On Saturdays, Taree's football field is buzzing red.
Young players pull on their Taree Red Rover’s jersey with pride and wait for the starting whistle.
It’s here that Sydney Roosters star Latrell Mitchell can be found cheering on his junior club from the sideline.
“I just want to give back to my community whenever I can,” Mitchell told NITV News.
The proud Biripi and Wiradjuri man often returns to Country unannounced. With rural teams folding due to lack of registrations, he is concerned that kids from the bush are disconnecting with rugby league.
But Mitchell is determined to make a difference, urging the NRL to bring more NRL games and players to small towns.
Recently, the NSW Blues and Kangaroo’s talent gave the Taree Red Rovers 50 tickets for keen footballers to watch their heroes.
“It was a good opportunity to organise for some kids from the Taree Red Rovers to come along to our game in Newcastle,” Mitchell said.
“It’s definitely something I want to do more of.”
Giving back to his community
Secretary of the Taree Red Rovers Melissa Gahan is one of Latrell’s longest supporters. She says the trip to McDonald Jones Stadium in May was an awe-inspiring experience for young players.
“A lot of our kids would probably never get the opportunity to see an NRL game,” Ms Gahan told NITV News.
“Latrell’s just such a down to earth kid, people respond to him. He’s not arrogant and he doesn’t go looking for attention - half the time he just stands with his Dad and his brother, just to watch the kids play.”
Ms Gahan agrees with Mitchell’s urgency to save grassroots rugby league, telling NITV News “the game is dying.”
“Especially in our area, we’ve had to bring kids [from other areas] down into our competition to stop entire age groups folding,” said Ms Gahan.
“If what Latrell is trying to achieve can bring more kids to football, I am 100 per cent behind him.”
The Taree Red Rovers have one of the highest numbers of Indigenous players across the district.
But Ms Gahan says the field and sidelines are peppered with racial abuse.
“Knowing Latrell all the way through his junior career … him and his brother were so good they copped lot of sideline criticism and racial abuse over the years,” Ms Gahan said.
“Because of what happened to him, and seeing how it affected him ... I try and protect the kids as much as I possibly can.”
While reflecting on his junior days and today’s game, Mitchell opened up about his goal to stand up to racism.
“I know as a young fella I used to cop it a lot. Under-10s, Under-11s. You get family of the opposite teams just yelling abusive things at you because their sons are getting beat. It’s ignorance,” Mitchell told the Daily Telegraph.
“My old fella always pulled me off. If someone started being racist he just dragged me off the field and said, ‘nah, we’re going home.’"
A passionate player with a strong connection to Country, Ms Gahan says she couldn’t think of a better role model for the kids at her club.
“The fact that Latrell is doing what he’s doing, I am so proud of him … my own son is now 17 and he can stand up proud and say: ‘that’s my cousin and he’s showing [how to] be proud of your culture and stand up for what you actually believe in’.”
And Mitchell did just that for the State of Origin series opener in Brisbane recently .
“What he’s doing is opening discussion – if people are willing to discuss it,” said Ms Gahan. “It brings an opportunity to engage in a conversation about it. People don’t understand – if they haven’t lived it, they don’t get it.
First Nations role models
Mitchell was guided by strong Indigenous mentors from an early age. His first coach, Shane Glass took on the gifted 6-year-old after he scored over 16 tries at a local rugby league gala day.
“I was coaching his brother Shaq and his Dad brought Latrell to us and asked if he could play up an age… he wasn’t getting challenged in his own age group,” Mr Glass told NITV News.
“Latrell’s always known he was going to play down in Sydney from the time he was about 7 or 8. I’m just proud to have had a chance to be involved with somebody so talented.”
Glass nurtured Latrell’s game for a decade with the Taree Red Rovers. Now, he is a proud spectator.
“I watch and support him all the time,” Mr Glass said. “His Dad and I made sure we put him in cotton wool and that he did the right thing off the field.
“Off the field he’s a bit of a daredevil; he likes skateboarding, riding pushbikes, riding motorbikes … You’ve got to be careful with him that he doesn’t get injured.”
When Mitchell needs to re-energise, he always heads to Biripi Country. Back to his old stomping ground on the Taree Red Rovers home field.
“As soon as the kids see him pull up at home in his ute with his motorbikes on the back, they all just swarm down to them … He goes for his ride in the bush and then he comes back to the kids,” said Mr Glass.
“You can see on his face - it lights up - and it also lights the kids’ faces up. He loves doing that for them.”
Still coaching at the Red Rovers, Mr Glass says the country competition is brimming with talent but needs people like Mitchell supporting it.
“A lot of these kids in about 10-15 years, they will be snapping on the heels of Latrell,” Mr Glass said. "But they will miss out if football falls to the wayside.
“It’s a big outlet for the Indigenous kids in our community and a lot of communities up and down the mid-north coast.”
For Glass, there is no question that Mitchell plays a major role in igniting grassroots enthusiasm.
“I coach an Under-9’s team. When we train and play games of football, they all say ‘I’m Latrell, no I’m Latrell, no I’m Latrell’.
“There’s about 8 or 9 Koori kids in my Under-9’s and they all want to be Latrell. Even the non-Koori kids want to be Latrell,” Mr Glass said.
One of these kids is Mr Glass’ nephew, 9 year old Dakoda Manewell-Glass.
Dakoda says his Mum only let him play rugby league instead of soccer because of Latrell Mitchell.
“He comes to our games and stretches with us, cheers us on. Sometimes he comes to training as well,” Dakoda told NITV News.
“I want to be like Latrell one day because he’s like my cousin - I want to go the exact same path that he went up.”
When Mitchell turns up to the Taree Red Rover’s games, he is just another supporter on the sideline.
It’s all about the youngsters on the field.
“When I score a try I always do his celebration, where you put your two fingers up to your ears,” Dakoda said.
“My main celebration is the kangaroo ears, like Latrell, but I also do the goanna … I do that one for Greg Inglis.”
The importance of proud Aboriginal role models is something Mitchell can relate to - the former Rabbitohs Captain is his idol too.
“Him being Indigenous and me being Indigenous, I’ve always looked up to him ever since I came into the game,” Mitchell told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The comparison – I don’t mind it – but he’s made his legacy and I want to make mine and not be called Greg Inglis, but Latrell.”
Support for Latrell's ambition
This tide is turning in Taree.
Alongside her role as secretary, Ms Gahan also helps with signing up new players to join the Taree Red Rovers.
Part of the registration process is for the kids to nominate which player, team and state they support.
“For years it was Greg Inglis, Souths, Queensland … Even in Taree!” said Ms Gahan
“G.I was a lot of people’s hero but since last year, since Latrell made the NSW side, a lot of kids have changed over.”
At the beginning of the year, Ms Gahan signed up a new recruit.
“A little 5 year old boy - and I said to him ‘who do you support mate?’
The answer that came back was simple: “Latrell”.
“So I asked the boy, and the Roosters?
“He said, no, just Latrell.
“That to me is exactly how Latrell is to kids … Even without knowing, he’s made a big influence on them because he’s from here and he made it.”
Latrell Mitchell is a regular guest on NITV’s flagship Rugby League show Over the Black Dot. Tune in every Tuesday night 830pm.