Words: Carmen Parahi

Visuals: Chris Skelton

Chris Nahi left New Zealand 24 years ago to find his fame and fortune on Australia’s golden shores. He found stardom on a Gold Coast footy field, then lost it all because of a drug habit he started while playing professional rugby league.

Since being deported from Australia last year, Nahi has been sharing his story with youth groups, church congregations and rehabilitation centres to help stop others travelling the same hard road as him.

My footy career ended in 1999. I had no club to go to. So I started selling drugs.

Chris Nahi was the second-youngest of five children, raised in a Beach Haven state home on Auckland’s North Shore. They didn’t have a lot of money to spare, their oldest brother was sent away to be raised in Northland.

“I was brought up by my mother, so no Dad. And when she did try and contact him he wasn’t keen. We grew up poor as.”

A broken home, no father. Our mother tried her best with us. I was the black sheep, I was the blackest of all of them.

He was a small kid and chose to play soccer at first.

“I didn’t want to play rugby with the big Islander boys. And then when I was 15, I had a growth spurt.”

His size gave him confidence to play rugby league for the Northcote Tigers.

“I loved it. It was a good place to let out aggression without getting in trouble.”

When Nahi was 16 years old he moved to Northland and played for the Portland Panthers in Whangarei. While he was there, the United Federal Magpies coach approached Portland for two young players to join his club in Australia. At the end of 1993, Nahi and his centre partner took up the opportunity and moved to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. He was just 19 years old.

In 1994, the hard-hitting centre made an immediate impact on the local scene.

“There was some good times there. I was playing in the school boys rep team for the Northern Territory as well as the A-grade side. We played in the Australian schoolboys comp and I was asked to talk to the Brisbane Broncos, Newcastle Knights, and the Gold Coast Seagulls at the time.”

Being a young Māori boy I’d never been anywhere and that was my first time overseas. When I heard Gold Coast I just thought yup, the Gold Coast is me. So off to the Gold Coast I went.

Nahi started in the reserve grade for the Gold Coast Seagulls in 1995. He was moved from the centres to the second row, where he would remain for the rest of his career. While the premier team struggled that year, the reserves - coached by Phil Economidis - made the finals.

At the end of the season, the Seagulls became the Gladiators - only to be dumped by the Australian Rugby League (ARL) within months and turned into the Chargers. Economidis was given the top job and with just three players remaining from the 1995 team, Nahi was promoted to the premiers, captained by Kiwis rep Dave Watson.

In 1996, the Chargers worked hard to gain back credibility on the footy field after off-field management problems. Fans started to take notice of Nahi for his signature mullet hairstyle and hard-hitting, hard-tackling style. But it was the following year that Nahi and the Chargers came into their own.

Second row forward Chris Nahi (far right) alongside Gold Coast Charger teammates. GETTY IMAGES

Second row forward Chris Nahi (far right) alongside Gold Coast Charger teammates. GETTY IMAGES

“1997 was probably the best year any Gold Coast team has ever had. We made the second round of the semifinals and knocked St George Illawarra out of the semifinals next round. We had three or four of us made it into the Rest of the World side to play Australia.”

With all of the success of the season and still in finals mode, Nahi made a choice that would eventually end his professional footy career and nearly took his life.

It was around that time, I started taking ecstasy and cocaine. Everyone was doing it. I mean the whole competition was taking drugs. My football just went downhill from there.

1997 was a year of firsts for Chris Nahi.

His Gold Coast rugby league franchise made it into their first-ever playoff series. Nahi played in his first Australian premiership finals. He was picked for his first international representative game in an all stars team, the 'Rest of the World' to play Australia. And it was the first time he took ecstasy.

“It had a picture of a Fido Dido cartoon character on it. I got it from a team-mate.”

He claims there were up to six Chargers players who took the drug with him.

Nahi says if he hadn’t been offered it, he probably would never have tried the drug. But he did.

“I thought oh everyone’s doing it, like everyone’s drinking, let’s do it.

“Back then it was just ecstasy and cocaine after the games. It’s because it’s in and out of your system really quick. Yeah we were drug tested. 48 hours it’s out of your system. You can play a game on a Friday or Saturday, get on it and by Monday or Tuesday training you’re clean again.”

Chris Nahi wearing his original Gold Coast Chargers jacket.

Chris Nahi wearing his original Gold Coast Chargers jacket.

Although Nahi was contracted to the ARL at first, the competition changed to the NRL (National Rugby League) in 1998.

The NRL declined to comment on Nahi's claims or their testing regime during the 1990s. Instead, they provided a statement about their current drug testing policy.

“The NRL has one of the most comprehensive drug testing programs in Australian sport. We generally conduct more than 2,500 tests annually,” a spokesman said.

“Testing for illicit drugs is conducted all times during the year. The NRL conducts random and targeted drug testing. Our sanctions are also among the toughest in Australian sport.”

Nahi claims he was never questioned about taking drugs while he played. He says if he’d been tested and caught it probably would’ve stopped him.

“I don’t think the management really knew. I think some of the public would’ve known.”

He says it wasn’t just some of the Chargers players who took party drugs during 1997 and the following season.

We’d play other teams and the players would see us out in Surfers and they’d be hitting us up asking us where to get drugs from. And these are like Australian international players too.

Nahi refuses to name the players he took drugs with or who asked for them. He believes back then, there was a culture of drug and alcohol abuse among the elite players and the ARL - and later the NRL - failed to deal with it.

“I don’t think they were aware of how bad it was. Yeah I don’t think they knew how bad it was. I think they need more education.”

Nahi says there were no welfare officers, counsellors or education programmes available that may have helped him then.

An NRL spokesman says now: “Our education programs around illicit drugs are comprehensive and ensure that no player would ever reach the elite level of the game without knowing the risks of illicit drug use.”

But they wouldn’t comment on what was available during the 1990s.

Chris Nahi played 46 premiership rugby league games for the Gold Coast.

Chris Nahi played 46 premiership rugby league games for the Gold Coast.

Nahi says he continued to take cocaine and ecstasy at the end of the 1997 season, during preseason and into 1998. The drugs were becoming a habit.

“I think in 1998 it had a hold on a few of us. If you look at the Gold Coast Chargers in 1998 we had a shocking year.”

But the club’s problems were more than a few players taking illicit drugs.

The Chargers not only ended the season last equal with 20 losses from 24 games, but also lost players and struggled with management issues. The ARL competition had run alongside the rival Super League in 1997 at the height of a corporate dispute in the game. The competitions were merged in 1998 to become the NRL and the Chargers were among the teams that would not survive.

1998 was the Chargers' final year. Nahi was let go and wasn't picked up by another NRL club.

“My career ended in 1998.”

Nahi played 46 first class games for the Gold Coast. He stayed in the Queensland Cup, the state’s top competition, from 1999 until 2003. And he was selected for the Aotearoa Māori team to play at the 2000 World Cup and for the New Zealand Māori against Tonga in 2002. But Nahi never played in the NRL again.

When I slowly lost my football career the love of money and the success I once had I was still craving that so I started selling drugs and using drugs.

Nahi was addicted to party drugs but it became a full-blown meth addiction from 2003.

“You need it everyday. You do whatever you can, you stand over people, you rob people, that’s full blown addiction to me.”

He also became a drug dealer to feed his habit.

“It will take everything from you and give you nothing,” he says.

He lost his wife, possessions and pride. He also missed spending time with his son and daughter, his greatest regret.

“When you’re sucking on the glass pipe, nothing in the world matters. Your family don’t matter, your kids don’t matter, you don’t even respect yourself, nothing matters.”

When you’re in full blown addiction everything you do is about the drug. You wake up, the first thing you pick up is the pipe, is the drug. It rules your life, you’re a slave to it.

Chris Nahi in a drug induced sleep, meth pipe in his hand.

In 2005, Nahi hit the headlines for being an armed and dangerous police fugitive.

The police raided his house as he was returning to his home. He turned and ran armed with a gun.

“I gapped it from the cops and I jumped in a rubbish truck and got a lift out of there. When I jumped in I told the driver that I had three guys after me with a baseball bat, could he please get me out of there.”

The whole area - including schools - was locked down as police searched for Nahi, the fugitive.

He hid for over a week before handing himself in to police.

In 2006, Nahi was sentenced and sent to prison for the first time.

“I got three-and-a-half years for 1000 ecstasy tablets and a firearm. And I also got two-and-a-half years to run concurrent to that for deprivation of liberty.”

For the next 10 years, Nahi would return to prison four more times for minor crimes and breaking his parole conditions. He played league again in 2008 but tested positive for amphetamine after the Bycroft Cup grand final on the Gold Coast. He was banned from playing for two years. He hasn’t played rugby league since.

“I was like that because I was full of shame and guilt. I was pretty dirty on myself that I had got myself into that situation because I knew I was better than that. So I didn’t really care about anything else.”

Chris Nahi smoking meth in a Surfers Paradise bus stop during peak hour.

I believe drug addiction is mental health because you’re not in your right mind. It’s a form of slow suicide because sometimes you just take drugs, and drugs, and you don’t care.

In 2016, during his final stint in jail, Nahi’s life changed. He turned to God and became a Christian. Two days after leaving prison, he checked into an intensive 12-month Christian rehab programme called Victory House run by his pastor brother David and wife Louise in Tweed Heads, New South Wales.

Nahi has not touched drugs or alcohol since.

“When you’re in addiction it’s the guilt holding you back from coming back out of it. The guilt of letting people down and the shame.”

But last year, Nahi was caught in Australia’s tough immigration net and hauled into a detention centre in Brisbane for three weeks, then Perth for three months. He was deported back to New Zealand in October with $150 cash and the clothes on his back. Unlike many other deportees, Nahi can reapply to return to Australia after three years.

He’s now living with his brother’s family in Mangakahia, Northland and has applied to start a diploma in social services. Nahi has been sharing his story with youth groups, churches and rehabilitation centres around the country. He plans to bring the Victory House model to New Zealand.

“You want a house where guys have a house living together that are on the same page, being kept accountable and they’ve got work. The rehabs (in New Zealand) are really good but it’s life after rehab, that’s the one I’m looking at.”

Nahi has been clean for two years and is enjoying a healthy lifestyle. Every three days he runs the recently tar sealed rural road leading to his house, a 20km round trip. He’s set up a makeshift gym in the back of his house, using old rusty chains for weights. And he’s put his footy boots back on - this time to play rugby union with his nephews for the local Mangakahia club.

Nahi hitting the bags in training with his Mangakahia club teammates.

Nahi hitting the bags in training with his Mangakahia club teammates.

“I’m lifting heavier weights more than when I was playing in the NRL. I’m running more now than I did then,” he says.

Nahi hopes he’ll be able to speak to young players embarking on a league career, so they can hear his story and not make the choices he made.

“Now I’m able to talk about stuff that I’d never talk about before because I can walk with my head held high, I’ve been set free from this. A lot of behaviours that I had were all from my addiction, that’s not who I really am.”

I take full responsibility for my actions I’m sorry that I went down that wrong road. If I could change it I would but I can’t change I can just move forward.

Words: Carmen Parahi

Visuals: Chris Skelton

Design & layout: Aaron Wood