I can remember the first time I saw Johnathan Thurston.
It was a Friday night, I had a cup of tea in my hand and I was musing over the colour. It was a deep caramel. It doesn’t matter how often I make tea, (and let’s face it, with no shortage of black Grandmothers and Aunties, I’ve made a lot of tea) there is still a moment where I wait anxiously to see if it’s dark enough, if it doesn’t look like it was boiled in a billycan, it just isn’t going to cut it.
Behind me the door opened and my husband walked in. He’d been watching the rugby league outside and was bristling with excitement.
“Catherine Liddle,” he said, “you’ve got to see something!”
He sat down on the end of the couch and changed the channel from Midsummer Murders to the rugby league. I groaned.
“No, no. Just give me a second to show you something,” he said as he patted the couch seat beside him.
“Seriously, sit down. You’re going to love this. It’s the North Queensland Cowboys and you’ve got to see these black boys running amok.” His face was beaming with awe: “It’s like watching your brothers”.
So I sat for a minute and I stayed for the whole game. I can’t tell you the plays, but I remember what it felt like to watch the ‘black magic’. This wasn’t just a great game, this was chemistry. As the ball moved between Thurston, the Bowens and Sing, it was hypnotic and it was fun. This was the first time that I had ever seen the artistry of a critical mass of ‘brothers’ playing on live television and I was bursting with pride. They were unstoppable.
“That’s us” I remember saying to my husband. “That’s how we play.” They were moving with the style and confidence that comes from playing with people who understand who you are, how you move, where you’re going to be and what you need, and they were doing it at an elite level.
The flow-on effect of seeing success like this is not only critical to the wellbeing of Indigenous people but also in laying the foundations for high expectations and success.
To see the two worlds combine on field combine was powerful, hopeful and straight out inspiring. The flow-on effect of seeing success like this is not only critical to the wellbeing of Indigenous people but also in laying the foundations for high expectations and success.
I was so blown away by it that I looked my husband straight in the eye and said, ‘I want to move to Townsville. I just want to be near this.” My husband laughed. “Okay then, let’s do it,” he said.
We didn’t get there. But watching the Cowboys became a family tradition and watching the rise of these young stars and seeing their impact on the community became a personal interest.
I might not have made the move to Townsville but this week I got to meet Johnathan Thurston. Sadly not in person, I couldn’t make this particular trip. But for the past week as I edited this week’s episode of AWAKEN, I sat with Johnathan in his lounge room and listened to his story.
Barefoot, dressed simply in a black t-shirt and bone coloured shorts, Thurston is as hypnotic in conversation as he is on the playing field. From the opening shot where he smiles broadly and looks into the camera, we are invited to see the world from his eyes in his words.
If you thought the grand final winning kick was exciting, you haven’t seen anything yet. It takes just a moment to happen, a slight flick of his head to the right and a shift in his eyes as he searches his memory and all of sudden you are on the field, you’re with him as he looks for the ball. You can feel the ground, the grip of the ball, the roll of the foot, all of it described in slow motion, the dimension so complete you can almost feel the strike of the ball against his boot.
As he sits in his chair, his hands clasped loosely in front of him, his thumbs rolling over each other, it’s hard to believe that it’s only been minutes since he learned of his third Golden Boot Award, an accolade that completes what could only be described as a perfect season: the Dally M, the Churchill Medal, a grand final win, and let’s not forget a new baby and a wedding. He looks at the camera, his pose is comfortable and loose: he worked hard to get here.
"..I was a bit of sook back then…I’d be crying, tears running down my face if we lost.”
He laughs gently – he’s learned to keep Rugby League in perspective, but it hasn’t always been that way. His eyes seem to twinkle, the curve of his mouth becomes mischievous.
“I started playing when I was six,” he says, “but yeah, um, I was a bit of sook back then…I’d be crying, tears running down my face if we lost.”
He shifts again, this time his shoulders move forward slightly and the muscles in his neck flex with stress. He’s not joking about how hard his rise to the top has been. “Yeah,” his voice deepens slightly, “I was too small, too slow, couldn’t tackle,” he says with a quick nervous laugh.
All of these things were said about the young Johnathan Thurston. He gulps and tilts his head to the side again, and his voice belies a remembered stress: “But yeah it was disheartening I was only like 16”.
That was half a life time ago for the man they call JT, but he remembers it clearly as a defining moment. Now he’s 32 and considered the best player in the world and in a few hours from now, it will be Wednesday night and Johnathan Thurston will again be on the television screen. But this time, I’ll be patting the seat next to me and telling my husband “seriously you’re going to love this”.
Johnathan Thurston tells journalist, Stan Grant, his story on AWAKEN, airing Wednesday 2 December 2015 at 9pm on NITV.