Colourful past, bright future … Joel Thompson. Photo: Melissa AdamsJoel Thompson still remembers his first police interview when he was just 13.
The Canberra Raiders forward readily admits he ”could be in Goulburn jail” had he continued on the wrong path of his rocky upbringing.
So as speculation builds about whether suspended centre Blake Ferguson has the full support of his Raiders teammates, Thompson is vocal about why he can relate better than most.
Both are indigenous rugby league stars who have found themselves in trouble off-field. And both were taken from their parents as teenagers to live with their grandmothers.
”Fergie’s not that bad, he just gets in situations where people take advantage of him,” Thompson said.
”He’s a good fella and has a big heart, people sometimes forget about that and see all the bad things that are done.”
Thompson, 24, now works part-time at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. He is also an ambassador for the NRL’s Learn, Earn Legend! indigenous education program. He believes it’s his duty to share his story so others can make better choices.
He will always be grateful for the guiding hand of his grandparents, who gave him a home.
”I had my first police interview at 13 and was getting into trouble with my cousins, break-and-enters, and things like that,” Thompson said.
”I was going down the wrong track but my nan and pop gave me a good wording to when I had nowhere else to go, and I’m very thankful for that. I feel like I’m in the position now where I should be helping youth, and helping them pick the right path like I have.
”It’s easy to stay in that cycle and it’s hard to break out, but you have to use the people around you to get out, and I’m happy I did.
”If I wasn’t playing footy, I wanted to have a good job to make my nan proud.”
Ferguson has been staying at Anthony Mundine’s Hurstville home a few days a week, as he prepares to defend an indecent assault charge on July 16. He is serving a four-week ban from football.
”I don’t know how much I can say without getting in trouble, but I feel like he’s definitely copped it a fair bit,” Thompson said of Ferguson. ”Nothing’s been proven, and he’s copped this suspension.”
As part of his rehabilitation program, Ferguson has also been doing community service with troubled indigenous youth.
He is helping Mundine with the under-12 Alexandria Rovers team he coaches and has been doing a program at Redfern’s National Indigenous Centre of Excellence.
On Friday he was in Griffith, in country NSW, to help with NAIDOC Week celebrations. Thompson hopes he will remain involved long-term.
”It would be good for Fergie to keep doing this stuff,” he said. ”I tell him a fair bit that people look up to him, and I can’t wait to see him back playing.
”He’s been getting help from Mundine and it’s up to Fergie now to take that on, I think he will.”
Thompson’s AILC youths graduated from their leadership program at last Sunday’s win over North Queensland at Canberra Stadium. ”That was a proud moment for me, they graduated at half-time,” he said.
”This is the type of work I want to get into after footy. The community and welfare work is rewarding, sometimes I enjoy it more than my footy.”
The NRL has taken great steps to improve the mentoring and education of indigenous players, but Thompson believes plenty more can be done. Although he is moving to Wollongong to begin a three-year deal with the Dragons next year, he wants to be involved for the long haul.
”I think there needs to be more education and more programs, it’s only going to help players in trouble. A few years ago I wouldn’t have cared about anyone, it would have been all about myself, but I feel I’m in a position where I should be helping more people.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.