As kids growing up on the Gold Coast, the three Riewoldt siblings were as thick as thieves.
They used to joke that they were a ”package deal’’: if one Riewoldt was in on something the other two would be there as well.
As the eldest, Nick was more a protective than an overbearing big brother. “If anything he was more like a second father figure,’’ said Alex Riewoldt, his younger brother by three years (pictured above, far right).
“If I ever played up that would be the only time I’d ever cop his wrath, so he was always very good like that,’’ Alex said. “He looked after (younger sister) Maddie and I really well and made sure we kept out of trouble.’’
The Riewoldt family had moved to the Gold Coast from Tasmania in 1991, when Nick was nine.
He had grown up in a family steeped in Australian football. Father Joe and his three brothers were all powerfully built successful footballers, and with the Gold Coast school sporting scene dominated by the rugby codes, Joe quickly signed his sons up with Aussie rules club, the Broadbeach Cats.
Because the Riewoldts’ back yard was mainly taken up by a swimming pool, Alex and Nick used play cricket (the younger brother inevitably bowling) and football out the front of their house.
“There was a tree and a light pole across the street that would have probably only been about a metre or so apart, and from about 30 metres away we used to try to kick goals between them,’’ Alex recalled.
But neither boy could really imagine that those childhood games would one day lead to a 300-game career at the highest level. “I mean on the Gold Coast in the late 1990s, the AFL wasn’t even really on our radar,’’ Alex said.
Nick could play a bit as a junior ‘‘but I just remember there not being all that much hype about him until that last Under 18s national carnival he played in (as Queensland captain) where he sort of broke out a bit and had some good games, and all of a sudden you had these AFL guys knocking on your door’’.
The Riewoldt family hoped Nick would be drafted by the Brisbane Lions “because it would mean he’d stay close’’, but they lived about 50 kilometres beyond what was then the Lions’ geographical access zone.
“We were and still are a really tight-knit family,’’ Alex said. “We’ve spent a lot a lot of time together.’’
When he watched on television as St Kilda called out his brother’s name as the 2000 No.1 draft pick, the significance of what was happening didn’t really dawn on the 14-year-old Alex.
Nick was moving to Melbourne and he wasn’t coming back.
For seven years Alex watched most of Nick’s games from afar. “I remember in his second season watching him line up on Glen Jakovich and thinking ‘geez, this is fair dinkum, he’s really playing against some big blokes’,’’ Alex said.
In 2007 Alex moved to Victoria, sharing a house with Nick until his marriage to Catherine a few years ago. They could again chat across the kitchen table as Nick enjoyed the most successful era of his football career. The Grand Finals stand out, but Alex said arguably the most exciting game he’d seen was when the undefeated St Kilda and Geelong played in Round 14 of the 2009 season. “That, as a game, and in terms of build-up and excitement, was probably the best game I saw.’’
And, tragically, Alex was also there to put an arm around Nick’s shoulder for the most devastating period of their lives. In September 2010 their sister Maddie was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia — a rare disorder in which the body’s bone marrow doesn’t make enough new blood cells.
“I guess it’s like any brothers with a younger sister – she was our baby girl and we’d do any we could to protect her and help guide her,’’ Alex said.
“But when she got sick, the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, knowing that this was someone you wanted to look after and to shield from this sort of stuff, was just so frustrating.
“And for Nick, who likes to be in control and have a say in every situation, not being able to do that was really new to him. So like the rest of us, that feeling of helplessness was what cut the deepest.
“There was nothing he wouldn’t have done for here. He was the one who would constantly ask the questions to the doctors that and read as much as he could about her illness, find out what it means. It was almost like he was trying to find something that we’d missed or hadn’t considered along the way. He’s just that sort of bloke.’
“Then watching someone you love deteriorate was just heart-wrenching.’’
In early 2015, doctors called the Riewoldt family together to deliver some mind-numbing news about Maddie.
“Even on that morning, when for the third time in the space of a few months they told us that Maddie wasn’t going to make it through the day, Nick was the one who just didn’t want to believe it,’’ Alex said. “He’d say ‘she’s pulled through before’ and he was reeling off a list of things that we could do to help her come through.’’
Sadly, Maddie did not come through.
As the Riewoldt family grieved, they also turned their attention to setting up a foundation in Maddie’s name in the hope that others would endure similar distress.
Nick took time away from football leading into last season, before returning for the Saints’ season opener against Greater Western Sydney.
“To be honest the footy club in particular, and the AFL as a whole, were so good in giving him the space and the support that he needed. St Kilda was unreal in terms of its support. Even little things like delivering food to the family.
“Then there was the enormous support from his teammates. ‘Joey’ Montagna would check in on Nick every day and really kept an eye on him when he returned to the club.
“But when you’re the captain of an AFL team, to a degree you have to suck it up and get out there.’’
Alex sat with his brother in the rooms before that return to football against the Giants,
“I know how hard it was for him to get up for that game. He was very emotional and there was so much focus on him, and I just kept thinking how hard it had even been for me to go back to work at the office, let alone to have all of these people and cameras watching every move,’’ Alex said.
And he will be there again for his brother’s 300-match, one that will again be dominated by memories of their beloved sister, their “baby girl’’.
- Since being established, Maddie Riewoldt’s Vision has received close to $1million from generous donations ($860,000) and probono support. It has already made strategic inroads into its mission of finding a cure and started funding significant medical research projects, including the world’s only National Aplastic Anemia Registry.
- Maddie Riewoldt’s Vision aims to raise over $1million per year to sustain its research strategy.
- Maddie Riewoldt, 26, suffered from a Bone Marrow Failure called Aplastic Anemia, which claimed her life in February 2015.
- Maddie had a five-year fight with the illness, experiencing countless blood transfusions, intrusive medical procedures, two bone marrow transplants and seven months in hospital, with 227 days spent in ICU.
- Maddie and the Riewoldt family didn’t want anyone to go through what Maddie went through and in June 2015, four months after Maddie’s passing, Maddie Riewoldt’s Vision was established to raise money and fund medical research into finding a cure for Bone Marrow Failure
- For more information or to donate visit MRV.ORG.AU