There are few words in footy as important as ‘leadership’.
And though Hawthorn youngster Jermaine Miller-Lewis is yet to play a senior game of AFL, he’s already a leader.
At January’s Indigenous Camp, when the players began practising the War Cry – a ritual similar to the Haka, which the New Zealand rugby team performs before its matches – it was Miller-Lewis who led the charge.
“I get tingles, and for me, that’s letting me know that good spirits are still here and that they’re driving us” – Jermaine Miller-Lewis
“If Goodesy or Shaun Burgoyne, or one of the older boys stood up [and wanted to lead, I wouldn’t have put my hand up]… but no one did and Hilly (Bradley Hill) said, ‘go on, Jermaine, get up.’ So I just got up,” Miller-Lewis told aflplayers.com.au this week.
Miller-Lewis has always had a deep and strong connection to his culture, and jumps at any chance to express himself.
“Since I was a young fella, my mother told me to be strong in my culture – to go out and be proud, do dancing, learn how to play the didge and be involved, because your culture is your identity.
“When I talk about my artwork, my dance, when I hear the didge or tap-sticks… As soon as I hear that sort of stuff I get tingles, and for me, that’s letting me know that good spirits are still here and that they’re driving us.”
On the first day of Indigenous Camp, few players would have known Miller-Lewis. But he captured the attention of the group when he got painted up and joined the local Aboriginal children performing the welcome to country ceremony at King’s Park.
“That wasn’t planned,” Miller-Lewis explained.
“It just happened that I had a strong relationship with one of the elders that was playing the didge. As I was walking up to King’s Park, and I’ve seen him and seen the young fellas getting painted up, I thought, ‘eight months ago that was me.’
“When I saw the elder, I just knew I had to dance. I just listened to the old spirits. I had tingles and my heart started pumping fast, and I knew that no matter what anyone says, I’ve got to get up and dance.”
The senior players were impressed with the first-year player’s preparedness to put himself out there. When speaking to the group later that day, Adam Goodes made special mention of the young Hawk’s dancing.
“I could tell that I’d gained a bit of respect from the boys, but I had no intentions of gaining respect or impressing people,” Miller-Lewis said.
“I was just going off my raw emotions. Because I’m a Noongar – that’s my land and I’d always done the welcomes. I just knew I had to do it, no matter what.”
The 19-year-old spent the camp rooming with Gold Coast’s Jarrod Harbrow, who taught him a lot.
“I’d urge young fellas to get out there and do a bit of dancing – push away that shame factor” – Miller-Lewis
“It was awesome to spend my time with a player who’s had a lot of time in the AFL system. He’s similar to me, in that he’s really connected to his culture and quietly spoken – but a real strong leader as well.”
The best part of the camp, Miller-Lewis says, was realising how much he had in common with the senior players.
“They’ve been in my shoes before, as a young skinny fella when they first came in. It was a great experience to get to know Goodesy and the boys I always looked up to.”
And though he was nervous at the start of the camp, it didn’t take long for him to form connections.
“Indigenous boys always click really quickly. It’s not that we don’t like hanging around with non-Indigenous boys, it’s just that we’ve got an instant bond.
“As soon as we’re together, we enjoy each other’s time, because we all understand each other, know where we all come from, and respect each other.”
Though Miller-Lewis describes himself as “quietly spoken”, he’s certainly not shy about his culture.
“I’d urge young fellas to get out there and do a bit of dancing – push away that shame factor,” he said.
“I did my first dancing gig when I was 16 or 17, in front of 200 people, and I’ve done concerts, corporates, schools, workshops. Just getting out there and performing in front of people has given me confidence and knowledge about myself and my culture.”