NRL stars Damien Cook, Angus Crichton and Junior Paulo on Indigenous brothers

They may not be related by blood, yet the blood they shed together on the field and conversations off it have bonded three of the NRL’s biggest stars with their indigenous “brothers”.

Damien Cook, Angus Crichton and Junior Paulo have differing experiences with Indigenous culture, but are shining examples for Australian society that forward progress is made by merely taking an interest or asking a question.

“To me, singing the national anthem was something you do because we’re out there as a team on the field singing it together, doing as a team, and I’d never really gone through the words and actually understood what’s bad,” South Sydney and NSW Origin star Cook said.

“You probably look past that straight away as a non-Indigenous person.

“I’ve probably learned the most about the Aboriginal culture and a lot about racism as well since being at South Sydney, especially with these two guys, Latrell [Mitchell] and Cody [Walker].

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Josh Morris, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Addo-Carr, Cody Walker and Damien Cook arm in arm during the singing of the national anthem in State of Origin. Picture: AAP Image/Dave HuntSource:AAP

“You actually speak to them about what’s in the anthem, the forgotten history of what’s actually the first people of our country, and now I understand. I get it.

“I understand why they’re not they're not happy with it and I love that those boys stick up for what they believe in and want to get the conversation started.

“Growing up, the national anthem was something we sang together. I looked at the words, I know the words, but do I? Did I look at the words and see the meaning of it and understand it, and what's going on? To be honest, I did not know that until speaking to the boys.

“And it was only to a couple of years ago, when the anthem stuff started around Origin time, and that’s when I learned what it was all about it.

“The other big one is Australia Day, I didn’t understand why, why do they want it changed, and did it matter if it does change?

“You ask most Aussies if we should change the date, they're going to say ‘no, do we get our public holiday?’.

“But we don’t understand it, that is the actual date that [British colonisation] happened. So there’s a lot of hurt there.

“I learned from talking to Cody, just chatting to him about it, asking the question, ‘Tell me why changing the date is so important? And he explains that’s the actual date that happened.

Damien Cook says the likes of Cody Walker have educated him on indigenous issues during his time at South Sydney. Picture: Phil HillyardSource:News Corp Australia

“So I understand now, and not only as my teammates but my great mates, I support them.”

Crichton has been aware of Indigenous plight since high school, when he mentored cousins Delwyn and Leon Wunungmurra at Scots College.

“It was just by chance that they were living in the same boarding house as me, and I just saw that they were struggling, we became great mates and I helped them through school and ended up going to meet their family in Arnhem Land to see where they're from and to live up there for a couple of weeks,” Crichton said.

“It opened my eyes to their culture and our Australian Indigenous culture. The beauty of it was what struck me when I first went up there.

“I couldn't believe that this was in our own backyard. This is in our history. And I had no idea about it. What struck me the hardest was the fact that I’ve been living my whole life and I had no idea that this place even existed.

“I now feel so connected to our Indigenous culture. Even though I’m not Indigenous myself, I’ve got such a strong connection to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait culture just because I’m an Australian.

“I live in Australia and it’s part of Australian history, it's part of us. That’s who we are and that’s what our country is, where our country has come from.

Angus Crichton in Arnhem Land.Source:Supplied

“I think that it’s so beautiful and it’s so rare and not every country has it. So I think it is something that should be should be more celebrated, all Australians should feel attached to it, and that’s my goal.”

Roosters backrower Crichton has set up a foundation called First People Project to educate Indigenous youth, and at every chance encourages people to better understand the nation’s heritage.

“Now’s a great time for everyone to open their eyes and open their minds, it doesn’t take much,” Crichton said.

“Just put all your judgment and put all of your built-up, whatever you’ve been raised with, whatever you’ve grown over the years of your childhood, put that aside and open your mind, because it’s such a beautiful culture. It’s something that we should all be attached to and feel emotion towards, because it’s us. It’s ours.

We’re all Australians, we’re from different backgrounds but this is the place that we live. This is the history of the place. These people were here. They were the first people here. These are our ancestors.”

Eels prop Paulo, who is proud of his Samoan roots, believes Indigenous and Pasifika players are on a similar path to recognition and respect in the game, as individuals like Mitchell and Tyson Frizell call out racism on social media.

“It’s a talking point that needs to be addressed,” Paulo said.

“The game is still finding ways around it, it’s hard to express the frustration knowing it’s still around.

Latrell Mitchell leads the indigenous All Stars against the New Zealand Maori All Stars earlier this year. Picture: Scott Davis/NRL PhotosSource:Supplied

“It may be hanging around for years or generations to rub it out completely – everyone’s going to be opinionated but I think we’re taking the right measures now with players actually standing up for themselves.

“And also the public being notarised and jumping on board and supporting players. We are a product of the game, no one is bigger than the game but having that support is huge.

“There’s only a small percentage of supporters who wreck it for a lot of them, but it is something that needs to be stamped out.

“When you’re dealing with player welfare and mental health, it’s hard enough trying to go out there and win NRL games, turning up week in week out, let alone dealing with harsh criticism, the racial slurs that come with it needs to be stamped out.

“A couple of decades no one brings it up and it’s probably not a talking point, but we’re now in a day and age where you’re able to voice your opinions and stand up, and also educating people on right from wrong.”

Cook is particularly in awe of Mitchell’s resilience in the face of constant torment before he alerted police last month to the racial abuse he received online.

“I’m proud of him, I really am proud of Latrell,” Cook said.

“He’s stuck to what he believes in and he's true to himself. He just hasn’t taken a backward step in from a young age.”

Crichton added: “Even if you're thinking it’s a joke, racism is just not on.

“In the past, professional athletes have had to take the high road and turn the other way. And players have had enough, especially with topics like racism. There’s no place for it in our society at all.”

Eels teammates Junior Paulo and Blake Ferguson. Picture: Nathan Hopkins/NRL PhotosSource:Supplied

Paulo highlighted the fact that Indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders make up a tiny portion of the nation’s population, yet dominate NRL squads.

“From the time I’ve started playing, I definitely think we’ve come a long way together,” Paulo said.

“The recognition of both cultures in the game now is starting to make noise and it is a very proud round for everyone.

“We weren’t able to have the Pacific Test last year due to Covid, but there is a real strong driving force with Indigenous Round, and the Pasifika teams trying to name very strong squads for the end of the year.

“It’s special to be a part of, especially with the statistics showing how much both cultures make up of the NRL, it’s only going to climb in numbers in future.”

Cook said: “I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of Indigenous players, Josh Addo-Carr, Greg Inglis, they’re a special part of our game, the talented ones, with all the skill, we love to love to watch them play.

“What they can do on a field is so special. We just know if we can do our job and get down there and give these guys half a chance we’re going to be all right. We know they’re going to score tries and make something happen.”

As Paulo succinctly puts it: “Footy speaks its own language, and it’s a language everyone understands.”

Originally published as‘I get it now’: NRL stars open up on Indigenous causes

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