From rugby star to an inspirational model

SYDNEY, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- While other children went home from school for a cooked dinner, Fijian rugby star James Storer remembers being a child who went home to alcohol and parties. That was more than 20 years ago.

Today, the role model's story inspires many Aboriginal children. It saved one person's life.

Storer, 29, grew up in Mogo, a southern coastal town in New South Wales in Australia. His mother was an Aborigine. His father moved to Australia from Fiji in 1964 when he was 13 years old with a dream to become a politician.

His mother was an alcoholic and his father spent 15 years in and out of prison. Because of his young age, James Storer often had to follow his mother from house to house to party until late at night.

Alcohol had a deeper influence on his family, Storer said. "I've got some pictures of my grandmother handing me alcohol but till this day I've never tried alcohol… never try drugs, never try smoking."

His mother continued to drink until Storer helped her get off alcohol five years ago. Today she works in indigenous aged care.

As a child Storer often dreamed of owning a rugby football. His first ball was a blown-up wine cask bladder.

He said he used to stare at a ball through a local sports shop's window. He asked about the ball in every single letter he sent to his father in prison.

When his father was released, he asked the boy about the rugby ball. "When he used to send me the letters from jail, he always used to put money in the envelope and he wrote in the bottom of the letter: ‘Hey son, this is $20 to go and buy that football. But my mum used to get the letters and ripped them and took the money to buy alcohol," James Storer said.

Since then, his father has distanced himself from trouble, Storer said, but his mother had continued drinking. "I've never remembered them being together," he said.

Storer had four sisters and two brothers. He became the eldest when an older brother committed suicide 18 years ago.

Storer couldn't save his brother's life but later he would save another man from taking his own life.

Storer visited Parramatta and Silverwater prisons from 2006 to 2007 to give rugby lessons to prisoners. By reciting his life story to inmates, he saved a prisoner, who was inspired by Storer's strength of character, from attempting suicide.

Louis Lynch, the Aboriginal education officer at Parramatta Correctional Center, said in a letter to Storer, "Since that day he has not attempted to self harm and the voices have now gone, as he is now taking his medication. You made him feel that he had something to live for."

At 16, Storer joined the Illawarra Steelers, but he couldn't stay away from trouble. He was expelled from school in the eighth grade and never went to school again. "I hurt a guy two years above me. He was racist to my sister… he nearly lost his eye," Storer said.

On another occasion, Storer was nearly sent to prison for two years because he attacked a group of people who abused his younger brother. But a letter from his club attesting to his good character persuaded a judge to reduce his sentence to 300 hours of community service and a $2,000 fine.

"A lot of the power that is inside me comes from the hurt ... The fire I've let it out wrong," Storer said.

Storer started to play as a professional with the St. George Dragons in Wollongong from 1999 to 2001. He represented the Australian Indigenous team during a tour to England in 2001.

From 2002 to 2008 he played hooker for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Parramatta Eels and Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

Once a year, Storer visits indigenous communities in Central Australia with other Aboriginal athletes to work with children. The athletes teach the history of the indigenous people and the significance of living a healthy life.

"We ask them what they would like to be," Storer said. For him, the real victory is to change children's futures.

Storer represented Fiji in the semi-final Rugby League World Cup 2008 in Australia when the team was defeated by the locals 52-0. After suffering serious injuries to his left arm in 2008, James stopped playing.

After his arm healed, he went to work in the mining industry. Meanwhile, Storer began training for the day he would return to rugby. He said he hopes to join Fiji in the next Rugby League World Cup 2013 in England after having represented the team seven times.

"He trains so hard, and with this he can achieve whatever he aims for," said Ebrahim Qaisom, a friend.

Barry Broome, coach of the University of Wollongong and a friend of Storer's for more than a year, said, "He is a very professional and dedicated athlete."

With some help, Storer is writing his biography to steer children away from bad influences. "One day I would like to have kids. I don't want them to see what I saw in my childhood," he said."I'm Aboriginal and I'm very proud to be Aboriginal. I want to be a role model for other indigenous kids."

Storer said he will never forget what one of his father's friends in a prison said. A friend of his father, who was referred to as Uncle Ray and who was sentenced to jail for life after shooting police officers, advised him: "Son, always be a leader, and don't ever be a follower."