To NRL fans, it was a heartwarming gesture from Johnathan Thurston.
But to Stan Grant, it was much more.
A kind, generous act.
But also powerful. A transcendent act of reconciliation.
“You’d see JT after a game take his headgear, which was always the Indigenous-design headgear, and find a kid in the crowd and give it to the kid. That’s a very simple gesture but that changes people’s hearts and minds. That’s how you connect with people,” Grant, the leading broadcaster and Indigenous voice, told Wide World of Sports.
“He’s a great man. I think he’s one of the most impressive people I’ve come across, to be honest with you.
“To see the development of JT, the way that he has grown as a person as he grew as a footballer … I think the thing that really struck me, both in other conversations I’ve had with him and this one, was his awareness of his culture and the importance of representing that culture, and the responsibilities that he has to be able to make a difference to our society.
“To be able to make Australia a better place. To bring his work on the football field to reconciliation. To bring people together.”
Thurston will feature in a special ‘Our Stories’ collaboration with Grant on Nine’s coverage of Broncos vs Sharks on Friday night (from 7.30pm AEST), as part of NRL Indigenous Round. He will discuss his concurrent journeys through sporting mega-stardom and self-discovery as an Indigenous Australian.
Thurston didn’t realise the significance of the headgear gesture when it was first made; it was simply the act of a decent man who liked making kids smile.
He didn’t see that it could symbolise an embrace between Indigenous and White Australia. Yet he can now.
“It’s just something that I did, I wasn’t really aware of the impact it would have on the nation or on the people around me,” Thurston told Wide World of Sports.
“Thanks to my headgear sponsor, I was able to give a headgear out at half-time and full-time. I’d always pick out a little kid in the crowd that came to watch us play.
“Just the smile on the faces of those kids … it’s just a small gesture that has helped bring our nation together.”
Thurston, 37, hasn’t just come a long way from the skinny kid that no NRL club wanted at first. He’s also come a long way from the champion who won two premierships, four Dally M Medals, three Golden Boots and countless representative matches.
He has grown into more than a footballer. He’s still a softly-spoken man off the field but has come to realise the power of his words and actions.
Since discovering the true meaning of his Indigenous heritage – a journey that he will explain in an exclusive column for Wide World of Sports on Friday – Thurston has become a determined leader on Aboriginal issues.
Grant has given an eloquent voice to Indigenous Australia’s painful struggle against racism and inequality. That included his extraordinary recent edition of Four Corners, which made him the flagship ABC current affairs program’s first Indigenous presenter.
There is a deep mutual respect between Thurston and Grant.
“I’ve always been really struck by his capacity to grow into that leadership role, to accept that responsibility, which can be a real burden,” Grant said.
“Leadership is a privilege but it’s also a huge burden for a young man to carry. The way that he accepted that, the way he grew into that through a greater awareness of his culture and his standing in the game and his responsibilities to Australia, I think has been really impressive.
“Adam [Goodes] paid a huge price for that. JT, fortunately, has not and that may tell us something about the different cultures of the games, as well, NRL and AFL.”
Thurston, a Nine NRL commentator, said of Grant: “Obviously Stan is a well-respected Indigenous Australian man. I was a little bit star-struck the first time I met him.
“We just talked a little bit about my background [for Friday’s feature on Nine] and what inspired me and what representing our people means.
“He’s led the way on Indigenous issues. Just the way that he articulates his story and articulates what matters at the time … he’s very inspiring.”
**Stan Grant’s special ‘Our Stories’ feature presentations for NRL Indigenous Round will begin on Thursday night, on Nine’s live coverage of Dragons vs Rabbitohs from 7.30pm AEST. His first interviewee is fellow Wiradjuri man and leading Indigenous actor Luke Carroll, an avid South Sydney Rabbitohs fan.