Reni Maitua and Willie Tonga during their time at the Eels in 2012. Picture: Getty Images
Reni Maitua and Willie Tonga during their time at the Eels in 2012. Picture: Getty Images

Tonga reveals details from the night he saved Maitua’s life

Former NRL star Willie Tonga has relived the night he saved his close friend and teammate Reni Maitua's life, revealing more details from the harrowing ordeal.

In an interview with the GrangeTV Podcast, Tonga described the scene he saw when he rushed to Maitua's apartment to foil a suicide attempt.

Maitua, who Tonga had known since 2004, tried to take his own life in 2014 after Parramatta's Round 23 loss to Brisbane.

He had broken down in tears while sitting in the Suncorp Stadium sheds and made the decision to suicide.

He sent text messages to his mother and sister on the night of the attempt, but it was Tonga who made the desperate dash to Maitua's apartment in the early morning and stopped him.

Willie Tonga and Reni Maitua. Picture: Gregg Porteous
Willie Tonga and Reni Maitua. Picture: Gregg Porteous

"I was sitting up, it was 1.30-2 o'clock in the morning. We had training in the morning so I don't even know why I was up," Tonga said.

"I got calls from an unknown number, then I got a text message 'Hey Will, it's Megan' - it was Reni's sister. Reni had been sending her text messages saying 'I love you, tell everyone I love you'.

"I knew he'd been out that night. He was in Manly that night.

"I started to panic when he forwarded the messages to me. I started to think he's not in a good place.

"He wouldn't answer my calls. I'm just sitting there thinking what do I do?

"He lived in Homebush; I lived in Parra, about 20 minutes.

"I threw on some clothes and drove as quick as I could to his place. I saw his bedroom light on and I heard music playing. He's got a balcony just outside his room so I was under the balcony yelling up 'Ren!'

"I heard the music stop and so straight away I knew he was there.

"I ran around the building to the front door. It was a unit block and you need a swipe to get in but it was open and it was never open.

"I ran up, went to his unit, went through the door and ran straight to his room. When I opened the door, I saw him at the end of the bed literally taking his last breath.

"He had a belt around his neck and so I pushed the door open, saw what's going on. He's sitting at the end of the bed, belt around his neck. Tackled him. He was holding the belt, slumped over and he was losing consciousness.

"If that door wasn't open or his unit door, he wouldn't be here … it's kind of like a miracle.

"I found out later when the music was playing he was writing like a (goodbye) letter. So when he heard my voice, he stopped and must've grabbed the belt and tried to take his life."

Tonga said had there been better education at the time around mental health, he might've been able to notice the signs with Maitua and even himself.

"I think that I've had it now that I look back, but I was one of those people when someone said that they've got it, I'd look at them and think, 'you're soft,'" Tonga said.

"Say if one of the boys in the NRL had done something and blamed mental illness, I'd say 'that's full of s---. That's just his way out of getting in trouble.'

"Back in school I'd never heard of depression before. I definitely think I've had depression in the past. But up until a couple of months ago, I'd say I was just having dark times.

"Like after my knee surgery, I locked myself in the house for days. It would be dark and I'd have no contact with anybody. And still I'd say 'nah, I'm not depressed, I'm just a bit down.'

"But now that I've looked into it a little bit, those feelings I was having, I've ticked all those boxes that I've had depression."

Former NRL player Reni Maitua. Picture: Jane Dempster/Daily Telegraph
Former NRL player Reni Maitua. Picture: Jane Dempster/Daily Telegraph

During the conversation, Tonga also opened up about the memory loss he'd experienced due to head knocks suffered while playing.

The former Australia Test and Queensland Origin star played 181 NRL games, plus a host of others in England.

But many large chunks of those seasons he now describes as "blurs".

"(I've been) knocked out cold four or five times and concussed where I can still play - where you get hit and you just see stars and it takes 30 seconds for you to come to - I can't even count how many times. Maybe every five games that would happen," Tonga said.

"There's blurs of years. I've been thinking about it a lot and I really want to go see someone about it, because I feel that I'm starting to lose my memory.

"The smallest things, I can remember, but the things that I should remember, I don't.

"This is the first time I've spoken about it. I've laid there at night for hours thinking about it - where does this end? Where does this end for me?

"Is this the start of me losing my marbles? That's how I really do think when I'm laying there."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78.

For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

News Corp Australia

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