WHEN El Salvador Rugby League forward Oscar Mendoza was locked up for a stint in Brisbane’s Wacol jail two years ago, he made a conscious decision.
“I purposely stayed away from the real bad guys and used to talk to the guys that had done stupid things and owned up to it; that knew they had made mistakes,” the 25-year-old Loganlea resident says.
Just a little over a week out from his nation’s sanctioned Rugby League International Federation match with Uruguay at Liverpool in western Sydney, Mendoza has lifted the lid on the explosive circumstance that led to him being behind bars.
The charge on his rap sheet simply said “assault occasioning grievous bodily harm”, but behind it was a chronicle of abuse, dejection, consistent offending and, more than anything, raw anger.
These were the ingredients that had put him in the back of a paddy wagon in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, being led away while his victim lie stretchered out on Brunswick Street in a coma, with a defibrillator being applied to his chest.
On this particular night Mendoza had been asked to leave a bar after he and a larger group had clashed inside.
While he protested with the bouncer and waited for his girlfriend-of-the-time to come outside, an unrelated third party walked past and tried to snatch Mendoza’s mobile phone as he talked on it.
He responded angrily, telling the nuisance to take a hike, although perhaps not in so kind terms.
Mendoza, at the time boxing at around 70kg, was soon joined by his 120kg brother Rafael, who had driven in to The Valley to take his older sibling home.
That was when the nuisance returned to the scene with two friends, facing off against the Mendozas in a three-on-two showdown.
“It started to get pushy and I could see we were in trouble, so I just stepped straight in and punched the main guy,” recalls Oscar.
“He dropped to the ground, then Raf and I started chasing the other two guys, which is when the police arrived.
“I didn’t realise the guy was still unconscious and was getting defibrillated until I was getting taken away.”
Initially police moved to apprehend the larger of the siblings, Rafael, but it soon became apparent that aspiring welterweight Oscar had caused the damage.
Then he began to scuffle with the cops.
Oscar admits it was the continuation of a pointless cycle that was leading him nowhere fast.
“I used to get locked up in the watch-house regularly when I went out,” he admits.
“It was all down to two things – drinking and anger.
“It was the same old stupid routine; getting into fights all the time.”
Thinking back, Mendoza can recall beginning offending when he was in primary school.
Growing up in the Holland Park area, he used to help his father do a pamphlet run, dropping advertisements in people’s letterboxes in a “neighbourhood where nearly everyone else was white and I used to get picked on all the time”.
The outcast, who says he considered himself a “black sheep” at both home and school, soon started seeing things in people’s yards he wished he could have.
“Some days I’d be out at 4am or 5am before school handing pamphlets and nobody else was around, so if I saw something I liked, I’d just take it,” he says.
“I also got banned from the local shop because I got caught stealing too much.
“I was no good hey…just stealing, fighting, vandalising and wagging school all the time.”
If you trace it all back, there are some clear influences you can pinpoint for Mendoza’s disdain for authority and infernal rage.
At the time of his birth, Oscar’s mother – who arrived in Australia as a refugee from the bloody, protracted El Salvador civil war – was finding it hard to cope.
One of her brothers had earlier been gunned down while simply waiting at a bus stop in El Salvador.
Oscar himself was named after iconic Salvadoran clergyman Oscar Romero, an outspoken advocate against torture, social injustice and poverty who was killed in a high-profile assassination.
“Things kind of got on top of Mum,” says Oscar.
“People say she changed a lot around the time I was born.
“As a kid she used to treat me pretty harshly. I won’t go into it, but some of it was full-on.
“I did feel as though she blamed me for some things and treated me differently to my brothers and sisters.”
Though Oscar’s parents remain together, he only maintains a close relationship with his father these days.
It’s clear by the fluctuations in his voice just how much the loss of a loving upbringing with his mother affected him.
His anguish in his formative years was compounded by being an outcast at Cavendish Road High School, a famed rugby league nursery.
“They were really good, not just at rugby league, but also soccer and all those guys were super fit,” remembers Oscar.
“I wasn’t allowed to play in any of the sporting teams because I missed too much school and got in too much trouble, but what they didn’t know was every time I got angry at home, I’d go for a run and just keep running and running until I was exhausted.
“I remember once we had a cross country race and I ended up finishing second, but everyone thought I had cheated because I beat most of the athletes.
“It was my own fault, but nobody at that school had any belief in me.”
For the final year of his schooling, Oscar changed to Woodridge High School, in a neighbourhood with a stereotypically rough reputation.
Against other’s preconceptions however, he turned the switch to his advantage, as people saw him through fresh eyes.
“I’d never had a crew to hang with before, but at Woodridge everyone was my friend,” says Oscar.
“I competed in all the athletic events, I played rugby league for the school alongside Josh Papalii, I was passing all my grades.
“Would you believe I even won an award for academia?
“At that stage I was thinking I was probably going be a soldier when I left school.”
However, as history will show, the period after school was where alcohol and violence intervened, leaving him with a criminal record that stretched relationships on all fronts.
It wasn’t until his brothers Rafael and Joaquin both played in the historic first rugby league Test match for El Salvador in June 2016 that a pathway back to redemption became apparent.
At that stage Oscar’s post-jail parole conditions forbade him from traveling interstate, but he began training for Latin American Rugby League events with a gusto that few could match.
At training he was always among the first to arrive, listened intently, trained hard, and always endeavoured to be part of the group.
Most of his teammates had no idea the quiet bloke who tackled harder than most was a repatriated jailbird.
Nor did teammates know that their football team was helping to heal a family rift that had grown even wider.
“By the stage I first started training, not even Raf was talking to me. We’d had a bad falling out too,” Oscar reveals.
“Back then, we’d only talk at training if one of us said ‘pass us the ball’.
“Dad became the middle man and he’d say things like ‘Raf has asked if you’re going to training today’ and then I’d pass a message back through Dad.
“It was pretty stupid really…we’ve been through a lot of stuff together – and the same happened with Joaquin – and I think Latin Heat and El Salvador Rugby League has played a big part in turning things back around.”
Aside from immersing himself in training for El Salvador and Latin Heat, Mendoza also joined the Beenleigh Pride this year, premiers in Brisbane’s Southside Two club competition, and has been playing regular touch football.
In all, he has been training or playing six days per week.
The other facet where he has found peace has been with new partner Paige, where he has taken on the responsibility of helping to care for her children.
He admits the responsibility of having to set a good example has been a godsend for his mindset, and he enjoys taking the kids outside and letting them discover and explore in his limited free time on weekends.
“I try to do with them things that I enjoyed with my Dad when I was younger,” explains Oscar.
“I don’t want what I do to reflect badly on them at all.
“I’d like to think I’ve come a long way.”
Heading into the latter part of 2017, Mendoza has a couple of big goals.
One is to topple Uruguay in The Rise of The Underdogs on September 30 at Liverpool.
Another is to continue saving for a truck, so he can start his own business and usher in yet another new chapter.
>> The Rise of The Underdogs on September 30 at Liverpool All Saints, Hillier Oval, Liverpool, features a full day of international matches from 1pm, with Malta Under 16 playing Africa United Under 16, Latin Heat Development facing ASEAN (South East Asia) at 3pm, Chile playing Thailand at 5.15pm, with the El Salvador v Uruguay showpiece at 7.30pm. Tickets are $10 an individual or $15 for two adults and children.
The 100% volunteer-run Latin American Rugby League is supported by Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, Brisbane City Council, Shield Security Pty Ltd, Tattoo Tears, One Big Switch, Cast Graphics, Serious About Rugby League, Retro-Com Digital TV Specialists, Colombianos en Brisbane, EMSA Education and Migration Services Australia, Raw Juicery, SEMCAR Mechanics, Lichtnauer and Associates Accountants, Cabramatta Ink Tattoo, Majestic Property Maintenance, musician Royal El ‘ Latino, Radio Austral and Fighting For Fitness Gym.