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‘I’m proud and the whole family is proud’

Nic Naitanui will line up for his 200th game against Adelaide on Sunday afternoon. Twin brother Mark wrote an exclusive piece for to pay tribute to the inspiring ruckman and provide a rare insight into the man behind the dreadlocks.

Words from Mark Naitanui

When Nic and I were five years old, we moved over to Perth from Sydney. 

Michael Walters’ grandparents lived up the road, and Chris Yarran’s grandparents lived next door. Jeff Garlett was in the area as well. We all used to kick the footy out the front, using bins as the goals. There were heaps of kids on the street, so they would all join in. 

We played club basketball at Swan Park Leisure Centre down the road — Michael and Jeff were both on the team along with the Murace brothers, while Chris played a few games here and there.

We all played together for about eight or nine years.

We won a fair few grand finals, so our coach Tony Murace put us in the men’s league when we were 12 or 13 to challenge us. We dominated that as well. We were like the 1996 Chicago Bulls!

Mum worked at a youth shelter from when we were about six, and she worked at a women’s refuge as well.

It was pretty full-on. She worked two jobs — day shift straight onto to night shift — so we learnt to be a lot more independent from a young age.

Mum also opened our home to people from all walks of life, and even had a number of people live with us who were struggling. 

Mum working at these places, and us visiting from time-to-time, taught us to accept everyone and not to judge anyone.

Nic’s always been a bit of a celebrity.

When he made the AFL, the fame wasn’t really a shock, because everyone always thought he would make it somewhere.

At Swan Park where we played Friday night basketball, it would always be a full house. If they had footage from back then, it was chaos there when he was playing.

We had another mate, Aubrey Ryder, who passed away when we were younger. He and Nic both had that place going crazy when they stepped onto the court. 

I’d say he was going to choose basketball, but a few people told him it’s not as big here as it would be in America, and that it would be a gamble moving over there to try his luck.

I’ve always wanted him to try his luck over there, but haven’t succeeded yet. I reckon if he went with it back then, when he was 16 or 17, he would’ve done well. 

“I’m proud, and the whole family is proud. Mum would be proud, too; I’m sure she’ll be up there watching you play and cheering you on.”

In 2015, we lost Mum, and our cousin a couple of months before that.

I remember going down into the rooms after the Eagles lost the 2015 Grand Final to Hawthorn, and as expected after a loss, it was a bit dull in there. But we didn’t really think about the footy side of it.

I was surprised that he played, I didn’t even think he’d play the rest of that year, but it was a good achievement making the Grand Final and pushing through the pain. 

When Nic did his ACL the following year, he didn’t really want help from anyone. He’s never been one to have people feeling sorry for him. I’d offer to drive him around or go to the shops and he’d say no, so that was the hardest part. He doesn’t like getting too much help from people. 

That’s why it was even more impressive that he came back. He was doing it all on his own. I remember he used to pretty much crawl around the house like Dave Chapelle doing the Rick James skit (if you know, you know).

But when he ruptured his other ACL and missed the 2018 Grand Final, that would’ve been even harder for him.

It would’ve hit him a bit harder if it didn’t happen to the other two boys as well, Andrew Gaff and Brad Sheppard. He’s pretty close with Brad, so as bad as it sounds, I’d say that made it a bit easier for him. 

I think the AFL should change the rule to make it more like the NBA, where everyone in the organisation gets a ‘ring’. It’s a team sport and everyone chips in through the season to reach that final goal. 

It’s been good to see Nic stand up against racism throughout his career.

There’s a lot of multicultural kids out there that wouldn’t have felt comfortable or truly accepted playing AFL because there was nobody that looked like them playing the game, but someone like Nic, being a representative of multiculturalism, gives kids from diverse backgrounds the confidence to get out there and have a go. 

Nic has changed the game. When he came in, it opened the door for a lot of different races to play AFL. 

Recently, I had a bunch of Sudanese boys down at the pub near home who came up to me and said ‘hello’ after my mate told them I was Nic Nat’s brother. It was the same night the Eagles beat Richmond back in round 13.

They didn’t believe me, so we got Nic on FaceTime after the game. They were saying, ‘The only reason we started playing footy is because we saw him. He was the real reason why we started playing footy’. Those boys were losing their minds when they were on FaceTime with him!

For me, the highlight of Nic’s career is still that first game he played at Subiaco.

I remember it was raining, and me and the boys were like, ‘We’re done here, we should try to beat the rush and head down to the change rooms and wait for him to come in there’. 

But just as we were about to walk off, he got that first goal. So then we stayed, he ended up kicking another two, and they won the game. 

All the best for game 200, Nic. It’s a big achievement coming from 6056.

I’m proud, and the whole family is proud. Mum would be proud, too; I’m sure she’ll be up there watching you play and cheering you on.