Rugby league legend Johnathan Thurston on footy, family life and using his voice to promote reconciliation. By Cindy MacDonald.


The ambassador: Johnathan Thurston, 33, rugby league player

My mum’s Indigenous and grew up in Mitchell, which is near Roma, west of Brisbane. I come from the Gunggari tribe out there. I grew up in Brisbane and we always celebrated NAIDOC week and things like that, but it wasn’t until 2010 – after the All Stars [exhibition] game – that I wanted to delve deeper into my family history. I took a heap of family – three of my uncles and about a dozen of my cousins – out there to learn a bit more about our culture.

I’ve been pretty lucky in that I haven’t experienced racism towards myself or those around me. But there has obviously been racism in the past where other players haven’t been so lucky. It certainly was a tough time for [AFL player] Adam Goodes and his family when he went through it. It was a huge step for Adam to take that stand against it and I was very proud of what he did. It’s such a shame that in the world we live in today the First Australians are still faced with racism and are still faced with health issues. 

I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to help with reconciliation. It’s a great country we live in, a country that we shouldn’t take for granted, and I believe that everyone should be doing their part with reconciliation and helping advance it in their communities.

I am very passionate about Indigenous issues and I want to use my voice to make changes. This is the fifth year I’ve been a part of the Queensland Reconciliation Awards. It’s great that the state government has these awards and is recognising educational institutions or local businesses or community organisations that are helping advance reconciliation within Queensland. It’s a great initiative and we’ve seen some really good winners over the past five years. I’m an ambassador for a couple of other programs as well – to do with school attendance and the NRL Cowboys House [in Townsville]. 

I’m in a privileged position with my standing within the community and also in rugby league. Sport has the power for social change and rugby league is at the forefront of helping with Indigenous issues. That’s why I want to be involved: because this is the next generation of our culture and I want them to succeed and to become better students, better people. When they do that they go back to their own communities and they’re making a difference there. 

Yeah, I just passed 2000 points scored in the NRL. It was nice to bring it up in the same weekend as one of my best mates, [Melbourne Storm’s] Cameron Smith. It’s a moment that I’ll look back on when I retire.

First and foremost I’m a husband and a father and footy comes a distant third. Obviously it’s tough at times when you’re away for eight weeks for a tour, or even just for the weekend, and you miss little milestones that your children are having. But I’m a professional footballer and that’s the life we’ve chosen to live. 

I’ve got three daughters, Frankie and Charlie, and now baby Lillie [born on March 22]. Yeah, it’s going to be a good time for our family. We certainly struggled to fall pregnant and had to go down quite a few different avenues. It took a long time for us to start our family, so we’re very grateful and we’re blessed to have three beautiful children. 

We’re pretty good at communicating, me and my wife, and making sure we’re on the same page – whether it be with discipline or what we want to achieve throughout the year. It’s going to be pretty hectic with the third one but we’re both looking forward to it. 

It’s hard to go past the 2015 grand final as my most special moment in rugby league. I mean, especially it being the Cowboys’ first grand final win. That’s probably No. 1, but also the eight series in a row with Queensland [in State of Origin] is quite special. Then I’ve also won a World Cup for the Kangaroos. So there are some big achievements in there that I’m extremely proud of.

At this stage I’m planning to retire at the end of 2018 but obviously I need to get through this year first. I’m one of the oldest in the NRL so it’s time to start planning for the future and leaving some of the younger boys to take the reins in the representative arena. I’ve still got two years left so there’s a lot of footy to be played, but I’m excited about what lies ahead.

I want to stay involved in the game. I’ve signed a contract with Channel Nine to work with The [NRL] Footy Show and do some sideline commentary. Then I’m ambassador for a few of the Indigenous programs that are run by the Queensland government and the Cowboys, and I’m the co-owner of an airline business in Cairns that services the Cape and Torres Strait. So, yeah, I’ve got a few things in the pipeline but first and foremost it’s about rugby league and making sure that I finish the way that I want to finish. 

I’ve been blessed to have the career that I’ve had so far and now that it’s coming to an end it’s about savouring the moments you get with the playing group. Being with the boys in the shed after a tough win – like we had against the Broncos the other weekend – they’re the things you’ll miss the most when you retire. So it’s about enjoying those moments and trying to create as many memories as you can with your fellow players.

Rugby league has given me things I would have never dreamt of. I’ve been able to see some great countries around the world with rugby league. Been able to create so many memories with fellow players and have so many friendships. So, yeah, I can’t thank the game enough for what it’s given me, not only on the field but off the field as well.

This week’s highlights…


• Horseracing: The Championships, Day 1

Saturday, 1st race 12.10pm (AEDT), Royal Randwick, Sydney

• AFL: Hawthorn v Adelaide Crows

Saturday, 1.45pm (AEDT), Melbourne Cricket Ground

• A-League: Sydney FC v Melbourne City

Saturday, 7.50pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney 

• Super Rugby: Reds v Hurricanes

Saturday, 6.45pm (AEST), Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

• NRL: Wests Tigers v St George Illawarra Dragons

Sunday, 4pm (AEST), ANZ Stadium, Sydney 

• Tennis: Davis Cup – Australia v USA

Starts Friday, noon (AEST), Pat Rafter Arena, Brisbane

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2017 as "The ambassador".

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