Round 10 of the Telstra Premiership marks the NRL's Indigenous Round, a week taken to look at the social issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as players and staff associated with the NRL who go the extra mile to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
North Queensland Toyota Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston is one of those players. One of the most accomplished footballers to ever lace on a boot, most people would struggle to name an award he has not won for his on-field performances, yet his off-field commitment is just as impressive. A fact that might be unbelievable to some, given Wikipedia has this disclaimer above his awards list: "Please note: Due to the vast amount of accolades won by Thurston, this is just a summary of his major award wins."
Thurston is an ARTIE (Achieving Results Through Indigenous Education) ambassador, encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students to further their education. He is also the face of Synapse's campaign to prevent acquired brain injury in the Aboriginal community and is an ambassador for the Apunipima Cape York Health Council's anti-ice campaign. The co-captain of the Cowboys is also an ambassador for the newly-opened NRL Cowboys House, a boarding facility created to provide young Indigenous men from remote locations access to secondary education in Townsville.
The list of Thurston's involvement goes on, and he has frequently been recognised for his dedication to the community. He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from James Cook University and the Ken Stephen Medal by the NRL in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the North Queensland community. He has also been an ambassador for the Queensland Reconciliation Awards for the past five years at the request of the Queensland Premier.
That's the power of sport really. It has the power for social change.
– Johnathan Thurston
The truly remarkable aspect of Thurston's involvement in the community is that the programs themselves run in partnership with the Queensland Government, and Thurston's involvement with them is in-depth. He's spoken about results, influence, success and what these programs hope to achieve in the long run.
"The NRL is at the forefront of helping with this change, our club is a massive footprint here in North Queensland," Thurston said.
"We have the Try for Five program which has got 24 schools involved. That's going really well, we're getting our Indigenous students in that program to go to school every day so we've seen a massive rise in attendance for those students.
"I think all the schools that we've got have been double the state average of attendance [for] these students who are in our programs."
Thurston and the Cowboys have recently taken a more direct involvement to develop programs that improve the educational outcomes of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The NRL Cowboys House was opened this year and secondary school students from areas around the Gulf of Carpentaria have been given a stable environment to go to school and learn about their own culture.
"We've got 24 kids in our Cowboys House and that's going to double next year. They're all high schools students and they're from remote communities up in the Gulf like Normanton and Doomadgee," Thurston said.
"It's about getting them into an environment where they feel comfortable and where they're actually getting an education and certainly still have that cultural influence as well."
The power of sport
The Cowboys make sure of every fine detail when it comes to ensuring the effectiveness of their programs. Community Manager Fiona Pelling spoke with pride about the steps the Cowboys take to ensure the programs are successful, and how they are adjusted to be improved.
"A major achievement is probably in the statistical evidence of how good our programs are and what they're achieving," Pelling said.
"The many programs that we do run within our community are all done in partnership with the government and wider community.
"As such we have a pretty robust measurement tool around everything we do so we're able to measure impact and then we're able to adjust programs and be sure that we're always increasing that impact."
This commitment has evidently influenced the players, and Thurston is a clear example of that.
"We've also got the Learn Earn Legend! program which is about preparing Year 11 and 12 students, and I think that program has a 96 per cent success rate of going from school into work or furthering their studies," he said.
North Queensland's favourite son (an impressive achievement given he was born in Brisbane) spoke about what influenced him to become so involved with the community.
"That's the power of sport really. It has the power for social change," Thurston said.
"Our biggest issue in this country, I believe, is the well-being and the health lifestyles that our Indigenous culture is faced with. There's alarming statistics, [those of] Indigenous culture are dying on average 10 years before non-Indigenous Australians.
"I'm in a privileged position where I can use my status in the game to help with social change and I'm very passionate about our culture and making sure the next generation are getting the best information that they can get."
This year coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the 25th anniversary of the Eddie Mabo decision. The four-time Dally-M Medal winner also spoke about the significance of these events, and how they're taught to the community and the players.
"We've had George Rose come up, who works in the Indigenous space for the NRL and [he] gave a good talk about the 50th anniversary of the Referendum and obviously the 25th of the Eddie Mabo decision. All our players are aware of the events and the change and the history that these events have had in Australia," Thurston said.
This year's Indigenous Round has a theme of recognition, and Thurston spoke about those who he recognised as influencers on his success in rugby league.
"My parents, obviously, are my biggest supporters. I'm very comfortable within my own skin and what I represent," he said.
"I'm very proud of my Indigenous heritage and I'm in a position now that I can help the next generation of our culture make the right decisions with their lifestyles and I'm passionate about that.
"I think Indigenous Australians only make up three or four per cent of this country and we need to make sure that we're still around for hundreds and hundreds of years to come," Thurston said.
First published on NRL.com.