Incredible adversity that’s shaped Ponga’s life
FROM the outside, Kalyn Ponga seems to be one of the lucky ones.
He was born with a freakish talent for rugby league, but also the ability to quickly adapt to any sport he chooses to play.
He has found a new home in Newcastle on a big-money deal and will on Sunday night make his highly-anticipated State of Origin debut for Queensland in front of a packed ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
While Ponga glides through the rugby league ranks, his life has been shaped by incredible adversity.
Still only 20-years-old, the Maroons utility has endured more than his fair share of tragedy, loss and hardship.
When Ponga was just seven, his 18-month-old brother Kacey tragically drowned in a terrible accident in Mount Isa.
Six years later, he then watched as his mother Adine suffered a stroke at what should have been a joyous time for the family following the arrival of his sister, Kayley.
While Adine recovered, Ponga helped raise his new sibling alongside his dad, Andre.
Then in 2015, Ponga - who was signed to the Cowboys at the time - missed five months of the under-20s season as he battled a brain infection.
But the gifted fullback says it is these experiences that have made him who he is today.
Ponga is one of the more mature young men in the NRL, with a level head and both feet planted firmly on the ground despite all the praise he has received.
And he's very much a family man.
"Due to the things that have happened in the past, it's brought my family closer," he told The Sunday Mail.
"My family means everything to me. They've made some smart decisions with me and getting me here (to Origin) so I can only thank them for that."
When Ponga runs onto ANZ Stadium on Sunday night, he will not be alone.
He was born in Western Australia in March of 1998, but the family soon moved to Mount Isa, where Ponga discovered his love of sport in general.
Kalyn was just seven years old when Kacey died, too young to fully understand the gravity of the situation.
"At that point in time, I understood what was going on, but I didn't understand the effect it had on the people you love," he said.
"I was just a little kid. As I got older, and definitely now, I can see why it's brought us so close."
The Ponga family believe that Kacey is with them all the time, particularly when his big brother goes into action on the rugby league field.
"In some ways it's unfair for the teams that he's playing against, because we believe he has his brother assisting him on the field," dad Andre said.
"That's our thing. That's my beliefs. He has an advantage."
And it's a belief Kalyn strongly shares.
"He's always there," he said ahead of his debut.
"I don't write anything on my wrist (in dedication) or anything like that, but I definitely know in my mind that he's there.
"I strongly believe that I'm here to give back, and that's due to him. Life's pretty short, so you have to make the most of it."
After enduring the trauma surrounding the loss of Kacey, the Ponga family was shaken to the core again in 2015 when their eldest son was rushed to hospital with a brain infection.
Signed to the Cowboys at the time, Kalyn was 17 and playing in the Mal Meninga Cup when he came off after a match with puffy eyes.
After two weeks of searing headaches, it was clear something was seriously wrong.
"There was a hairline fracture in my skull, and all my sinuses had seeped into my brain and it caused an infection," he said.
"It was pretty weird. I was in hospital for about a week. Mum and Dad were stressing obviously, but I don't think I was too stressed.
"For a few months after hospital, I couldn't really do anything. I had to stay in bed and sleep.
"I had antibiotics constantly pumped into me. That was a bit of a scare. But on the flipside, I got over it and once I got over it, I was straight back into footy."
Ponga does not know when he suffered the hairline fracture, but suspects it was in another game in the weeks leading up to his hospitalisation - the only game in which he has never worn headgear.
The scare did not affect his rugby league development, going on to debut for the Cowboys under-20s later that season, and then playing his first senior game in the NRL the following year.
With everything Ponga has been through, it is pretty clear why he cherishes his family in the way he does - particularly his seven-year-old sister Kayley.
When Kayley was born, his mother Adine suffered a stroke. She was in hospital for two months.
Andre says it was during this time that his eldest son took on a lot of responsibility.
"We were basically the carers," he said.
"Because of that, to this day I swear, they have that special bond that as a parent is awesome to see.
"It's comforting. People may be envious of him with his athletic prowess, but I can't be prouder of the son and brother he is.
"It might be hard for people to understand when they see what he does on the field, but that's secondary to being the brother and son he is."
Ponga said Kayley is his "magnet".
She is the one who constantly reminds him of the importance of family and she will be in the crowd at ANZ Stadium on Sunday night, alongside Adine and Andre.
And while this moment of wearing a Maroons jersey for the first time is a personal triumph for Kalyn and his achievements, it is also a victory for his parents and siblings.
"Kayley is that magnet between all of us," the 20-year-old said.
"She brings us together. As much as she annoys me, I love her.
"I'm not the best with cooking and cleaning and that sort of stuff, but I think she sees me as another father figure. She's a little ratbag, but she's the best.
"Even if I want to say sport is my everything, I think if you get too consumed by it that's probably your downfall.
"There's bigger things in life than a bad game. That's something I've learnt.
"There's worse things going on in the world than a dropped ball."