christian man, and well known in the community, especially through music as he played bass in a band that performed regularly in Newtown,” he said.
“His death was a further wake up call and cementing the fact I knew things had to change. It put me in a dark place for a while. I had lost my steady income, I was wondering where I was going, and my relationships were not good with my mother and my partner. I ended up being homeless for about two weeks.”
It was in early 2015 when William's career path started to make its most dramatic shift. He had started playing semi-professional for the Mount Pritchard Mounties (pictured below) and was earning a little money, when his coach asked him to join him in some roofing work, which was positive as it brought in a stable income for two years, as by this time he had two daughters to support.
But it was tough work and ultimately not sustainable. As luck would have it another Mounties friend had started youth work and encouraged William to get involved. This appealed as he was always drawn to helping people.
“Thanks to my friend I took the Certificate 4 in Youth Work which I completed in 2017 and led to a role at Guardian Youth, which sadly went into liquidation within six months of joining,” he said.
However in these six months he learned a lot and really saw the value of a case worker’s role in helping people. By losing this job brought him back to square one. But help was at hand his partner secretly applied for a role at the Salvation Army for him.
“We had been for a trip to Tonga to visit family and on return when in Coles shopping, I received a call from the Salvation Army which I thought was a fundraising call, but it was to invite me in for an interview, which of course I jumped at as soon as I realised what was happening,” he said.
Ultimately, he got the role and was quickly promoted to case worker in its men’s homelessness unit, looking after up to 25 people at any one time. Here he met a man called Alex who had lived on the street for some time, after a divorce, a breakdown and bankruptcy. He would see him nearly two years later in his new role at Hume and the change was immense.
“Alex is in Hume’s Together Home program which is part of the NSW government’s response to COVID-19 and where I am a support coordinator. On seeing him, I couldn’t believe the change, it was awesome,” he said.
“Alex had made a huge improvement and I was so pleased to see that life was turning in his favour. It was extremely satisfying to see a man who had lost everything and battled so much on the street, to a man with a comfortable home, one he can call his own,” he said.
Through his work, William now realises how easily he could have been like the early Alex and on the street. During all these difficult times he also broke up with the mother of his children which also caused trauma, but they all pulled through. Now his wife and former partner are good friends as he is with her new partner.
“It’s great for the girls because they get to see us all together and we get on really well, I am very lucky. Some aren’t so fortunate, so I am very grateful for where fate has led me, to roles where I can really make a difference and help others,” William said.
The organisation where William now works – Hume Community Housing – provides homes and services to more than 9,000 customers across New South Wales. It builds new properties, manages tenancies for owners, and provides wrap-around services and support to customers experiencing everything from homelessness to housing affordability stress through a range of partnerships.
NRL photos: Naparazzi @ Flikr
Watch William's interview with PMN Tonga HERE.