He might have played another sport, having high-jumped more than two metres as a teen; he received offers to pursue the sport in America. “But I just couldn’t justify spending the rest of my life jumping over a stick.”
We’re sitting in a Carlton pub, the Lincoln, for a low-key lunch. He’s in Melbourne to promote his illustrated children’s book, Little Nic’s Big Day, a fictionalised account of Naitanui’s first day at primary school, when his anxieties – as a kid who looks different to the others – are allayed within a diverse playground.
The publicist has chosen The Lincoln as a quiet, relaxed setting, where “Nic Nat” – a superhero in Perth, but still as recognisable as any footballer here in Melbourne – won’t be bothered. We eat and chat freely in the front bar.
He orders the market fish (sea bream), plus a charred broccolini/almond gazpacho. For diversity’s sake, I opt for the less healthy Lincolnshire sausages and mash, plus the broccolini. The photographer coerces me into ordering a dessert – “Opera gateau” with praline and ice cream – that Nic Nat wisely eschews. Pub staff pronounce the dessert as “the Gatto”, as if it bears the name of a Lygon Street identity.
Naitanui isn’t easily hidden. He’s 200-plus centimetres with an athlete’s broad shoulders, which are draped by his trademark black and brown dreads. He’s in a black T-shirt that showcases imposing forearms, sporting a neat, short beard. He makes anyone of remotely “normal” dimensions feel small.
The concept of what’s considered “normal” in the new Australia is a theme of his book, conceived, in part, to act as bulwark against bullying of kids who are or feel different.
The book was born of experience; Naitanui knows what it’s like to cop prejudicial jibes and abuse, both as kid and, depressingly, even as a venerated and adored performer in a sport that has, despite notable missteps (see Adam Goodes), largely been ahead of public opinion on the issue of racial tolerance.
In the book, the young Nic, anxious about school, is reassured by his mother that he’ll fit in. He goes to school and discovers there’s a bunch of kids from minority backgrounds, that he can kick the footy with and make friends.
“To have this book, it probably just justifies that a bit more – that it’s OK to be different,” said Naitanui, a multicultural ambassador for the AFL. “It breaks down some of those stigmas, some of those barriers.”
Naitanui’s experiences also confirm the changing nature of racial prejudice. First, in his youth, it was on the field. Then the focus shifted to racism from over-the-fence and, finally, there’s the unrestrained jungle of social media, where Naitanui is – to this day – a target of racial abuse.
If I showed you my inbox during the season, it’s full of that stuff… one in 10 (comments) which is more than enough.
“For me, the racial comments that I copped a bit (in the) early days. Over the fence – on the field, not so much,” he says. “On the field as a youngster, I did. And, you know, in the community games … I copped it all the time.”
What were the taunts? “Just something in relation to your skin tone, or ‘what are you doing out here, you should be playing basketball not this game’. I’d be lying if I didn’t say as a kid it ate away at me,” he concedes. “But it also drove me to play better and prove them wrong.”
Naitanui’s take is that on-field abuse is “no longer accepted at that level or any level” of the game. “So the kids are a lot more comfortable.”
But social media is the new frontier for bigotry. Footballers routinely cop abuse and, like Eddie Betts and his Indigenous West Coast team mate Liam Ryan, Naitanui hasn’t been spared, in spite of his immense popularity and affability.
“It happens a lot,” he says of the abuse. “I get a heap. It comes to a point where you don’t want to post it or put it on (social media). A lot of players will … put it out there. To me, that’s beneficial at times, because it is calling them out – I’ve done it a few times. But then it gets to a point where … how much voice do you give these people,” he says.
“If I showed you my inbox during the season, it’s full of that stuff… one in 10 (comments) which is more than enough. Disappointing but, you know, it’s the reality. It slowly will change.
“I think having books like this or having education at a younger age will … filter that. It’s hard to change people’s mindset once they’ve had 50-60 years of living the way they are. And that’s just the reality … much as you try, some guys just can’t be changed.”
If opposing racial prejudice is the accepted, mainstream position in multi-ethnic Australia, Naitanui has taken the further step of featuring same-sex couples – both two mums and two dads – as part of the schoolyard norm in his book.
Tellingly, these depictions of non-traditional roles are largely shown via the pictures (illustrated by Fatima Anaya), almost as incidental background to the story.
“There are people questioning that saying, ‘why are you doing that?’ I’m like, it’s the norm. You go to the schoolyard now, there’s two dads, there’s two mums picking up. There’s a kid playing with a prosthetic leg who’s running around in the book, there’s a kid that speaks sign language and he’s eating different foods. I think it’s covered a range of different themes – it’s not just about, you know, race,” he explains.
“To this day, bullying is massive in the school yard and the thing that’s worse now is the social media part of it. You know, it kind of follows you home.”
Naitanui was raised by his mother, Ateca, in Perth, where the family moved from Sydney after his father, Bola, died. The book is dedicated to his mum, who passed away in 2015. “This is a way I could almost thank her … she was all about diversity and she saw first-hand the hardships we had.”
I used to have massive fears of going … to an Aussie pub. That was a fear of mine. Now I love it.
Naitanui surmounted those privations. His next-door neighbour in Midvale, Chris Yarran, the ex-Carlton and Richmond player, ultimately didn’t, developing an ice habit late in his AFL career. Naitanui tells me he’ll soon visit Yarran in the Perth prison where “Yaz” is incarcerated for meth-fuelled crime. That pair also famously lived in the same street as Fremantle star Michael Walters.
Naitanui said Yarran was “by far the best” of the trio, in terms of talent. “To see that go to waste … it’s upsetting.”
Naitanui also maintains a friendship with Adam Goodes, who he’s been in contact with “a fair bit” during the ex-champion’s withdrawal from football, having been booed into seclusion. “It was almost an apology – really like, sorry we didn’t do enough,” Naitanui says of his words to Goodes.
He felt the Goodes episode had educated the public (about race), “but to the cost of Adam. I dare say I don’t see him coming back at all”.
Naitanui has recovered well from his injuries – a pair of knee reconstructions and a late-season foot injury, having missed the 2018 premiership due to the knee. If there was a question about West Coast’s hunger this year, Naitanui says he’s pushing teammates hard to maintain the rage. “Don’t worry, I’m there reminding them.”
Hungry for a flag, Naitanui’s less so for the broccolini, which he leaves unfinished. I shake that huge hand, as he beams a dazzling Luna Park-sized smile, leaving the pub, an environment the younger Naitanui found confronting.
“I used to have massive fears of going … to an Aussie pub, like in a country town,” he says. “That was a fear of mine. Now I love it.”
THE BILL PLEASE
The Lincoln, 91 Cardigan Street, Carlton. 9347 4666.
Mon-Thurs 12pm-11pm; Fri-Sat 12pm-12am; Sun 12pm-6pm
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.