AFL

Born in an Ethiopian refugee camp, Changkuoth Jiath was raised in rural Victoria and, after picking up the oval Sherrin, soon spotted by talent scouts. Now the 21-year-old is one of Hawthorn’s most exciting players and a firm crowd favourite. By Linda Pearce.

Hawthorn’s Changkuoth Jiath

Changkuoth Jiath in action during Hawthorn’s round one clash with Essendon on March 20.
Credit: AAP / Rob Prezioso

Changkuoth Jiath still recalls sitting on a plane as a seven-year-old in 2007, leaving behind Ethiopia and the only life he knew. Born in the refugee camp where his mother and father lived for more than a decade after fleeing crisis-ravaged South Sudan on foot, he and his parents and siblings were immigrating to Australia. The thrilling concept of inflight movies and a memorable first viewing of Night at the Museum was a contrast with one particularly odd-tasting food on the plastic airline tray. Cheese, they called it.

Until he was airborne over the ocean, Jiath’s main thoughts of water revolved around his parents’ need to ensure there was enough for their growing family. Enough of everything, really. Including food, shared in their crowded camp hut. But here above the sea with snacks and entertainment, there was something else. “I still remember it to this day,” says Jiath, who is hailed as one of the AFL’s breakout stars of 2021. “You know when there are two cars going along a road at the same speed, and you feel as though the car’s just standing still? I felt that for the first time and it was the weirdest experience ever.”

Fast forward 14 years to round two of season 2021, when Hawthorn’s ninth-gamer Jiath, known as “CJ”, took his second eye-catching sprint though the middle of the MCG against reigning premiers Richmond. So excited was the crowd by the vision of this natural athlete skimming smoothly across the nation’s most famous sporting turf that Jiath assumed there must have been someone in close pursuit. “I heard the crowd screaming and I thought I was about to get tackled,” says the forward turned intercept defender. “But then I saw the replay and it was just because the fans must have enjoyed watching me run. It’s such a cool feeling having fans there that support you and love watching you.”

There are many who sense a change in the crowd atmosphere whenever Jiath has ball in hand and dash in mind, but few with the personal connection of Russell Greene, a 304-gamer across two clubs and a three-time premiership winner with the Hawks. In 2017, while at a training session at Waverley Park hosting the special needs children from the Marnebek School in Cranbourne where he works, Greene was asked if he and his wife, Roxy, would consider hosting one of Hawthorn’s young recruits at their Hampton home. “After we said yes I was like, ‘God, what are we gonna get?’ ” says Greene, a grandfather of three whose youngest child, Brent, had just become the last to leave the nest. He need not have worried. “CJ was just like my third son. Just an amazing, respectful, humble, engaging young man. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Jiath switched, at the club’s suggestion, from the No. 43 guernsey after his first year to become the third Hawthorn No. 29 to live at that Hampton address, after Russell and his 42-game son, Steven. “So that’s quite unique,” says Greene snr. “I just hope that CJ keeps it for the next 10 years and makes it his number. Like, who’s played the most games in it and done the most things.”

 

Jiath remembers feeling carefree in his early childhood as he kicked a soccer ball with other refugees around the Ethiopian camp. Only now does he really understand what his mother, Martha, and father, Reverend Stephen Gatthep Riek, must have endured, and thus what it meant when the family was cleared to join relatives in Australia – starting with three months of government housing in bayside Melbourne.

For the young immigrant the challenges were just beginning. On his first day at Edithvale Primary School he knew just two words of English: hi and goodbye.

“Not speaking English was really tough,” he says. “It was crazy. Can’t really communicate and you felt a bit isolated. But it actually didn’t take long for me to learn. The TV helped a lot, watching cartoons and all that.” His teacher and schoolmates, struggling to pronounce such an unfamiliar name, christened him “CJ”.

While the nickname stuck, the family left – settling in the Latrobe Valley. As other South Sudanese gradually joined the community and his pastor father’s Morwell Church of the Nazarene, cheeky young CJ happily became a country boy. He was also a talented sprinter whose idea of athletics was to “just run as fast as you can and beat the other opponents”. Switching to high jump, he came second in the state at primary school level. Next he took up the 400 metres, and starred at that, too.

“I feel that I’ve got an advantage over other people with the special gifts I’ve been given,” he says, with no hint of arrogance. “So it’s a privilege, and definitely awesome.”

Jiath the Aussie rules footballer made his debut for the Morwell Tigers in a night game against Trafalgar and was on the talent scouts’s radar at 14 and under level. At first, kicking at school with his mates, the oval ball was baffling. “Having to pick it up and all that and place it on your foot was just a whole different experience. It was just insane, really. It’s so different and so weird. Why is it shaped like that? It’s the only ball in the world where you can’t predict where it’s gonna bounce, and that’s why I hated it at the start.”

It was only about six months before affection blossomed. “I remember being so cold and just turning on the heater and watching footy on TV – especially Friday night footy – with the family. That’s when the love started to evolve.”

There were complications, though. As for many migrant families, the fear of injury in such a fierce contact sport was an issue, as was the Sunday conflict between church and games. “My parents didn’t like it at all,” says the now 21-year-old. “They thought it was very rough and dangerous and they wanted us to be very school-focused and study every day and go to church and all that.

“Dad would sometimes get angry that we missed church because we played football. But he started to ease up on it because we started to enjoy footy and he saw that we had a bit of potential in footy, AFL footy, yeah.”

Next stop was Xavier College, where a bursary funded his stay in the boarding house for years 11 and 12. Reluctant to leave his family initially, there are no regrets now. Selection in the AFL’s rookie draft via Hawthorn’s Next Generation Academy came in 2017, a VFL premiership with Box Hill followed, and a senior debut arrived in round 21, 2019. By then, he was living with the Greenes and meeting regularly with mentor and South Sudanese trailblazer Majak Daw, who had helped to inspire this improbable dream.

As his awareness grew, so did the rangy 185-centimetre Jiath’s interest in social justice and what he considers his obligation to use his platform to make a difference. “For me to not voice my opinion and be silent on really important topics that are going on in the world, I wouldn’t be the person my dad wanted me to become,” he says. “Obviously not be the person I wanted to be myself, as well.”

His personal experiences of racism include “heaps” of verbal abuse and name-calling. “Less than what I was used to now that I’m a bit [higher]-profile athlete … but there’s going to be people that don’t watch footy, who all they see is just my skin colour. Like, it’s bad.” He tends to walk away from those just seeking a reaction; other times, he asks why they would say such things and tries to reason and educate. As for the cowards and haters on social media, he tries to ignore the attacks, however vile and misguided.

Jiath would like to help the likes of Daw, Richmond’s Mabior Chol and Port Adelaide’s Aliir Aliir build a multicultural bridge, just as Tiger Bachar Houli has done with Muslim Australians. Role model is a tag the 21-year-old wears well. “I get kids messaging me saying, ‘You’re my favourite player; I want to play AFL footy one day.’ It’s so cool. It’s awesome.”

Jiath’s eye-catching individual form, averaging 21.4 disposals in the first five rounds while limiting the clangers, has been a shining light for the struggling Hawks. Unfailingly acknowledging his coaches – including assistants Sam Mitchell and Chris Newman – and teammates, Jiath attributes his improvement to his growing experience and confidence after a strong and healthy preseason and to the belief that he belongs.

The Greenes provided a different type of home in 2018, for which CJ is also hugely grateful. “They were the perfect fit for me,” he says, recalling asking Russell about his own playing career. “Sometimes he’d go for too long [about it] and then Roxy would be there saying, ‘Russell, stop it!’ They were awesome. To this day I love to go over for dinner.”

He is always welcome and Greene could not be prouder of the determination Jiath has shown and what he is producing on the field. “His courage is just enormous, he’s so athletic, he’s got enormous aerobic capacity and I just love the way he reads the play,” the former great says. “He takes them on, and people say, ‘Oh, look, he’s done two or three bloopers a game or something like that.’ I say, ‘Give him a chance, he’s just a young kid, that’s just one of the little things around his game. Most of the time his efficiency is in the high 70s or 80s.’ And the crowd just loves him. Whenever he gets the ball, you can feel the atmosphere lift. Whoa. Here he goes!”

Preparing for just his 13th AFL game on Sunday against Adelaide, Jiath acknowledges his is no ordinary story. “Yeah, it definitely can [make you] shed a tear sometimes,” he says, grateful for a life in which his parents no longer need to worry about having enough food or water for their six children. Even cheese is a Jiath favourite now. And milk. Just like moving fast and flying high.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Dash and carry".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.