Sheldon Pitama (Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Ngāti Wheke, Ngāti Kurī) was fifteen when he caught the eye of rugby league talent scouts at a trial game in Christchurch. Since then he has played for the Kiwi under 16 side and captained the South Island Scorpions. This November he heads for Melbourne and the Melbourne Storm. Kaituhituhi Sampson Karst reports.
“He just had something different than other kids from a very young age,” says his mum, Melanie Taite-Pitama (Ngāi Te Rangi). “He was very determined, and he would set goals.”
“Obsessive,” jokes his dad Mathias Pitama (Ngāi Tahu – Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Ngāti Wheke, Ngāti Kurī).
Sheldon plays hooker, a physically demanding position because he is entrusted to defend the middle of the field where big front rowers persistently try to charge through. He’s applied that defensive grit and determination to all aspects of his game, catching the eye of the Storm. He has a three-year development contract with the club.
“My goal would be to make the NRL, and I would rather go through them (Melbourne Storm) than any other club because they are professional — on and off the field,” says Sheldon.
He has been working hard at home and in Australia, attending training camps where he learns and works alongside other promising young players. He also attended seminars on aspects of the modern game: etiquette while in the public eye, dealing with media, and using social media appropriately.
Sheldon’s educational pathways are a priority for his whānau, so the Storm have appointed an educational and pastoral care officer to arrange the big move and make sure he has access to tertiary education. “Whenever they (Melbourne Storm) ring, footy is the second or third question,” says Mathias.” They want to know how school is going and how home life is, whether he’s being good to his parents.”
“They always ask about school, and they’re very big on respect,” says Melanie.
Sheldon will have a job lined up until February, when he will begin a diploma in sports management while he pursues his NRL dream in Australia.
Leaving home is a rite of passage for all young adults, but for Sheldon it means leaving an environment that has fortified his cultural heritage. This doesn’t weigh heavily on the minds of Mathias and Melanie. “We hope that we’ve entrenched his identity into him as a Māori person, right from when he was born,” says Melanie.
In the modern world, a career in professional sport can be lucrative. Sheldon has an NRL accredited manager who deals with finances, but if that safety net was not in place, he would be safe with his money, says Mathias. “He’s a pretty switched-on kid and spends most of his money on petrol to get to games, clothes, and sports equipment anyway.”
Sheldon’s parents are delighted that he’s come so far in a few short years, but it’s not his feats on the footy field that fill them with the most pride. “I’m proud of the achievements that he’s made in terms of rugby league, but I’m more proud of the person he’s become,” says Melanie.