All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe opens up about weight loss, and the fear his family would lose him

Karl Tu'inukuafe is an All Black prop, husband and father. Picture: STUFF SPORTS.

Was it fame? The money? Was it an insatiable pull to the rugby pitch that brought All Black prop Karl Tu’inukuafe​ back to the game? No, he says it was his family.

Tu’inukuafe​ takes us for a drive in his 25-year-old Toyota Corona when we meet him at the Blues headquarters in Auckland. In the car park outside their office and gym, you can see that these guys aren’t doing badly.

They’re professional rugby players in a country that’s mad about the sport – and the All Blacks in there, such as Tu’inukuafe, are deemed the best of their generation. But Tu’inukuafe’s​ rise to, and grasp of, the black jersey has at times been messy and uncertain.

That he chooses to drive his old Toyota Corona says something about what he ​ values. He’s not much interested in money.

In our interview, for Stuff’s podcast about modern masculinity, He’ll Be Right, he says he’s worried about the materialistic world his young sons are entering.

“That materialistic stuff is ruining kids these days… People keep asking about my Toyota Corona, they all think I should be driving a brand-new car. I don’t think that’s necessary,” he says.

“You might get a new phone, but you’ll want a new something else. You end up just wanting things all the time and you’re never happy with what you’ve got. Before rugby I was happy with my security job. And that’s what I would want to go back to as well.”

Tu’inukuafe worked as a security guard after finishing high school.

He’d been a promising rugby player at Wesley College​, in a first XV that proved to be the starting point for a further three professional players.

After school, however, he needed to find a job. He needed a stable income because he wanted to provide for his kids. At the end of the day, family is all that matters.

Tu’inukuafe recalls, “My old man, since I got married at 19, he basically told me like, you got to be a man… Take care of your wife and if we have kids, which we do, I gotta take care of them too.”

He liked the job. He worked for Auckland Live, got to see some gigs and learnt a bit of music along the way too. But he spent a lot of time behind the desk, and Big Karl – as he’s affectionately known in rugby circles – got bigger.

He was unhealthily big. He had worked to make sure his family could live a good life, but at the same time his lifestyle meant he wouldn’t be around much longer.

It was 2014, and Tu’inukuafe says he could barely breathe when he bent down to tie his shoelaces.

“I was basically struggling to, you know, go to sleep. Like I could barely tie my shoelaces without getting lightheaded,” he recalls. That’s what motivated him to see a doctor, but the news wasn’t good. He was told he was on a fast path towards a heart attack.

“I just had my son the year before, in 2013, so I was just thinking I didn’t want to, you know, die early or not have my wife and son set up if I was to die the next day. So all I was thinking was, I got to do something. And I thought rugby was the easiest thing to go back to.”


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