HE went to the Sevens Rugby World Cup 1997 with a question mark over his selection but returned a national hero.
Last Saturday, I met Serea villager Lemeki Koroi during the Naitasiri-Tailevu Digicel Cup semi-final at Ratu Cakobau Park in Nausori.
At 42 and having put on extra kilos, he looks so different to the man who helped us win the Melrose Cup 15 years ago in Hong Kong.
He stood there in the Highlanders corner having come to see his former team, cousin Inoke Tuisese and nephew Jo Nasilisili in action.
I asked him to take us back to the day that we destroyed a star-studded South African side 24-21 to rule the world in the abbreviated code.
"It was truly magical," he remembers with a smile.
He said 'memory of 1997' would forever live in his heart. So too with each one of us.
Koroi, having lived in the shadows of our Hong Kong Sevens 1990 and 1991 heroes Pauliasi Tabulutu and Noa Nadruku for many years, finally got his big break in '97. The stocky Koroi was playing rover for Prisons back then but with former Canberra Raider, Noa Nadruku, at the top of his game, chances of getting quality game time in the top flight was tough.
He played a few tournaments including the Sicily Sevens in Italy. Even trying to displace Tabulutu at halfback was not easy and after he defected to rugby league there were others coming through the ranks, like Samisoni Rabaka.
Finally, a breakthrough. The chance to play at the second sevens world cup but even then his selection drew criticism from a prominent commentator.
"That was disappointing. My friends and family told me what was said," he recalls.
"So it wasn't easy for me but the coach (the late Rupeni Ravonu) was always there for me. Ravonu knew what I was worth."
Ravonu's top seven was soldier Jope Tuikabe, former Counties-Manukau winger Luke Erenavula and the late Aminiasi Naituyaga in the forwards.
The genius Waisale Serevi was playmaker, Tavualevu Village's 'Black Pearl" Manasa Bari at rover and Vione flyer Marika Vunibaka on the wing.
We cruised through pool play against Namibia (66-0) and Wales (35-0). South Korea was smashed 56-0 in the cup quarter-final and Samoa, having ousted reigning champions England in their quarter-final, simply had no answer to the power and pace of the Fijians in the semi-final. Vunibaka notched four tries as our Pacific rivals were beaten 38-14.
In the other semi-final, New Zealand fell prey to South Africa's pressure rugby and lost 7-31. It was a step up from the last world cup for us, in which England and Andrew Harriman tore us apart in the semi-final.
There were no pace aces like Harriman in this South African side but there were some big men and big game players like my favourite halfback back then, Joost van der Westhuizen. This was the man that stopped Jonah Lomu in his tracks in the famous Springboks victory against New Zealand in Rugby World Cup 1995.
I met and interviewed the man from Pretoria at the Hong Kong Sevens while working for the other daily in 2000 and found him to be one of the most humble top rugby reps like former All Black flanker, "Iceman" Michael Jones. That's why it's sad to know that van der Westhuizen is fighting for his life now, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neuron disease, which is incurable. He has been given "80 per cent chance to live between two to five years".
"He (van der Westhuizen) was a rugged player, very tough," Koroi says. So was that man mountain, Andre Venter, who stood at six feet, five inches.
Then there were other famous names Bobby Skinstad and Breyton Paulse, who would go on to be a big hit out wide with the Boks.
The twinkle-toed Stephen Brink and Skinstad fed Venter twice in the opening spell and twice Venter shrugged off Tuikabe's tackles to put his team 14-0 up.
"That was when I told the boys to regroup, tighten our defence and try and score at least one try to get close to them before half-time," captain Serevi remembers.
Vunibaka's pace out wide helped us canter through just before the buzzer and South Africa led 7-14 at the break.
"We had to do something about Venter," Koroi went on.
"He was making a big impact on the game. So I told Jope and Mini (Naituyaga) that I'd go for him during restarts." Koroi though recalls that it was easier said than done.
"So in one of those high punts by Serevi, I tried to take him out but got hurt myself. I hit the side of my neck and face on his hips and I could feel the pain as if I was going to get paralysed."
Koroi though played through the pain barrier and happened to be Fiji's go-to man in the second spell.
First he set up the try of the tournament. He fed the scrum just inside his own half and under immense pressure from Brink, scrambled the ball through to Serevi, who goose-stepped past the first line of defence on the halfway mark before being caught. The ball came back to Naituyaga and he fed Vunibaka who scooted down the touchline, threw a dummy as Naituyaga came in on the double-around. It was on to Tuikabe, who stood in a tackle, freed his arms and kept the ball flowing. Koroi was up next and was smothered in a tackle. However, somehow he managed to pop one around the corner to a speeding Erenavula before hitting the deck. The Namatakula man had a clear run to the line to dot down one of the finest team tries World Cup Sevens rugby has ever seen.
Koroi's excellent assist was followed by two tries of his own. Incredible stuff as for the second one he found himself out on the wing. It did not look like he was going to get there as he was straining and struggling but his short legs kept pumping away and somehow he huffed and puffed his way over the line.
Two tries for him in just over a minute. "I was gone, had it after that second try. I was puffed out and straight away called for a change," Koroi said with a big grin on Saturday.
At 24-14, South Africa was bruised and battered and even a late converted try by Stephen Brink was not going to deny our first greatest moment on the sevens world cup stage. We've had many sporting heroes over the years and most have basked in media limelight around the world, especially in rugby, but this column is dedicated to perhaps the most under-rated player of the 90s but a champion in his own right. Times Sport salutes this unsung hero from Naitasiri for his contribution to the game and our success — for victory isn't defined by wins only, but by effort. Thanks for the memories Koroi.