Penrith Panthers player Brian To'o at his family home in Whalan. Picture: Dylan Robinson
Penrith Panthers player Brian To'o at his family home in Whalan. Picture: Dylan Robinson

Pain, tragedy of an unmarked grave that drives NRL star

Every Saturday for a decade, Brian To'o placed flowers on an unmarked grave. His tribute, he says, to younger sister Dannielle.

The little girl without a headstone because, well, nobody in her Mt Druitt family could afford one. So every Saturday after church, a fresh bouquet was gifted instead.

To'o explaining how a pot of fresh flowers has always been kept for his younger sister.

That, and a promise.

One which not so long ago, saw this unassuming son of Samoan parents working the 3am warehouse shift at TNT Express.

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To’o does everything for his family. Picture by Dylan Robinson.
To’o does everything for his family. Picture by Dylan Robinson.

Then on payday, asking mum Fati what cash she needed for bills, food, petrol, whatever. But the rest?

It got saved. Which was never much, but it was what he had.

Same deal with rugby league.

Understanding, yes, this Minchinbury Jets product has gone OK ever since his first game, aged six.

But so do thousands of youngsters out here in western Sydney.

And To'o, he was never the quickest of them. Certainly not the biggest, either.

But still, he was the only one driven by an unmarked grave. That, and a promise.

One this kid first whispered to his five brothers and sisters exactly 11 years ago this month, on the day of Dannielle's funeral.

When stood together in the family lounge room, and having just prayed, the To'o family's middle child then promised aloud to live every day in her honour.

At the time, he was 10. Only two years older than the sister he'd buried.

"But after we prayed, I made a promise," he says. "Told them all how, one day, I'd play NRL for her."

Which back then, was some statement.

Especially given To'o wasn't only still in primary school, but also hailing from the type of neighbourhood where getting out seems no more an option than, say, getting jailed.

Yet still, this newest Penrith prodigy has gone and done it anyway.

Come Saturday night at Bankwest Stadium, making his 10th NRL appearance in a rapidly exploding yarn all acrobatic tries, Supercoach buys, even those crazy martial arts moves which, practised in the dressing room before games, has seen him hailed a kung fu cult figure.

Still only 20, To'o is the freshest face in a resurgent Panthers backline.

Since Round 10, chalking up nine games, seven wins, six tries - including a double against St George Illawarra - plus 35 tackle busts and some 166m per game.

And seated now with League Central on a small wooden bench outside Panthers HQ - dressed down in trackies, beanie, and a soft, orange t-shirt - the youngster will tell you how that unmarked grave, it got him here.

This most unlikely of Next Big Things inspired by a sister who, way back in 2008, got hospitalised with what everyone thought was flu.

Instead, it was cancer.

"And to then have this person you don't even know, some doctor, telling you how your little sister, she isn't going to make it," he recalls, "man, I just broke down.

"Hadn't ever felt anything like it.

"My little sister, she was always just so happy. Always had the biggest smile on her face.

"That's why after the funeral, I promised to turn her memory into something strong."

Which now, he is.

To’o has become an instant fan favourite. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts.
To’o has become an instant fan favourite. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts.

And why, overnight, Panthers fans have begun falling for this Christian winger who still gets driven to training by mum.

Who still lives, too, in the same family home where, growing up, he slept in the lounge room with his parents and younger siblings.

A sacrifice, he says, which allowed the older children a bedroom each.

More than once, To'o remembers going without presents on his birthday. Same again at Christmas.

"But you go without," he shrugs, "so your family can eat.

"It was the same when my parents first moved here from Samoa. Dad was working three jobs while mum, she was pregnant and working two.

"They didn't have a car either, so travelled everywhere on trains.

"Yet while they had nothing, they've always worked their butts off. Put a roof over our heads, put food on the table, kept us in check.

To’o knows what it’s like to go without. Picture by Dylan Robinson.
To’o knows what it’s like to go without. Picture by Dylan Robinson.

"I remember growing up, all my friends would be going out to parties while my parents, they made me stay home and do chores.

"I used to think they hated me. I'd get so mad when the boys went out and I'd be home washing dishes.

"But eventually you realise all those nights you stayed in, it's all worth it.

"Even now, I like to spend my spare time at home, working in the garden with Dad. Or helping him build things.

"I just love being around family. While I grew up with nothing, I also grew up with everything."

Yet still know that nothing has come easily.

Like as recently as last year, when To'o was clocking on for those 3am warehouse shifts, working into the afternoon, then grabbing a lift to Penrith U/20s training.

A host of family and friends were on hand to see To’o make his NRL debut.
A host of family and friends were on hand to see To’o make his NRL debut.

 

"And during video," he grins, "shaking my head just to stay awake".

Elsewhere, you should know To'o was never anybody's first choice to play NRL. Just as athletically, there were times throughout the pre-season where "it felt like I could no longer breath".

Yet when things get really tough?

Well, that's when To'o hears a voice. Just as he has done previously at work, in training, even during NRL games.

"Whenever I get into a dark place, that's when I hear my sister," he says. "Hear her telling me to get up, to keep going.

"When I first said I'd play NRL, everyone in my family was really counting on me.

"It was a lot of pressure.

"But she's the reason I've fought for everything I have. She's always telling me to get up and go again."

Last year To’o bought a headstone for his sister.
Last year To’o bought a headstone for his sister.

And so, he has.

Midway through last year, the Panthers winger even using a new contract to finalise the payment for a $10,000 headstone.

"Which after 10 years of saving by everyone, it's such a relief," he says. "Makes us all so proud."

And as for To'o now being able to change his family's future?

"All I've ever wanted to do is make them proud," he says. "But whenever I get paid now, yeah, I'll ask Mum for a number. How much do you need?

"Then whatever she says, I'll give it over and save the rest.

"Eventually, I'd like to buy mum a car. Even get my parents a new house".

Elsewhere, To'o still talks with his sister too. Most often, via game day prayer.

When sat alone in the dressing room before kick off, he slowly places his left forearm up and over his right, making visible an intricate tribal tattoo which, at its centre, carries her name.

And as for what he says?

"I just tell my sister I'm going to work," he says. "And that I'm going out there for her".

News Corp Australia


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