Inside a Brisbane maximum security prison cell, listening on a radio he bought from commissary that very week, Martin Luai cried through every minute of his son’s NRL debut.
Jarome’s words from the phone call earlier that week echoing in his mind.“I’ve got you, Dad. This is for you.”
That was day 100 of Martin’s 805 night incarceration for drug trafficking charges that ripped the Luai family apart from the moment police raided their Dharruk home back in 2015.
“Why did he do it, mum?” Jarome had asked his mother while choking back tears on the back step of their three-bedroom suburban home. “I know we’re struggling, but why? Money is not everything. All we need is love.”
Until then, Martin had lived an honest life. He worked every day for 20 years to put food on the table for his wife and four children. But a desperate act to save the life of Jarome’s friend, Panthers SG Ball teammate Casey Lafaele, caused Martin’s own life to take a sudden turn for the worse.
The father of four broke his hand hand on the rocks at Shelly Beach pulling a drowning Lafaele to safety. The injury he sustained prevented him from returning to work as a storeman at a milk factory in Lidcombe, meaning the family had to live off the Centrelink allowance Martin’s wife Raumako was receiving.
By that point, the washing machine had broken down. The microwave had given up. “We were struggling to put food on the table,” Martin recalls.
Then his friend opened a door Martin now wishes he had slammed back shut.
“We weren’t making ends meet,” he said. I didn’t go looking to do it. It was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life, but when they tell you the amounts of money you can make … money can sway your mind very quickly knowing your family will be better off with you bringing that home. I was just trying to look after my family.
“It started off small then one extreme led to the next. And it was easy. I had been waking up to an alarm every morning for 20 years. I thought to myself why would I go back to that when I can wake up whenever I want, make quick money in an hour and go back and spend the day with my family. You keep telling yourself, ‘I’m going to stop this in a couple of weeks’. That week never came.”
Time stood still
It wa a mistake that cost Martin two years, two months and 16 days of his life. “I remember counting my days at the start thinking to myself, ‘If every day is this long, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this’.”
He missed Jarome’s NRL debut. He missed the birth of his first grandchild, Jarome’s son Israel. But it was his eldest child who was struggling the most under the weight of pressure to raise and provide for not only his own newborn, but his partner, mother and three younger siblings who were living under the same roof.
All while trying to forge a path in the NRL after making his debut coming off the bench against the Knights a few months after his father had been locked up.
“It hurt that he didn’t get to see me step on that field for the first time,” Luai admits.
“Dad had been there for me through my footy every step of the way. That was really sad for me. It hurt because he had so much of an impact on my career, and I know how much he would have loved to have been there.”
“But I never blamed him. I never hated him for the situation we were in because what he did was for us. It was for our family. He did so much for me in my life. He sacrificed a lot for me to get to where I am today. I love my dad. The sadness I had was that he couldn’t be there to see me make it given all the hard work we put in together.”
In the prison cells at Brisbane Correctional Centre, the televisions provided to inmates include only free-to-air channels. It’s why Martin had to listen to his son’s first game on the radio.
Seven weeks later, on day 156 of incarceration, Jarome would get the chance to shine under the bright Friday night lights, beaming into screens around the Queensland prison his father was forced to call home.
The cells locked down at 5.30pm, as they did every night. A two-and-a-half-hour wait that felt like an eternity.
“I kid you not I was pacing up and down my cell the whole night,” Martin says. “I was sweating. I was that hyped up. Twenty minutes into the game I had to take my shirt off.”
Two tries, six goals, three try assists and a 36-4 win later, Martin went from prisoner to Jarome’s dad in an instant. “You should’ve heard the unit. Half of them were cheering, half of them were telling me to shut up,” Martin recalls.
“I remember the next morning. Everyone was half asleep because I kept the whole unit up. Jarome made me famous inside. Once the guards all knew I was Jarome’s dad, everyone started teasing me that I was getting special treatment.
“I can tell you word spread pretty rapidly after that. After the headlines on the news the next day, everyone kept coming up to me, ‘Your son this, your son that’. I’m starting to tear up just thinking about how proud I was.”
The father-son bond
Jarome, who played soccer for the first few years of his sporting life, developed a close bond with his father through rugby league.
Martin trained alongside his son for a decade, but emotion often spilled over as Jarome struggled to live up to the expectations of his father.
Like in 2014, when the Blacktown Patrician Brothers student missed out on a spot in the NSW Combined Catholic College team in favour of Nathan Cleary and Jack Cogger after a trial at St Marys Stadium.
“I remember he cried the whole drive home,” Martin says. “I hounded him that night, and when I look back now I wish I didn’t do it. I was always tough on him, but that day I went too far. He did nothing wrong. I remember an hour-and-a-half after we got home I went into his room. It was dark and he was facing the window so I thought he was asleep.
“All I did was touch him on his shoulder and he turned around, his eyes were bloodshot and he was still crying. I felt like shit after that. From that day forward, I pulled back a bit and tried not to be so hard on him. But I swear from that day on he changed. It lit a fire inside him and he never took a step back. He used it as motivation and his drive was like none other after that.”
No one at Penrith noticed much of a change in Jarome while his father was away. He kept everything to himself, finding comfort in computer games as an escape from the pain.
“My dad was the missing piece in my life and at first I really struggled,” Jarome says. “I debuted and he wasn’t there. Baby was born and he wasn’t there. I’m the oldest child and with three younger siblings I had to step into that father role for my family.”
At first, Martin struggled with self-pity. It wasn’t until he was given a job in the prison kitchen as a butcher, while also starting up a Christian fellowship, that he started to realise that he wasn’t the one who was truly paying for his mistakes.
“I can’t ever give back to my kids and family the two years that I took away from them,” Martin says.
“And I will live with that pain for the rest of my life. Even when I was locked up. I thought I was the one suffering. It took me a little while to realise that they were suffering more than I was.
Even though I had my reasons, there really isn’t any good enough reason to do what I did. When I did it at the time, I thought I wasn’t hurting anyone because I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t the one putting it into their arms, but I was contributing to getting that stuff out there.”
While in prison, Martin had his Australian VISA cancelled as per regulations that state those who serve more than 12 months behind bars must reapply or face deportation.
Given the uncertainty around COVID-19, Martin didn’t have an answer when he was released on April 16, 2020. He was sent to a nearby detention centre in Pinkenba near Brisbane airport, where he would spend the next two months waiting to find out if he would be marched out of the country back to New Zealand.
“I rang my missus and said, ‘Prepare for the worst’,” Martin says. “People I was with were getting knocked back and their crimes were less than mine.”
Then one Friday afternoon, after Martin had come out of the shower following a gym session with fellow detainees, his phone rang.
“It was my immigration lawyer,” Martin recalls. Then the phone cut out. Martin, wearing nothing but the towel he used to dry himself, ran out to the courtyard to make the call.
“Martin,” the woman said down the line. “Today is a good day. Today … you’re going home.”
The ensuing outpouring of emotion saw several detainees run to his aid, not knowing whether the tears Martin was crying while laying naked on the floor were tears of joy or sadness.
“I just lost it, man,” Martin says. “I just fell to the ground and bawled my eyes out. All the boys were patting me on the back, cheering that I was going home.
And when he got home, the son he left behind was a kid no more. “I know he’s my son, but when I came home I was star struck,” Martin says. “I asked, ‘Can I still tell you to wash the dishes’?”
The dishes he hasn’t touched, but the house he plans to buy the family in the coming months will no doubt make up for his lack of involvement with the daily chores.
“From a very young age, he’s said, ‘Mum, Dad, if I make it one day, I’m going to buy you a house’,” Martin says.
“We don’t ask him for help. He offers it. He would rather us use his money than our own money. He’s incredible.”
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald