Sunshine………The “All American Boy” from the movie Remember The Titans.
It didn’t take long to christen the Saints number 1 draft pick Nick Riewoldt with the same alias. I cannot claim the credit for the nickname (excuse the pun), my daughter Kacey thought that one up.
When he walked through the door in 2000 full of excitement and expectation for his first full tilt at AFL in 2001 I must admit I had my reservations. It’s not hard to be seduced by his athleticism, his striking European good looks, his white hair or piercing blue eyes.
In fact my immediate thought is here we go again…….referring to the archetypical Saint. More about how they look than how they perform. That stereotyped blonde haired, blue-eyed Saint who could certainly dominate in the social club or nightclub but just didn’t quite cut the mustard out in the field of battle.
“How the hell is this guy going to stand up to the brutality served up every week in the AFL?”
There is no doubt he will be a hit with the members and we will sell some memorabilia but he didn’t necessarily engender any “white Knight” connotations in my mind.
Justin Koschitzke on the other hand – drafted number 2 in the same year – was the complete opposite. Rough, tough, all arms and legs, that loveable country drawl, determined, played against men……he seemed like he would quickly reverse the positions.
It didn’t take long to realise that you don’t judge a book by its cover. Fast forward 15 years and the great man is about to play his 300th AFL match which is an incredible testimony to his preparation, willpower and resilience along with the undeniable asset of his family network.
Several times Rooey has been the subject of significant offers well in excess of his then contract. Each time he has rejected them. Ed McGuire said to me one day “I don’t know what you have done to those guys but nobody wants to bloody leave”. I laughed because it displayed to me that the system was working. Nick is passionately loyal to the cause and respects the contribution the club has had on his career. That is a quality that is ever diminishing lately.
“Sunshine” had it all. His application, professionalism and diligence belied his years – and his looks. He was brave, self driven, determined and relentless. A sponge for information and knowledge, Nick was a student of the game. He aligned himself with the very best and bled them for everything they could help him with. He salivated over chats with Aaron “Sammy” Hamill, Lenny Hayes, Rob Harvey, Stephen Powell and Fraser Gehrig. He was the perfect student. Nick knew where he wanted to go and what he needed to do to get there. He did not cut corners, take shortcuts or rest on alibi’s – he was the real deal. Some guys get consumed with social chat, gossip and general banter between sessions whereas Rooey wanted to enlighten himself further about the game, strategy, tactics, mental application and the like.
In his never-ending pursuit of perfection he was sometimes construed as distant, deep, sensitive, withdrawn and even big headed. The latter being a criticism regularly levelled at elite sportspeople that adopt a “pro’s pro” approach to their chosen sport. It is very difficult to squeeze every last drop out of oneself in the pursuit of excellence and not offend mere mortals along the way.
Nick had the potential to be an Olympic athlete – not my words, that of the great Daley Thompson and Colin Jackson. Both World Champions, Gold medalists and world record holders in the decathlon and 110 metre hurdles respectively. Not bad judges in my humble opinion. In fact when we trained in London under their guidance we were a tad concerned that they may try to convince him to give it a try.The team were cranking out some 400 and 800 metre repetitions at the athletic track near Eton College where we trained for 3 weeks in November 2003 in preparation for the 2004 season.
Colin and Daley were in deep discussion as they were urging the troops to gut-busting levels.
“How are they travelling guys?” was my innocent question. This was followed by a look at each other in a manner of “shall we tell him?”. After a pregnant pause CJ (Colin Jackson) said “who’s the blonde bloke?” As if he didn’t already know, because Daley knew Nick and had spent some time with him.
I simply replied “Moves OK doesn’t he”.
Daley then chipped in and said that if we would give Nick to them they would produce a world class 400 or 800 metre Olympic runner. Needless to say they were told in no uncertain terms the parameters of their involvement with our training camp and more particularly what I would do with both of them if any of this gets back to Nick.
“Smooth as silk Thomo”, “runs better than most qualifiers”, “his action is nearly perfect”, “the man has awesome power” etc etc
So when you hear commentators, opponents and supporters mention Sunshine’s athleticism , they know what they are talking about – it’s serious.
Nick’s unrelenting desire to succeed was never more evident than that magnificent mark he took against Sydney at the SCG. Running the wrong way for nearly 40 metres he launched himself at the pack which included Milney who must have thought he was crazy.
I’m still baffled how it was not adjudged mark of the year and in fact mark of the decade. To me it not only personified Nick Riewoldt but it captured the very essence of our great game. The athleticism, the skill, the courage and fearlessness against insurmountable obstacles but also in an artistic way the glamour, the balance, the poetry in motion and the breathtaking spectacle.
I will never ever forget that mark and I will never ever forget the mark Sunshine made on me, Saints fans and all AFL followers.