Revealing the real reason he retired, the league legend opens up about a health crisis and a family tragedy
Dec 22, 2021 4:00pm
Death threats, taunts and accusations of being a dirty player have never put Kiwi league legend Adam Blair off the game he loves. His family and Māori culture have always kept the NRL star strong.
“You cop a lot of flak in sport,” the 35-year-old tells Woman’s Day. “It can be brutal, but I always knew my worth on the field and off. The only time it bothered me was when it affected my family, like when my son had to read headlines about me at school in Australia.
“I was just a young Māori kid from a small town in Northland, but I learned how to push through tough times. I want to show young people they can too – not just in sport, but in all that life throws at you.”
Adam has two sons, Harlem, 11, and four-year-old Taika (named after director Taika Waititi), with his wife Jess, 35, a nutritionist, naturopath and wellness influencer. He describes his whānau as his greatest joy.
Spending more time with family was why Adam pulled the plug on his glittering career, which saw him become the second most capped Kiwi player in the NRL and the first person ever to play 50 league tests for New Zealand. The time felt right to hang up his boots so Jess could focus on her career.
“She supported me on my journey, which is one of the reasons I love her so much,” says Adam. “We lived in so many different places, and she and the kids just fitted in. Now it’s her time to chase dreams. She’s in high demand with people with stress-related conditions from the pandemic.”
The couple met when Adam was playing for the Melbourne Storm and Jess was a cheerleader for the Brisbane Broncos. “As soon as I set eyes on her, I knew she was The One,” he recalls.
“We jumped on a jet-ski to an island off the Gold Coast and I had an engagement ring in my life jacket. Two years later, we got married on Hamilton Island. This month, we’re 10 years married. I love her as much as that day I first saw her… No, even more!”
Adam and Jess share a passion for health, living a holistic lifestyle that sees Adam do most of the cooking.
“But we’re not fanatical,” he insists. “We’ll have burgers, but rather than go to Maccas, I’ll make our own – and if it’s a hot day, we’ll get ice cream.”
Of Ngāpuhi descent, Adam is an ambassador for Diabetes New Zealand and is involved in the “You are a priority” campaign, encouraging Māori and Pacific people to access newly funded medication. Mortality rates for Māori with type 2 diabetes are seven times higher than non-Māori, explains Adam. “I’m a proud Māori boy, but we can be stubborn people, not used to asking for help. By talking about health and wellness, I try to be someone who people can relate to.”
As a coach for the Warriors, Adam has a special interest in wellbeing and mindfulness, particularly for Māori youth.
“I never thought of myself as a role model, but speaking to young players in the NRL – particularly from the north where I’m from – they told me I paved the way for them to chase their dreams.”
Adam’s strong leadership skills, both on and off the field, stem from what he learned growing up as the eldest of eight children in the small town of Panguru in the Hokianga.
“It was a town of just 500 people with one bowser [petrol pump], a dairy and our farm, which provided the food,” he recalls. “As a young boy, I’d help Dad with all the farm work. I was driving tractors at 10.”
Adam’s father inspired his love of league too. “I’d go to games with him and started playing when I was five.”
Tragedy struck the family when his beloved dad died of a brain tumour when Adam was just 12.
“He was such a hard worker, so he didn’t seek medical attention for the headaches he kept getting until it was too late,” shares Adam. “It’s why I’m keen to encourage kōrero around health.”
With little time to grieve, it was down to Adam to rise at 6am to milk the cows and make the decisions. “I didn’t have time for emotions as there was work to be done. It wasn’t until we put him in the ground that the grief really struck me – I was never going to see my dad again.”
At just 15, Adam was offered the opportunity to play league in Australia, where he stayed for 15 years, playing for the Storm, the Wests Tigers and the Broncos, before coming home to join the Warriors in 2018.
He credits his father’s strong work ethic for helping him through the challenges of his career. “Every time I went out on the field, I’d ask Dad to protect me. Knowing he was there gave me courage in the game. It helped me deal with issues off the pitch, like bullying on social media. I couldn’t care less about it. I’d just delete any comment and tell myself, ‘No time for worrying – there’s work to be done,’ as my dad used to say.”
Despite Adam’s impressive career, not in his wildest dreams did he expect to receive an honour from the Queen. When he got a call from Government House in Wellington this year, he thought he was in trouble. “I thought I’d done something wrong – that I was about to get fined or something. They said I was being made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and I had to ask Jess to look up what it was. It’s not about the accolade, but I hope it shows young kids that with hard work and determination, you can do anything.”
Adam also appears on Māori Television in the bilingual sports show Te Ao Toa. “I’m not trained in media, but I’m showing my people that you can have a voice,” he explains.
Ultimately, Adam’s dream is to work with Jess in managing a “centre of excellence” that supports young people from less-fortunate backgrounds.
“Our end goal is to help disadvantaged kids fulfil their potential – not just in sport, but in other opportunities. It’s a vision to have a space where there are coaches, counsellors, psychologists and nutritionists to help get kids on the right path in life.”
Being a dad and working with young people means Adam has many moments that remind him of his own father. “I grieve more for him now,” he admits. “I appreciate the lessons he left me with, even though I lost him so soon.
“I share with young people what he used to tell me: Always stay true to yourself and your culture. Know who you are and where you’re from. Stay grounded. Follow your dreams.”