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'I should've died': How faith drove Pauli back from devastation

Christine Pauli knew there was something wrong when she thought she was walking off the field in a straight line, only to be asked "where are you going?" as she angled sideways.

After being on the receiving end of a dangerous-throw style tackle during a school rugby union trial in 2016, Pauli fractured her neck in two places and damaged her C2 vertebrae in an untold story the Dragons prop is only now ready to talk about.

"I always say by the grace of God I'm still here because the doctors were telling me I should've died on the field that day," Pauli tells NRL.com.

"It was definitely the grace of God that was telling us my job here on earth wasn't done yet."

Christine is the third youngest of nine siblings in a spiritually-driven family guided by faith.

She was only the second child to take up rugby league.

Christine Pauli (right) in her neck brace in 2016 with school friends Megual Taavale and Melina Va'a.
Christine Pauli (right) in her neck brace in 2016 with school friends Megual Taavale and Melina Va'a.

NRL fans will remember older brother Pauli Pauli as a bullocking forward who spent time at the Eels and Knights before jetting to the English Super League.

For the Pauli family, he was the main provider financially.

"We grew up in a strict household, the girls weren't allowed to play but Pauli was the golden child so we did everything for him," Christine said.

"The girls would work hard to get Pauli what he needed to in order to play footy and help provide for us as a family.

"The money that was coming in – basically all his income – [he] was supplying for us. It wasn't only him, with my older sisters working too, but he definitely had the most.

"One dream of his was to buy mum and dad a house and he did that a few years ago, now we live in it and he's over in the UK."

Dragons prop Christine Pauli.
Dragons prop Christine Pauli. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

A sneaky ambition

Before moving to Newcastle, Pauli Pauli would sneak Christine to rugby league matches without parents Lupe and Fili aware she was playing the game.

"I was 14 and my cousin invited me to a trial game after church but I knew my parents weren't going to let me play, let alone let me go anywhere. After all, you've got to keep the seventh day holy," Christine grinned.

"But Pauli was like 'let's go'. It was Hebersham Tigers and Rooty Hill Dragons. I was only supposed to watch but the coach approached me and asked me to play.

"Then Pauli just said 'well the parents aren't here' so he grabbed me, put me in a car and we went and got some boots.

"I remember a lot about that game. I was going hard, defensively I just wanted to hit girls.

"But in attack, I knew absolutely nothing at all. I was all over the place but the whole thing sparked me from there to want to keep playing."

It didn't take long for Lupe and Fili to find out.

"My aunty approached mum and told her how well I had gone and mum had no idea what she was talking about," Christine says.

"So they were both pretty upset. I got a full lecture, so did Pauli, and Dad was never on board with it.

"But, I just kept nagging them and they ended up reluctantly signing a registration form and it made my heart pound."

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The near-death experience

Christine can recall every moment that took place at Merrylands High School in 2016 that would change her life within just seconds.

It was a rugby union trial match that ended in near tragedy when she was 16.

"I just remember getting the ball unexpectedly, like I barely saw it and just managed to catch it. The next second one girl picked my leg up and another grabbed my shoulders and launched me into the ground," she said.

"At first, I heard a couple of cracks but all I naturally thought was 'release the ball', you know, there's just so much adrenaline.

"But the referee called time off pretty quickly because he obviously realised how bad of a tackle it looked.

"I basically got up off the ground and was a bit dizzy because my head had hit the floor heavy.

"Then I quickly realised I couldn't lift my head up without using my hands. I'd pull my hair up just to keep my head straight to walk off.

"I didn't realise it at the time I was walking sideways until I was being told I wasn't going in the right direction. My head wasn't straight. That's when I knew I was in some trouble."

Christine suffered fractures in both sides of her neck and C2 vertebrae.

She was rushed to Westmead Hospital via ambulance and spent 10 months in a neck brace.

"That experience for mum and dad did it for them, they were like 'you're done'," Christine said.

"Dad went back into his strict mode and got worse. The doctors were trying to work out if I needed an operation.

"They were confused because it was both sides of my neck that suffered fractures.

"It had basically bent so badly they didn't understand how the spinal cord and vertebrae didn't just snap.

"If my C2 didn't heal naturally then they'd have to operate through my throat to get to the vertebrae."

An unlikely recovery method

Fili, who had 10 years of nursing experience, convinced doctors Christine was able to return to the family's western Sydney home to be looked after.

Three months after suffering the injury the then 16-year-old got a lucky break in the most unusual of ways.

"I sneezed," Christine laughed.

"And then I heard a slight click in my neck and could rotate it a bit more. I went back to the doctor not long after and got cleared of needing an operation.

"I straight away thought of the Lord but it was still tough because the doctor was in my ear still saying 'footy is not for you'.

"It hurt that this dream I wanted to rebuild wasn't being recommended.

"The doctors take the safer option for us, not as sportspeople but human beings, so it was understandable."

Pauli Pauli during his stint with the Eels.
Pauli Pauli during his stint with the Eels. ©NRL Photos

More pain strikes 

Further tragedy struck the close-knit family as Christine was on the mend when Pauli Pauli was involved in a horrific car accident on the M1 that left him with a dislocated hip and several family members rushed to separate hospitals on January 18, 2017.

"It was basically Pauli's brand new car he bought and we only saw him drive it once," she said.

"It was devastating, we kept asking God what did we do wrong that you felt like you needed to punish us?

"I was dealing with my neck, Pauli was finding his feet with footy and we didn't know it at the time that my sister was pregnant and was in the back seat of the car.

"My siblings all still see therapists three years on and we're still growing and slowly healing. It's still a big work in progress but we're a very spiritual family and follow God's plan."

The comeback

For anyone who knew Christine at the time, they might've been under the assumption she had taken a year off playing the code as it wasn't unusual given her church and worship commitments.

But behind the scenes, she was preparing for a comeback after receiving a clearance 14 months on from the injury.

"My old Tarsha Gale Cup coach, Paul Bent (Shaylee Bent's father), just asked what I was doing with footy, and this was while I still had the neck brace on so we had a bit of a laugh because I was like 'can't you see what I've got on?'

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"Not many people knew about my neck injury because I stayed away for that whole period of time. People just thought I had a break.

"I think I was in a depressed state but never really admitted it.

"But that conversation is what got my motivation back, to do the right thing with rehab and get onto the field again. 

"I'd take my brace of here and there over the next few months and felt my neck was getting a bit stronger.

"Coming back also helped with less pressure as only a few knew what I'd been through.

"My spinal cord had recovered and there were no red flags. It was a recommendation I didn't play but once I got the clearance I went for gold.

"I just went all-in. I've always been like that. Once I heard it was OK I just went for it."

Christine says Lupe has mellowed out since her neck injury after watching his daughter play for Parramatta – Pauli Pauli's old club – and successfully making a return to the game.

The now 20-year-old played for South Sydney in the Harvey Norman NSW Premiership this season before earning her first NRLW contract at St George Illawarra.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be signing an NRLW contract this year," Christine says.

"It's been tough as a squad trying to combine in a short space of time but it's been an awesome experience with the girls and playing alongside some legends of the game like Sam Bremner, Steph Hancock and Kezie Apps.

"I can't fault the experience. I didn't think it would be this intense but it's good for future seasons."