Not many people get to live out their childhood dream. Even fewer get to do it in front of 60,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Jarrad Oakley Nicholls managed both. And, whilst that dream did not work out the way he expected, the journey it has taken him on has led him to a different calling, and a way to give back to his culture.
“I remember [former Richmond coach] Terry Wallace pulling me into his office and telling me that I was playing my first game on the weekend,” says Oakley Nicholls, who made his AFL debut for Richmond in the 2006 Indigenous Round Dreamtime at the ‘G game against Essendon.
The game was first played in 2005, and was contested by Richmond and Essendon again on May 28 in the 2016 Indigenous Round. The AFL holds the round every year to recognise Aboriginal players’ incredible contribution to the game, with the Dreamtime at the ‘G game as its centrepiece. This year’s match, which Richmond won by 38 points, featured a traditional Welcome to Country ceremony, as well as ‘The Long Walk’, an annual procession begun by former AFL footballer Michael Long, aimed at raising awareness of Aboriginal concerns.
The 2006 version of the game had special significance for Oakley Nicholls – an Indigenous man with Yamitji, Noongar, Koori, and Kija ancestry – and his family. Speaking in the days prior to the 2016 game, he reminisced on what he describes as the most memorable night of his football career.
“I walked out of the office and went straight up to [fellow Noongar footballer] Andrew Krakouer who was at Richmond also, and he was in the weights room doing his weights,” he says.
“I just ran up to him and said, ‘Hey brother, I’m playing my first game’… I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.”
A talented junior who had been scouted by AFL clubs since he was 16, and who took more interest in his dream of being an AFL player than his schoolwork, Oakley Nicholls credits his mother, Joyce Oakley, with keeping him focused. After he was drafted as a 17-year-old, she moved to Melbourne with him to help him with his homesickness. He didn’t take long to tell her the news.
“Mum was over in Melbourne, and it wasn’t too long until the rest of my family was over in Melbourne to enjoy the lead-up to my first game,” he says.
“They’ve been a big part of my whole footy career, so to be able to bring them over at the end of all the hard work that I went through in juniors, and for them to celebrate my first AFL game was pretty important.
“I wanted to have a good game to represent my family and my culture, especially on that day.”
Oakley Nicholls, who Richmond selected at Number 8 in the 2005 National Draft showed his trademark speed to burst through midfield and kick a behind late in the game that put his side ahead. Richmond won by two points.
“I would have loved to have kicked a goal, but it was pretty exciting, and to hear the crowd roar was pretty deafening,” he says.
“You live for those sort of games and those moments.”
Unfortunately, Oakley Nicholls’ Richmond career was cut short by a series of injuries, and, after being de-listed by Richmond in 2009, he spent two years on West Coast’s rookie list, back in Perth.
It was there, while going through rehabilitation for a hip injury, that he began thinking about life after football.
“Through that time I really started to look at what to do after footy,” he says.
“I really had nothing to back me up … I got drafted at 17, and didn’t have normal work experience as a 17, 18-year-old.
“I really put all my eggs in one basket, and that’s something I pass on to the young fellas these days; don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
After working once a week as a mentor with the Wirrpanda Foundation during his rehabilitation, Oakley Nicholls began working with the organisation full-time after being de-listed by West Coast at the end of 2011.
He now works alongside other former AFL players Troy Cook, Dale Kickett, David Hynes and David Wirrpanda himself.
“I want to strive to help our mob in their journey, and help them strive to become whatever they want to be,” he says.
“It’s a challenging but also rewarding job, which I love.”
Oakley Nicholls manages the foundation’s Vocational Training and Employment Centre (VTEC) program, which helps Indigenous job seekers plan career paths, while engaging them in weekly fitness sessions. The Federal Government program is designed to help Aboriginal job seekers obtain driver’s licences, job skills training, assistance with literacy and numeracy, and to prepare them for long-term employment.
Oakley Nicholls says he has seen the importance of football to many of the program’s participants first-hand.
“Footy is an outlet for a lot of people, not just Aboriginal people,” he says.
“When I lost my brother a three years ago, [football] was a massive part of me healing, and not getting down on myself all the time.
“Footy lets you get the frustrations and thoughts in your head to go away for two hours.”
At the end of his AFL career, Oakley Nicholls returned to represent East Perth, the club he was drafted from, and where he still plays after more than 100 games.
Though he says he would love to still be playing with Richmond, he adds he has no regrets about the way his AFL career ended, and says the mental toughness he developed to overcome his injuries and setbacks has made him a more resilient person.
“You’re put up against a lot of challenges, with injury and not getting selected … you play a couple of games and then get dropped when senior players come back; they’re the knocks you take and you find a way to get back on your feet,” he says.
“Everything that I learnt through those times has made me the person that I am now.”
Ten years on, he still has a soft spot for Richmond and says the concept of Indigenous Round and the Dreamtime at the ‘G game are important to Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people alike.
“For the AFL to look at having a round for the contribution Indigenous people have made to the game is very important, and I think it needs to keep going,” he says.
“Indigenous people are the first people of the nation … and it’s important to acknowledge the people who have played the game before me: the Nicky Winmars, Chris Lewises, Polly Farmers.
“To give recognition to those guys is significant.”
Oakley Nicholls is enjoying life outside of football, and he and partner Ashlea Walley are expecting their first child this year. He says he is excited by the prospect of fatherhood.
“I’ve got a big family, so it’s another grandkid for Mum,” he says.
However, he says, there is no doubt where his first child’s allegiances will lie.
“Ashlea is pretty set on our baby being an Eagles supporter,” Oakley Nicholls says with a laugh.
Featured homepage image courtesy of Wirrpanda Foundation