The family heartbreak driving Brian To'o to make his mark

He's the flying finisher with the flashing smile making plenty of people sit up and take notice in five games in the big time.

But for promising Panther Brian To'o, that smile masks the despair of losing his little sister to cancer a day before his 10th birthday.

The year was 2008 and To'o was forced to say goodbye to eight-year-old Dannielle, who passed away after a short battle with the dreaded disease.

"It's still fresh to us so it keeps me grounded and focused in life," To'o tells NRL.com.

"I remember it clearly. It started as an everyday visit to see her in hospital.

"Then mum and I went to visit her while the rest of my family were at church. We went in for a check-up and the doctors told us she wasn't going to make it.

"They told us she needed to be in hospital with all the symptoms she had. We just thought she would come out of it. She started off with a flu and kept getting worse.

"We didn't understand how bad it was or how fast it happened so it hit us really hard, especially for someone so young."

In the decade since that life-changing moment, To'o has taken great strength from his parents and four siblings, with whom he still lives with in the western Sydney suburb of Whalan.

To'o says there was plenty of temptation to go down the wrong path in life but he wanted to honour his sister's memory by making a go of his footy career and keeping his nose clean.

"I was a good boy, it's a rough neighbourhood but I was protected by my family," To'o said.

"We didn't have much but my parents provided everything we needed. It was probably a good place to grow up because Dad kept me grounded and made sure I stuck to my footy and high school.

"Mum is the queen of the house. She is a beautiful woman and it was the best feeling ever to tell her I was making my debut earlier in the year. We're a tight family, it always comes first."

The To'o family named their youngest son Daniel by way of tribute to Dannielle and last year saved enough money to put a headstone on her grave in Oxley Park.

"And her middle name – Ebjkzia – is all my siblings' first letters of their names, the last letter of the alphabet and the last two last letters of the word Australia," To'o explains.

"We came up with it to put in her name before she passed."

To'o's younger siblings are his biggest supporters. Bethany, 13, and Daniel, 9, offer him massages after a busy day at training and after games.

His mum Fati takes care of the family finances and life has become that bit easier since his promotion into Penrith's top 30 squad on a full-time contract.

"She tells me the amount and I hand it over but the way that mum has been pulling out the numbers lately, I have to keep saving. She's raised it, just a little bit," To'o grins.

"I just want to be able give to them first before I get my own place, just do what I can until they're settled.

Panthers winger Brian To'o.
Panthers winger Brian To'o. ©Robb Cox /NRL Photos

"Everything that has happened hasn't sunk in yet - it's crazy I'm playing first grade. To see the boys every morning and do this for a living, I'm just enjoying the ride.

"Every time I come home from training the whole vibe around the house is happy. It has changed my life and I want to do everything possible to make sure there are many more blessings for the family to have."