“I didn’t really care about anything else. I just wanted to play football again,” Watene-Zelezniak said. “At the time it was probably an immature decision but that’s all I wanted to do as a kid – play football.
“That was one time that it rocked me and almost got the better of me.”
Those who knew Watene-Zelezniak as a teen won’t be surprised to read his mind rushed straight to rugby league despite the obvious long term health concerns at hand.
The devout Mormon had very few friends outside of the football bubble growing up. His days were filled with morning seminary, school and training, leaving little time for any socialising.
“That was my life for four years,” Watene-Zelezniak said. “I didn’t really have a childhood or friends growing up. I was always training.
“My friends were my football mates. I have invested a lot of time into this and I’m very proud to be playing my 100th.”
The 23-year-old’s priorities have changed ahead of his 100th game tonight. He now has a wife, two children and beams with pride when asked what the milestone will mean to his family.
“They’re all proud,” he said. “They all know how much rugby league means to me.
“How much I have invested my time and how much sacrifice I have put into it.”
Watene-Zelezniak’s children have also changed the way he looks at life after football.
He has injured a knee and hamstring in the years since the lung scare and he now has one eye on what retired life may look like, despite his age.
“I never used to growing up as a kid,” he said when asked if he feared for his long-term health. “I was very immature and just wanted to play football.
“I have a wife and kids now and I have to look at my life ahead and the quality of life I have in my life after football.
“For my son, I don’t want him to ever get it over me [laughs]. I’m always looking at the quality of life and life after football.”
There is a lot of rugby league to be played between now and the day Watene-Zelezniak hangs the boots up.
Before worrying about game 200, 300 and life after football, the Panthers must drag their season back on track with a win against the Tigers on Friday night.
Doing so will be easier said than done against a Wests side which will bounce back from a poor showing against the Bulldogs.
Win, lose or draw, it’s all a part of what has already been a rollercoaster ride of a career for Watene-Zelezniak.
“I’m pumped. I never thought I would play one at my age, let alone 100,” he said.
“Not many people get to play 100 so I will be very grateful. I’ve had a really interesting career, a lot of ups and downs. I guess the downs make the ups even better.”
Sam is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.