Rioli looks beyond MCG

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He’s come a long way from an indigenous community on an island off the coast of Darwin. Hawks footballer Cyril Rioli is celebrated as one of the best in the AFL. Peter Ah Sam* takes us behind the scenes.

Cyril Rioli was not fazed by the glare of lights, roar of up to 100,000 fans spectators chanting and stomping their feet and cameras that broadcast live to 4.4 million people.

“After a while you get used to it,” says Rioli, named player of the match in Hawthorn’s 46-point grand final win at the MCG. “I remember the first time. I was so nervous and all I could hear is people screaming every minute of the game. It was nerve-wracking but I had to learn to block the noise out.”

Rioli grew up in a small Aboriginal community on Melville Island off Darwin. The land is surrounded with crystal clear, blue water, filled with some of Australia’s finest fish as well as its deadliest predators, the saltwater crocodiles.

“Living there was amazing,” Rioli says. “I always went fishing and spearing, catching large Barramundis and eating fresh food from both the sea and land. It was amazing; technology wasn’t a big thing over there so it was just peaceful and pure. I remember after school my family and I would get on the boat straight away and go fishing but if it’s not fishing we are on the land hunting.

“My wife is from Darwin but I take her to the island for a fish and to visit the family. We just recently bought a boat so I cannot wait to take it up to Darwin to teach my nephews and nieces how to fish, like my dad and uncles taught me.”

Rioli says he’s very family-orientated. “His mother is Michael Long’s sister. Rioli had many role models growing up, especially from his footballer father, Cyril snr, and uncle, Maurice Rioli. He says his greatest memory is of being taught how to fish, spear, hunt and learning how to kick a football.

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Cyril Rioli

Rioli was just 14 when he moved from Darwin to Melbourne to attend Scotch College as a boarder. He packed his bags and left his family and friends behind to embark on a new pathway. He didn’t just miss his family and friends but the warm, tropical climate.

“It was hard being away from my family and friends, but in the end it wasn’t as bad.” Rioli says. “I got a great education and got to play footy, so I was happy. Saying that, though, I bloody miss the warm weather.”

Rioli was drafted to Hawthorn in 2008 and from then on became a rising star at the Hawthorn Football Club. He was awarded the AFL Rising Star and in 2009, he was awarded AFLCA Best Young Player and AFL Goal of the Year. In 2012 and 2015, Rioli made the All-Australian Team and has been in Premiership-winning teams in 2008, 2013 and 2014.

Few footballers know such success, let alone by the age of 26 is incredible. As exciting as it may seem to be a footballer, it can also be overwhelming not just the players but also their families.

Rioli’s wife, Shannyn, speaks of the challenges footballers face. “I am proud of everything he has done and the hard work he has put into to be where he is now,” she says. “However, sometimes it can just be too much. We would be walking in shopping markets and people would come up to him and take photos and want autographs signed. It is almost like he is watched with every move, which can be a little maddening. I get that it comes with the job but they seem to forget that he is human like them and just want a normal life.”

Rioli is now celebrating his fourth Premiership game, as they played against the West Coast Eagles, at the MCG. This is his fourth premiership game since starting his career in 2008. However, the Hawthorn Football Club has made history, after winning three premierships in a row, or as they say, “back to – back to – back!”

“I was extremely nervous but this is my job,” Rioli says. “This is what I get paid to do and that is to win premiership games. But it will be great to have my family, friends and my wife in the stadium supporting me. I think it was a great game, tough but rewarding. I am glad we won because I do think we deserve it and winning the Norm Smith medal was something I was proud of, especially because my uncle Maurice won the Norm Smith 33 years ago.”

Another uncle, Michael Long, won the Norm Smith in 1993.

After Rioli retires from football he plans to move back to Darwin and run an organisation to provide Aboriginal people the opportunity to strive for excellence through education and sports.

“Yeah, once I am done and decide to retire from football, I want to set up a clinic in the Northern Territory for Aboriginal kids. I plan for it to focus on football and education, that way if they don’t get into the AFL they will have a back up plan to fall on to,” Rioli says.

Rioli is a role model, a humble man creating a pathway for many others.

What do the fans think of Rioli? “He is my favourite! He is my role model,” says Dexter, 13. “He’s nice and he’s a really good footballer,”

Timothy, 34, says, “I like the fact that he is humble and has his head screwed on. He is talented but he doesn’t show off.”

* Peter Ah Sam is Cyril Rioli’s brother-in-law.