Payne and suffering: Haas' unbreakable bond forged in tragedy
Tue 4 Jun 2019, 02:00 PM
Gregor Haas can still hear the panic in his wife’s voice.
"All I could hear was screaming," he says fighting the lump in his throat.
The driver, his best friend, was dead.
His family would never be the same again.
What began as a family getaway to Newcastle ended tragically on the side of Braidwood Road between Canberra and Goulburn.
It was March 4, 1999. The red Ford Laser they were travelling in from the nation’s capital had lost control at 110km/h, wrapping itself around the trees that flanked the road.
"I like to forget about that day," Joan Taufua, Gregor’s wife, says.
But they will never forget. Chace Haas, their second of what would be 10 children, was only five months old.
The whiplash from the accident, coupled with the damage caused from the force of the child restraint, was so severe it instantly snapped Chace’s neck. One life had been taken, another changed forever.
"Our lives began that day," she said.
Somewhere between Chace being airlifted without his parents to Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, and confirmation in the ensuing weeks that this baby would never know what it feels like to walk, Joan discovered there was another survivor from that fateful day.
He arrived eight months later, on December 2, they would name him Payne Lucky Haas.
"That’s what I felt. Pain and suffering," Joan said of the meaning behind her son’s name.
"I felt pain for myself and my partner. But I felt a lot of pain for my son that had just become a ventilated quadriplegic. I also felt pain for this newborn. I had no idea how to be a mother to a disabled child.
"I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring up these kids. How were we supposed to make this life normal, especially for this kid in a wheelchair? How do we treat him, so that him and his brother are equal?"
From before birth, through a tragedy that would turn their lives upside down, an unbreakable bond was forged.
"I wish it was me," Payne says.
"If I could go back and put myself in the situation he was in, I’d take that burden for him. I would love to see him live the life I am. I’d sit in that chair for the rest of my life to see him walk.
"Sometimes I cry in my room. I pray sometimes that things were never like that. I wish he was running around like us. Dad used to show us photos of how Chace was on life support. I’ve got life pretty easy. My brother knows real struggle."
The family first motto
When you walk into the family home, nestled on acreage inside the Gold Coast hinterland, those struggles are only reflected through the wheelchair he sits in and the ventilator that helps him breathe.
His beaming smile and infectious personality tell another story altogether.
"He’s an idiot just like the rest of us," Joan says.
Chace smiles in agreeance. Things are different in the Haas household. You’d expect as much given the number of children – including two more they’ve adopted - that live in the two houses on their property.
But the connection is undeniable. Family first. It always has been. It’s why Haas missed the opening four months of the season through suspension after failing to cooperate with the NRL Integrity Unit’s investigation into an incident involving his family.
"He took a month for them," Wayne Bennett said.
"He was not involved in that incident. We know that. He took a month for them and I love that. At the end of the day you want people to stand for something. And he did.
"I love the fact he stood up for his family. If you don’t stand up for them, who do you stand up for?"
The protector. A role Payne has played since he was young enough to understand why he would always need to act like big brother to his big brother.
Perhaps there have been a few exceptions to the rule.
Like the day when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – the wrestling group the kids once called themselves – broke Chace’s femur while jumping all over him on the bed.
"They didn’t even know," Gregor said.
"Chace can’t feel it. It wasn’t until I picked him up did we realise his leg was just dangling there."
As ordinary as they tried to keep it, life had its extraordinary moments.
For Chace, the common cold would regularly threaten his life.
"Sometimes we’d leave to the hospital not knowing if Chace would come back with us," Payne said.
"They were some of the worst days of my life."
The unbreakable bond
With a grin from ear to ear, Chace, wearing his NSW jumper and scarf, is smiling as he watches his family recount the events that denied him the chance to live the life he was born to live.
He’s accepted it. But moments like Wednesday night, when his little brother takes those steps out on to Suncorp Stadium, Chace takes those steps with him.
"Words can’t describe how I feel about my little brother," an emotional Chace said.
"When he said he was going to play for the Blues … It means everything to me. More than to him. I was very emotional to hear it. I’m blue to the bones. Always have been, always will be.
"When he runs on the field, he takes all of us with him. Every day I look up to my little bro. Every time I see him on TV he makes me really happy. He’s 100 per cent my hero. I will always protect him, no matter what."
You can’t help but smile hearing how this innocent young man, resigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, still sees himself as the protector of his little brother, a hulking giant with the world at his feet.
"He’s my best friend in this world," Payne says.
The 'useless' junior player
As hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Payne was the laughing stock of his team.
"I wasn’t the best," Payne jokes.
"Mum used to strap my heart with tape. She used to say ‘use your heart, you play with no heart’.
Useless is the word Joan uses to describe him.
"He’d just run alongside people," she said.
"He could have just reached out and tackled them, but he would run alongside them and as soon as they’d score he’d do this clicking thing with his hand and walk back to the line. I didn’t think he would be a great footballer back then."
But by the age of 16, he was useless no more. Almost every NRL club in the country wanted a piece of Payne.
"To be honest with you, that ruined me," he admits.
"I honestly believe that. I was getting sick of footy. I just wanted to be a kid. I was 16, but getting treated like a 20-year-old. I was getting treated like I was some superstar. Like I had already made it. I made nothing. A kid still in school, going around, flying to places and meeting all these clubs. I got ahead of myself.
"I thought I was a superstar. I thought ‘I’m untouchable’. I got away from my values. People started blowing smoke up me. I started believing my own hype. When I signed with the Broncos I had no passion for the game. Wayne helped me find it again."
The hype, the money, the notoriety – it presented all sorts of temptations that this kid couldn’t resist.
Parties. Drugs. Alcohol. Suddenly, the priorities of the most talented junior in the country had changed.
"I was drinking basically every day," Haas reveals.
"I was having benders for three straight weeks. My missus wouldn’t hear from me. My parents weren’t hearing from me. I was doing other bad stuff as well. To be honest I tried a little bit of the drugs side. I was stupid. I’d be at houses that I didn’t even know whose place it was. I’d be drinking with people I didn’t even know.
"I thought it was cool. I thought drinking every day, being on a bender with my mates … I thought that was cool. It took me away from my values. My parents raised me a better person."
The drinking continued right up until last year.
"I don’t think you want to hear what I had to say [to him]," Joan said.
In a startling admission, Payne conceded there were training sessions at the Broncos that he would turn up hungover.
"Some days I would drink the night before training," he said.
"I was stupid. The night before captain’s run, turning up drunk. Intrust, NRL training. I kept it to myself. Everything came around to me so easy. I debuted that year. I thought I was the man. I thought I was a superstar. Look, I’ve seen some things no kid should ever see. It’s a life story I don’t want to see repeated. I’ve seen drugs in my life. I’ve seen violence. I’ve seen my dad go to jail. I’ve seen my mum go to jail.
"I was seeing what I was doing thinking ‘I used to see this as a kid’. I was always against it. I couldn’t believe I let myself do that. As a kid, I was the one against the drinking, the drugs and the violence. I always wanted to be the good kid. For a while, I wasn’t. I finally feel I’m being the person I wanted to grow up to be. Hopefully kids can realise it’s not too late to change. That it’s OK to be good."
The Bennett gripe with the system
While Bennett had a number of heart-to-hearts with Payne throughout his time at the Broncos, the issue spoke to the core of a problem the seven-time premiership-winning coach has with the way the game is run.
"Everyone in the country was chasing him, and they were all going to pay ridiculous money," Bennett said of the six-year deal Haas signed with Brisbane last year.
"Half a million for a kid, not knowing how to use him properly. His career could have been over very quickly. That was the reality of the situation. You’re in that market place because you want to keep him. You can’t afford for him to be going anywhere to play against you. The market forces you to pay them, but it’s not good for the kids, mate.
"The player pathway, I was opposed to what they did. I’m still opposed to what they do. The consequences of it they do get too much money too early and they don’t know how to respect that.
"It gives them a false sense of bloody reality. When those guys come into the grade, they should all be on a certain contract and increment payments after that. But they didn’t do that. Now they go to the highest bidder. It’s dangerous."
The turning point
As much as he tried to keep his struggles hidden, Payne’s behaviour caught up with him.
"I came home one day and I turned on the news," he said.
"Seeing my face on TV with people saying ‘Payne Haas this, Payne Haas that’ ... I was just done. That was it. Right there I said I would never drink again. I have little kids in this family who look up to me. That was the final straw.
"I want kids to know drinking is not cool. I don’t want them to look up to people who get drunk on the weekend. I want them to look up to good people, not drunks."
His curiosity, and a desire to find meaning in life, saw him turn to Islam, converting his faith at the end of last year.
"I was taken aback," his mother, who was born to a Mormon family, said.
"I don’t follow any religion. I’m more about the universe. But we asked him why. Why that? Why do you need to follow something?"
His father was worried that he was being influenced, but this was all Payne.
"It was of my own accord," Payne said.
"No one planted a seed in my head. I always knew it was a beautiful religion. I know they are lovely people. I went to church once, and it wasn’t for me at the time. Islam is pretty beautiful."
Sceptical at first, the family soon came around.
"He explained that he connects with it. He found peace," Joan said.
"I think it has moulded him into the man he is right now. It’s been the best thing for him. I love the idea of Ramadan. I think it builds character and strength and teaches resilience and restraint. But the main thing is the discipline. The mental benefits Payne will gain from this, we should all try it. I personally won’t because I’m a smoker and I can’t give up my smokes."
That’s Joan Haas for you. A larger than life character whose protective instincts have often landed her in hot water.
Just last week Joan was sentenced to two years imprisonment with immediate parole for an attack on a delivery driver. Payne was contemplating leaving Blues camp after the verdict was handed down to be by her side.
Joan, the sister of former Knights and Sharks forward Mark Taufua, is a fiery character by nature - especially when it comes to her children.
It’s something Bennett would quickly learn.
"I’d sent Payne to Wynnum last year, so I went down to watch him play," he said.
"His mum walked past me and gave me the best serve I’ve had for a long time. Oh yeah. She didn’t miss me. 'Why he wasn’t in first grade, why he wasn’t this and that'. I’d never met her before but it dawned on me pretty quickly who she was.
"I said to her in the end, don’t worry I’ll coach him, he’ll get his opportunity, let’s get on with life. She didn’t miss me, though. It was a good serve. But his family love him. He’s a good kid. They deserve the credit."
That fiery nature is the very reason why the Haas family won’t be attending Wednesday night’s State of Origin series opener.
The Broncos organise a box for the family to watch NRL games, a means to avoid getting caught up in potential trouble that comes with sitting near fans who take aim at Payne.
But for Origin, they will soak in the special night from the comfort of their Gold Coast loungeroom.
"She doesn’t want any trouble going into this Wednesday," Payne said of his mother.
"She knows it’s a big occasion. Obviously I want my mum to be there, and my dad to be there, they’ve been there since day one. But Mum’s making the right choice staying home. Mum and Dad have had a few incidents with other people. They just want to lay low and stay out of trouble."
The ban on compliments
Payne, who travels to Broncos training most days with teammate Alex Glenn, has made some adjustments to his life that have fast-tracked his development as a footballer and as a person.
He’s organised to meet with his childhood hero, Petero Civoniceva, every Monday outside of Broncos training to pick his brain.
And he’s also asked coach Anthony Seibold not to give him any compliments.
"He just wants to be the best player and person he can be," Seibold said.
"He likes really direct feedback. I like Payne. He's terrific to coach. When he was a young guy coming out of school, there was a lot of talk about him at schoolboy level and his potential. I actually got to meet him when I was assistant coach for Queensland in 2017.
"The Broncos under 20's came in for the opposed session and I had to prepare them. Payne Haas did a great job acting like Andrew Fifita. That was the first time I met him. I was impressed with him there and have been ever since."
Despite the praise he receives, Haas would rather not hear any kind words from his coach.
"I don't want them," he said.
"I told him ‘I know what I do good, can you please just tell me what I’m doing wrong’. 'Seibs' always tells me and we fix it. I just think you watch your own game, you know what you do good. I’d rather know what I need to work on so I can be the best player I can be."
Last week, NRL.com revealed how a broken promise from South Sydney forward Sam Burgess cost the Rabbitohs his signature as a 16-year-old.
It’s a story Bennett told Burgess when he joined the club in the off-season and the English international apologised to the young Bronco after they squared off at ANZ Stadium last month.
In the end it was the Broncos who snared Haas’s signature despite having packed his bags to head to Melbourne, but Bennett wasn’t about to make any promises he couldn’t keep.
"I didn’t promise him anything," Bennett said of the conversation that convinced Payne to sign with Brisbane at 16.
"I told him he wasn’t coming into the NRL squad. He could come one day a month, but all the other clubs promised him he could come straight into the NRL squads.
"I wanted him to mature and grow and all those things they need to do, then you can get 10-15 years of top football out of them, rather than getting seven or eight when their bodies are broken down. I hated playing him last year when I did. I didn’t want to play him, but I had to in the end with the injuries we had..
"He got two bloody injuries. They can do all these things but they’re young bodies and they haven’t matured their bodies. It’s a tough game they play.
"They might be mature mentally, but they are making contact with guys who have been doing weights for 15 years, been playing for 15 years at a high level. Then all of a sudden an 18-year-old runs out there with all the ability in the world, but his body is not mature enough."
The Haas family has been about Chace for the best part of two decades. On Wednesday night, it will be Payne who takes centre stage. Even if it is just for one night.
"Chace is the centre of our family, but children like Payne, they take us away from the everyday bullshit," Joan said.
"We were always told we can’t be spontaneous with a child like Chace. But we pushed, we pushed against anything any specialist or doctor would tell us we could not do. We made sure we could do it.
"Everything has all been around Chacey boy but no one misses out. We still find time. The carnival’s Payne takes us to, and other kids will take us to, that’s our escape. Football is our escape."
Pain and suffering. That’s what he was named after.
On Wednesday night, he’ll give them everything but that.
"This is for my brother," Payne said.
"He’s everything to me. He’s my inspiration. This is for my family. I’m carrying their name on my back. It’s more than just a game, this one."