IT was Paco Godinez’s first day of school in El Salvador when hijackers stormed the family van and pointed a gun to his father’s head.
“This was during the civil war. They said they needed the van and only after my father offered them a lot of money did they let us go,” he says, still with a slight tremble in his voice.
“Before we applied for refugee status in Australia we fled to Mexico and abandoned our house…we couldn’t sell it so we just left it behind.”
When El Salvador makes its Rugby League debut on January 31 at the International Nines at St Mary’s in western Sydney, it won’t be the game alone described as the ‘toughest of them all’.
Because for 13 horrific years, and at a loss of 75,000 citizens, ongoing unrest forced Salvadorans to become one of the toughest breeds of people on the planet.
And asking Godinez, 38, to identify a single reason why he decided to sponsor and play for El Trueno Azul (the Blue Thunder) as they take their first steps in the sport is a difficult and conflicting equation all of its own.
On one hand he is forever thankful that his new home of Australia has provided him and his family a new life.
Yet at the same time there is no denying he is of Salvadoran blood – with a different native tongue – and that there were consequences of this fact as a child.
“I came to a school where I just couldn’t do the work. All the other kids would finish what needed to be done and I just felt useless,” says Godinez.
“I was depressed from a very young age and at 15 I tried to commit suicide.
“The only thing I was good at was sport. I loved to play Rugby League.”
Now an ardent Wests Tigers supporter, Godinez attended renowned football nursery Patrician Brothers Fairfield, but admits he lost his way, fell in with the wrong crowd and wasted any athletic talent he possessed.
Despite starting life behind the eight ball, Paco eventually found his way and has kicked on in later life to run his own business – Majestic Property Maintenance.
Majestic, along with another close friend’s tattoo parlour – Cabramatta Ink – will occupy front and back of the first Salvadoran jersey.
If you push Godinez for reasons why he is so supportive of his home nation of 6.5 million people joining the international Rugby League arena, the justification becomes deeper and deeper.
“I own my own house now…I do think I’ve turned my life around and I want to set an example and help the community,” he says.
“I think Rugby League is something young males need in their life. You get pent up frustrations, you need time away from your family, to form bonds with new friends, to be yourself and have a talk about the struggles you face.
“I’m not thinking El Salvador will win a world championship, but what this has allowed me to do is start spending time and training with my cousin’s son (Josh Guzman), who is not far off 18.
“He is at the age where things went astray for me, but by training together in the park he has started to open up a little more and is talking to me now.
“I’m trying to emphasise not to be a fool, but he’s a good kid with his head screwed on anyway.”
Indeed Guzman is one of the most promising junior players to come out of the recently created Latin American Rugby League – a body that aims to encourage the spread of the sport through all Central and South American nations.
Bigger than most senior players, Guzman was one of the major reasons the combined Latino side – the GYG Latin Heat – performed above expectation at October’s Under 16 Harmony Cup.
Out of 18 months of groundwork, the GYG Heat have now encouraged both the Salvadoran and Chilean side to form their own stand-alone identities, as well as encouraging Mexico’s fledgling domestic competition.
Both El Trueno Azul and the Caciques (Chilean Chiefs) are formed of a substantial core of players who come from refugee backgrounds.
Chile will wear the emblem of human rights organisation Amnesty International emblazoned across their chests.
“It is hard when you see negative things said about refugee families in the media,” says Godinez.
“But we are the type of people that never give up.”
Uniforms for both the El Salvadoran and Chilean side can be purchased via the official Latin Heat shop at www.latinheatrl.com/online-shop with 100% of proceeds going into developing the game in Latin America.
Aside from Cabramatta Ink and Majestic Property, the emergence of El Salvador and Chile would not have been possible without Latin American Rugby League sponsors Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, S.H.I.E.L.D Security, Link International Student Service Centres, Normanby Hotel, Rumba Latina Entertainment, Chimi.com.au Gourmet Sauces and Fighting for Fitness Gym.