Warning: this story contains an image of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who has passed.
Just a boy from Casino.
These are the words of Cody Walker after South Sydney’s 36-16 win over Manly in the NRL Preliminary Final.
After orchestrating the club’s most important victory since 2014, the proud Bundjalung and Yuin man can’t stop thinking of home.
His home, Casino, is a small town in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. One in ten of the 10,000-strong population are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
It’s where his father, Bernie, speaks from today.
“I was too nervous watching that game, I wanted to go to bed,” Bernie tells NITV News.
“I kept pacing the house then got game enough to go and watch.”
Thankfully he did. His son was on song. The 31-year-old put himself in the right position to nail two of the Rabbitohs first three tries in a scorching first half.
The second was a particularly super effort.
The five-eighth was on his haunches 35 metres out as Adam Reynolds hoisted a bomb downfield. It landed and was tapped back by Souths, and you could see Walker just start to rise as this happened.
Hooker Damien Cook collected the ball, made a run, and then put a grubber in-field in the opposite direction Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic was travelling.
A flying Walker was there to collect the four points.
The win meant even more after three successive Preliminary Final defeats.
It was a special moment, but his family was hardly surprised. They’ve seen him perform since he was four years old.
Bernie remembers when, as a 15-year-old, his son crossed for five tries in a Grand Final, and when he scored in his Rugby League debut for the Lower Clarence Magpies.
“They gave him a go in his brother Luke’s team, and he virtually fell over the line,” Bernie remembers
But that’s not the version the cheeky four-year-old delivered his dad later that day.
“I asked him what happened he said ‘dad, I just picked it up, stepped off my left foot, went through the gap, and scored’.”
Walker plays with instinctive flair and a hard-nosed approach. Our people will proudly say he is a ‘Koori Knockout’-style player, never taking a backward step on the field and sticking up for your teammates.
Bernie says his son’s toughness stemmed from a childhood filled with intense backyard games with his brothers Luke, Dane and Ryan.
“These older boys, gee they used to give it to him,” he says.
“When he’s got three brothers that bash him from pillar to post; you’ve got to survive somehow … that’s how he learned.”
Brother Ryan backs this up as young Cody was always paired with his biggest brother Dane.
“We used to always attack and target him,” Ryan says.
But along with the physical hazing, these daily tussles generated some pivotal Rugby League foundations.
“It was just our thing. Instead of playing Fortnite, we would be out the back playing footy coming up with all these games,” Ryan says.
The brothers made up rules like you have to kick to get two points. Or to score the try you have to dive on the ball from a kick. Or you must catch a bomb to score or it’s a handover.
“Instead of creating strategies on games we would do it in football,” Ryan explains.
Football was everything to the brothers and rainy days were a bonus.
Ryan says they would be scouting out which football field had the best puddles to tear into on the school bus ride home. If the fields were too sloppy on school lunch breaks, it would be a game of two-second hold footy on the concrete basketball courts.
“It paid off for us in the long run - we were able to develop our skills in different ways and I guess you see the benefits of Cody being able to do that on the big stage now,” Ryan says.
Cody's journey has been well documented. From Casino to the Gold Coast, the Panthers, Easts Brisbane and Melbourne, before he finally got his shot for Souths in 2016.
He’s had a good group of people in his corner, including his partner Nellie and his two young boys. And he could always rely on his biggest fan, his mother.
‘Carrying her out there’
The world changed for the Walker family in May 2018 with the sudden passing of their matriarch, Linda 'LouLou' Stewart. Her death hit all the boys hard.
“Those boys never did anything without their mother, she was a great mum,” Bernie says.
He reminisces about the close bond between mother and son.
“He [Cody] was on the Gold Coast and staying with an Aboriginal family. I was working at Casino and come Friday was looking forward to going to the club with his mum. When I got home she said ‘no we’ve gotta go up here to Cody’, I said ‘Why? His game is tomorrow,” he says.
“She said ‘well he told me in no uncertain terms if we don’t come up tonight he’s going to moogul up and he won’t play tomorrow’.
“So we got in the car and went up there, and once we did, he was right, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
“He just wanted his mum there with him.”
Bernie says Lou would watch every game and curse any opposition player that would touch her boy.
“She would say ‘oh I don’t like him,” he says.
“I said ‘who? They are playing football. Did you see what Cody did too?’”
Walker played for the Rabbitohs 48 hours after his mother’s passing, crossing for an emotional try in an 18-point win over the Knights. In every match since he writes ‘Mum’ on his wrist strapping alongside the names of Nellie and his boys, Kian and Kade.
“It just makes me happy that he is still paying tribute to her, and it just reminds us to think of her when we are doing things we’re proud of or things that she would think we are proud of,” Ryan says.
“It gets a bit emotional when you start to think and talk about it …. and every time he scores, I look for him to do it.
“It fills you with happiness to know he is carrying her out there each game.”
He will again carry her with him to the biggest game of the season, against an opponent that has a history with the family.
The Walker family has a connection with Penrith going back decades. Ryan Walker played three NRL matches for the team in 2011, crossing for a try, while Cody was in the system with him, plying his trade for the Windsor Wolves NSW Cup.
Bernie was also a Wolf back in the 1980s with his brother Chris, while the boys’ uncle Henry Foster and pop Ronnie Mason also had a run.
Several of the Walker family are traditional Panthers fans as well.
Ryan says these links will make the game more of a spectacle and jokes he could easily get on the bandwagon if the result leaned that way.
They sit in hope of Cody achieving glory after seasons on the cusp.
Bernie is filled with pride as he talks about the hard work it has taken for his son to achieve all that he has in the game. From a late-bloomer into first grade at 26, from representing NSW Country, the Blues in State Of Origin and the Indigenous All Stars.
The 2021 season, his sixth, has been a standout. The Dally M five-eighth of the year would have finished second in the overall count if not for suspension.
He has blitzed his attacking statistics in terms of try and linebreak assists and he is also in the running for the Ken Stephen Medal that recognises positive off-field impacts by players.
“Everyone can relate to Cody and his story. He has always been in and around community … and everyone finds motivation through him because he’s done it,” Ryan says.
Bernie adds that he’s also inspired his family, in particular young children.
“It’s all about Uncle Cody Walker … they just walk with pride about that,” he says.
While it’s a little bit of a “downer” that he can’t be in Brisbane for the game, Ryan will be watching his brother’s title tilt at home by himself, as he can’t handle any distractions.
“I’ll probably be crying here watching on, but it will be happy tears,” he says.
Back in Casino, Bernie will be doing the same.
“I would be howling, I’m telling you that now,” Bernie says.
“I’m dreaming about these sorts of things … my baby boy playing in the Grand Final.”