From a wiry thin young man who struggled to get signed by any of the NRL feeder teams because he was “too small”, to becoming one of the world’s best rugby league players, Johnathan Thurston is the embodiment of what can be achieved when you combine passion with determination.
The North Queensland Cowboys co-captain and State of Origin great – who kicked the winning field goal in the final minutes of last week’s Origin clash before a recurring shoulder injury forced a devastating early end to his season – has an undeniable on-field dominance, which prompts opposing teams to form entire defence plays based on slowing him down.
But off the field, Thurston has come to be a respected and avid supporter of boosting opportunities for Indigenous Australians.
As we approach NAIDOC Week, which runs from July 2 to 9, the Indigenous community will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 reform to allow Indigenous Australians to vote.
“Indigenous Australians are four times more likely to be hospitalised for chronic conditions and 19.3 per cent of Indigenous families are living below the poverty line”
Speaking to MWP prior to the testing second Origin game, which saw his troubled shoulder re-injured by a tackle from Tyson Frizzell and a shock departure from both Origin and the upcoming World Cup series to undergo surgery, Thurston says he will continue to do what he can off the field to help to bridge education and health gaps for Indigenous Australians.
The ninth Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report, released earlier this year, shows key targets to halve the child mortality rate, close the gap on life expectancy, boost school attendance rates, halve the gap in reading and numeracy, and halve unemployment by 2018 are “not on track”.
Despite Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders making up three per cent of the population, statistics show that there is a life expectancy gap of 10 years in women and up to 17 years in men; Indigenous Australians are four times more likely to be hospitalised for chronic conditions and 19.3 per cent of Indigenous families are living below the poverty line.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report, which highlights the tragedy of the Stolen Generations leading to the National Apology in 2008. But the number of Aboriginal children living in out-of-home care has risen significantly since, with more children being taken from their homes for child welfare reasons.
Reconciliation Australia is now working closely with the Federal Government to bring about a referendum seeking a change to the constitution that recognises Indigenous Australians and Thurston is among those who cannot wait for the milestone to be reached.
Thurston says he always knew of his Aboriginal heritage, with mother Debbie a proud Gunggari woman from Mitchell, a town 590 kilometres west of Brisbane, but it wasn’t until a training camp in 2010 that he felt compelled to find out more about what being an Indigenous Australian meant.
“I didn’t know much about my family history, or where my mum grew up, and at a training camp before the inaugural Indigenous All Stars versus NRL All Stars exhibition match, Dr Chris Sarra asked us to line up into two groups; those who know about their family history and culture, and those who didn’t,” he tells MWP
“There was an even split, but I was one of those boys that didn’t know. So I spoke to my mum and got together about a dozen of my cousins and a few uncles and we hired a mini bus and drove out to Mitchell for the weekend. My uncle taught us traditional dances and told us some stories about his childhood. It was really an eye-opener, but it was also a really calming influence on me.”
The only hint of his signature comic kookaburra laugh, which is so popular it was once available to download as a ringtone, comes when Thurston talks about his attempts at playing the didgeridoo.
But once he gets back on topic, Thurston talks seriously about the strong connection he felt to the land where his mother and her 12 siblings had been raised.
While he had been representing his culture on the field as an Indigenous All Star and always donning a red, black and yellow mouthguard, finding that visceral connection spurred Thurston on to look at other ways he could make a positive difference to the indigenous community.
“I didn’t realise the impact that I could have, and [that connection] helped me to realise that I am in a privileged position and I can certainly help to make a difference.
“Anything to do with students is something that I’m passionate about, that’s where I like to put all of my energy. This is the next generation of our culture and I want to drive home to them that education is the key to bettering yourself and becoming a positive role model in your own community.”
In his early teens, Thurston’s rugby league prowess was already shining through, but he quickly realised that opportunities like scholarships would not be available to him if he didn’t pull his socks up academically.
Thurston has since become an ambassador for the Former Origin Greats’ ARTIE (Achieving Results Through Indigenous Education) Academy, and the Cowboys’ Learn Earn Legend program as well as the recently opened Cowboys House, which provides supported accommodation for 25 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote communities in north-west and Far North Queensland, enabling them to access high school education in Townsville.
“None of these programs were around when I was in high school, especially dedicated for Indigenous people,” he says.
“I want to be there to help them in every way possible and to try to drive home the message to others that these opportunities are there for their benefit, so they need to grab them with both arms.”
Thurston has been an ambassador for the Queensland Reconciliation Awards for the past five years and has connected regularly with the State Government to share the impressive results, influence and success these programs have had.
“I know the government is doing its best, but certainly we have a long way to go to close and bridge the gap in Indigenous health and education issues,” he says.
“I always say that education is the key for our culture, we need to break the cycle and get these kids into school, where they can not only learn, but if they have a younger sister, cousin, or brother and they see them doing well at school, it has a snowball effect. This next generation can influence not just what happens in their homes, but also in their communities.”
Thurston says he is proud of the NRL for continuing to embrace and celebrate Indigenous culture, with players from all 16 clubs taking to the field in specially-designed jerseys in recognition of the Indigenous Round in week 10 of the season.
While he has made history in many ways throughout his career, Thurston says the 2015 NRL grand final, which the Cowboys took out over then captain Justin Hodges’ Brisbane Broncos, was made much more special in that it was the first time in the sport’s history that both grand final teams were led by Indigenous captains.
“One hundred per cent, sport has the power to help with social change, you can see that in the way these programs being run by sporting clubs are making a huge difference,” he says.
University of the Sunshine Coast School of Health and Sport Sciences principal researcher Elizabeth Pressick agrees and has consulted with Indigenous elders and advisory groups to design the nine-week Gibir Galangur Program, which kicks off on July 13, to encourage Indigenous Australian men to play traditional sports to improve their health and wellbeing.
To find out more about the Gibir Galangur Program, call 0412 416 284.