From Paradise To The Pinnacle Of Success

White driftwood sits on the golden sand of Lilly Beach on Badu Island in the Torres Strait. Coconut Palms sway gently in whatever breezes the day brings. The water changes from blue to green to shades of grey, depending on the moods of the day. Turtles and dugongs cruise languidly beneath the surface and various sea birds chatter and squawk about whatever they wish.

Surely this description of paradise has nothing to do with Australian football, does it?

This picture of paradise changes once you add a few young boys and girls, who run with excited freedom along the beach. They gallop, screaming and laughing with joy, as they play a game of Rugby League, touch football or Aussie Rules. The delightful sounds of youth combined with the majesty of their surroundings. Idyllic.

Torres Strait is the body of water that separates mainland Australia from Papua New Guinea. At its narrowest it is 150 kilometres wide and contains over 250 islands. Some of these are alluvial islands made from the sediments of nearby rivers. Others are coral cays and others still are continental islands, part of the original Great Dividing Range. Very few of these islands have permanent settlements.

This is where Henry and Nathaniel grew up. Born on neighbouring Thursday Island and living their youngest days on Badu. This was light years away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, and equally as far away from the MCG, the symbolic home of AFL football.

Their memories of those early times even read like a manual for how to grow up in paradise. There was camping, fishing for turtle and dugong, visiting family on other islands, playing rugby games on the beach, Christmas time with friends and family and just generally hanging out with friends. But still no mention of AFL football.

This changed for Henry and Nathaniel in 2006 when Dave Maddock-Jones entered their lives and bought Australian football to their school. This locally renowned teacher bought his passion and a bag of footballs to kids in Badu and throughout Torres Strait and the Cape York Peninsula. The boys were hooked. Suddenly Rugby League wasn’t the only sport in their lives.

Leo is from Saibai Island, just 8 kilometres south of Papua New Guinea. Josh is from Cairns. They too discovered this brand of football when introduced to the game through school football. Leo when he arrived at high school and Josh in late primary school. As with the other boys, the demands of education, economics, opportunity and welfare led their families to decisions which involved leaving their traditional homes and heading for the “big smoke”. In some cases, most of the family came. In others it was the boys alone who had to tear themselves away from their traditional and spiritual homes and start a new life in Cairns. All of the boys agree it was tough. Very tough. Homesickness, and the detachment from their families, were common themes amongst these young men. They all admit that the first few months were the worst until they made friends and support networks that they still have to this day.

A major part of those networks are the football clubs. The bonds and friendships grown out of shared experience can often be the strongest. This is true, in part, for these boys who have played school footy together throughout their high school years. They have played for their school together at Djarragun College. They have played for their local club, Pyramid Power, with each of them in the same Under 16 team this year. And they have played together in a variety of indigenous and regional representative teams throughout the Torres Strait islands and Cape York Peninsula communities.

As these young men become adults, with the responsibilities that go with that role, it is interesting to ask about their dreams and goals. Whilst AFL football is an important part of their lives now, they still have other directions. Leo loves his music. He was interviewed inside a recording studio at his school. He also has an interest in architecture. Nathaniel would love to join the navy and become an indigenous role model to other kids who follow his path. Josh would love to be a rugby league star, but would take AFL success in a blink of an eye. He should, too. He and Nathaniel have “star” written all over them. Interviewing them in a gymnasium was daunting enough.

All of these boys have shared a similar path through Aussie Rules. From the paradise of their youth, to the glare of lights at Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns on match evening, they have already travelled further in their quest for success than most players their own age. When asked if they would love to make the “big time” they were all positive. Nathaniel admits it would be a great experience. Leo is happy just to enjoy every experience life places in front of him. Josh is keen to succeed, but wise enough to want to finish his education to set up alternative careers. And does Henry want to experience the highest level of AFL football?

“Hell, Yeah!!” he says, emphatically.

What a journey that would be. From the golden sands of paradise to the MCG…the pinnacle of AFL success.

Again, “Hell, Yeah!!”


L-R: Leo Akiba, Henry Mareko, Josh Kyle and Nathaniel Tamwoy. (pic courtesy of Wesley Hull)



Post Script: Since this story was first published in late 2012, these boys have enjoyed varying life changes involving sport. Josh now plays for the Masala Football Club in suburban Melbourne. He gained squad selection for the VAFA Under 18 team last year as he continues to pursue an AFL dream. Henry returned to the Torres Strait islands after playing 2 more games for me in 2014. He finished his season back on Badu Island playing in the Rugby League team, and loving it. Leo returned home to Saibai Island and last I heard from him he was playing his music. Nathan left our club to play for the wholly indigenous Cape York Eagles in their inaugural season. As a Colts player he won the AFL Cairns Best & Fairest award.



About Wesley Hull

Passionate lover of Australian Rules football. Have played and coached the game and now spend my time writing about the game I love and introducing young people to the game through school coaching. Will try and give back to the game what it has given me for more that 40 years.

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