HYMEL Hunt smiles easily and often, but beneath the happy exterior lie memories of dark days.
At least the powerful Knights centre has lived to tell the tale, unlike former teammates and a beloved relative who were unable to escape their inner demons.
In December, barely two months after leaving South Sydney to join Newcastle, Hunt was devastated when his first cousin Livingstone Nanai took his own life.
"Growing up, we were very close," Hunt told the Newcastle Herald.
"Family was all we had for the first few years after we moved over from New Zealand [to Brisbane]."
It was not the first time Hunt's life had been touched by suicide.
He played for Queensland under-20s alongside Cowboys hooker Alex Elisala, who died in April, 2013. Two years later Hunt was at Melbourne Storm when another young tyro, Hayden Butler, ended his life.
Hunt's Newcastle teammates Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson have both been through similar heartache, losing cousins to suicide.
And Hunt admits that, after a frustrating two-season stint with Melbourne in which he played only three games, he needed counselling upon arriving at Souths to get his life and football career back on track.
"[Souths coach] Michael Maguire helped me a lot to get my head straight, and that's when I started to become a regular first-grader," he said.
"I moved out of home when I was 14, 15 years old to go to boarding school.
"So it was hard. I didn't want to hassle my family all the time.
"I went through some tough times by myself, and I learned the hard way that people can help you.
"I wouldn't say I was depressed. It was just tough times and I tried to deal with it myself.
"I just needed someone to help me mentally, instead of trying to take it on my own shoulders."
Given his real-life experiences, Hunt was a logical choice when the Knights' community coordinator, Monique Maguire, inquired if he was interested in representing the club as a State of Mind advocate.
"I put my hand up straight away," he said.
The NRL launched its 2019 State of Mind campaign on Tuesday, with the aim of making men's mental health a talking point.
"This year the NRL are launching a campaign called: 'Don't just stand on the sidelines'," Hunt said.
"Instead of just saying: 'Are you OK, bro?', this is the next step ahead of that.
"It's about going out to schools and educating younger people, having those little conversations.
"The education has to start at a young age, because you don't want to leave it too late, until you've lost someone."
Hunt attended a "fathers and friends" forum held at Merewether Bowling Club on Wednesday night, which he described as an "awesome" experience.
"There was a professor there, and a counsellor, and some parents and grandparents and even children, and hopefully I was able to provide a different perspective," the 25-year-old said.
"They asked me some questions and I gave them a few little tips, like how I manage my time away from football."
The NRL's State of Mind program has been designed in consultation with specialist organisations such as Lifeline, Kids Helpline, Headspace and the Black Dog Institute and seeks to raise awareness and normalise conversations around mental health.
A host of the game's biggest names, including Darius Boyd (Brisbane), Michael Morgan (North Queensland), Angus Crichton (Sydney Roosters), Joel Thompson (Manly) and Dale Finucane (Melbourne) have joined Hunt in signing up as ambassadors.
"After you lose a few people in your life that are close to you, or you hear about it happening to other people, you realise that it's such a big issue," Hunt said.
"We need to try and take control of it and break that stigma, because suicide rates have been growing.
"We need to break the stigma that it's soft for men to talk about their feelings.
"We need to make it an everyday thing.
"Something like 75 per cent of suicides are males.
"Now that I'm playing good footy, I just want to use my platform and try to help raise awareness.
"That's the whole reason for the State of Mind program."
Hunt said he had been warmly received since arriving in Newcastle and "I thought it was a chance to give something back to the community".
"I say it all the time, but I love Newcastle," he said.
"It's a great place to live, friendly people. It's a great environment and I want to keep spreading the love."
As well as his off-field contribution, Hunt has proven a valuable asset for the Knights on game day, playing in all 12 games this season and scoring six tries. He is hoping to make it seven straight wins against Melbourne at AAMI Park on Saturday.
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