Josh Matavesi’s ready smile belies the loss of his mother as a teen, writes Ali Stokes. This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in September.
Josh Matavesi is driven by family tragedy
During his time with both the Ospreys and Newcastle Falcons, Josh Matavesi has become a household name in the UK. While many will be well acquainted with his playing skills – his sumptuous passes and fizzing footwork were on show at Twickenham during the Barbarians’ 63-45 thrashing of England in May – few will be aware of the family tragedy that fuelled his drive to become a professional athlete.
When he was just 13 years old, Matavesi lost his mother to suicide, the Cornish-Fijian discovering his mother’s note on the kitchen table in the early hours of the day of her death.
“It was surreal,” he says. “I found the note and thought, ‘Nah, this isn’t real.’ Then my dad came downstairs. He read it and said, ‘I need a cold shower to make sure I’m reading it right.’ Three minutes later he comes down and reads it again.
“I was just thinking, ‘What do I do?’ My brother (Joel, aged seven at the time) was still sleeping so we had to call our nan. She lived a couple of streets up, so my dad called her number. Luckily my mum’s brother, Kevin, was awake and he broke it to her. Five minutes later she’s running down the road and the police are outside our house.
“It was like something from the movies, it didn’t feel real. The police lady had to come to tell us they had found the body and that it was our mum. It’s just one of those things where I could always see myself, it never felt like I was looking out of my eyes.”
Like an out-of-body experience? “Yeah, I was thinking, this isn’t real, this isn’t us. But obviously it did happen.”
Matavesi spoke at his mother’s funeral and then the now family of four – dad Sireli and sons Josh, Sam and Joel – had to adjust to new challenges. There was a different family dynamic, Josh helping to raise his younger brothers while his father went out to work long 13-hour days repairing West Country roads.
“When my dad used to work on the roads he’d be out of the door at 6.15am because he had to give a lift to the rest of the crew. So that was our wake-up call. We would get changed and sort breakfast. My brother (Joel) was in primary school so I had to make sure he got there, then walk to my school, which was a big walk. My dad would be back in for about 7pm, so dinner would have to be done by us, or there would be money to buy something.
“We had a tab at the fish and chip shop. We used to think we were really cool when we were younger. We’d ask our friends if they wanted fish and chips, so we’d be asking for about seven portions. My dad would get there and the bill would be about £60. We would just tell him, ‘Oh, we were hungry…’”
Matavesi says the loss of his mother at such a young age made him more determined to achieve his goals. He’s gone on to play more than 75 times for the Ospreys, help Newcastle to reach the Premiership play-offs for the first time and represent Fiji in 17 Tests. Yet, as is to be expected after such a tragedy, it took time to find that determination.
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“When I was younger I was bitter with other people,” he recalls. “I would see other kids hugging their mums and stuff and I was like, ‘Come on man, I haven’t got one’. Then obviously Dad couldn’t be at three games at once, so he would have to pick and choose who he would watch. I had to work to get money to go on a rugby tour, little things like that.
“I probably wouldn’t change it because it made me who I am today. When my mum passed away, it was a real driving factor. It really focused me on what I wanted to do with my life and how I wanted to get it. Without that adversity, I don’t think you’d get that focus from me. Obviously you never get over it but I wouldn’t be where I am today without that happening.”
There has been more adversity since his mother’s suicide too. His father, who settled in Cornwall in the Eighties after touring the UK with the Fiji Barbarians and worked in the local tin mines at first, is now in a wheelchair after a life-saving operation left him paralysed from the waist down four years ago.
“He had diabetes and was really prone to infections,” says Matavesi, explaining events leading up to the surgery. “He got back from work one day and just dropped on the bath while in the shower. Luckily my little brother, Joel, was home. Joel and my uncle took him to the local doctors and he said his neck was really sore. They got him a scan and they found out he had a cyst on his spine. With a cyst, you have to cut it. You can’t let cysts keep going. If we had, his spinal cord would go.
“He can’t walk but I think he appreciates just breathing and being able to talk. His upper body is still strong, so he gets to hold the grandkids and come to our games.
“So we’ve had a bit of bad luck with the parents. It’s those things that shape you as a person, it makes you. Everyone is going through something, that’s why we (the brothers) smile everywhere. There is no point in crying about it.”
In recent times sports stars have opened up more conversations about mental health and going forward 27-year-old Matavesi wants to use his own experiences to help others who have lost a loved one to suicide.
“Something I want to do in the future is help kids who’ve had parents, friends or family commit suicide, to help them cope with it. I’d love to get involved in that, so they can see I’m a kid from Camborne who made a good go of doing something. That’s me, that’s the person I am. I want to help young kids and help them see a normal kid can do something good.
“It definitely has an effect on the way I raise my kids as well. I’m lucky, I have two kids, healthy young girls. I know how I parent them has a big effect.
I take every day as it comes and that’s why I can’t stop smiling!”
This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in September.