Rueben William, to the naked eye, is a line breaking, athletic, highly skilled player who can change the tempo of a game off his own boot, but his story runs so much deeper than that.
Reuben was born in South Sudan to Deng and Veronica William, the second-youngest of five children.
When William was just an infant, he lost his father Deng during Sudan’s civil war.
The family fled Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya, before moving to Brisbane in 2002 when William was just four years old; a place they now call home.
William doesn’t remember too much about his life pre-Australia.
“I was pretty young at the time. I do remember the bus rides from the camp up to Nairobi. It was pretty hot sitting on there with everyone pilled in,” he said.
Moving across the world could be a daunting experience for most, but William, as most young kids would be, was eager to get to know Australia, and get to know his new friends.
“I was excited. At that age you’re excited to go anywhere, so I was too young to be afraid,” William said.
“I loved it straight away. Video games were the big thing. Coming from where I did and seeing video games first up, that got my attention straight away.
“Luckily my older brother is only a year older than me, so he was always there, but school wasn’t too difficult, especially with kids that age. You just go in, do your finger painting and your ABC’s. I probably wasn’t old enough to be nervous, I was at the age where you just want to get in have fun and make new friends.”
Once settled, it didn’t take long for football to become a major piece of the Rueben William puzzle.
“Mum introduced me to footy. She wanted something for us to do on weekends to socialise, and we lived about a minute and a half drive from the ground,” he said.
“My first real memory would be my first Under 9’s game at Zillmere. I was rugby tackling instead of the proper tackling, because I had no idea how to tackle.
“Yeah I did (love it straight away), and I ended up staying at Zillmere until pretty much last year.”
It was at Zillmere where he met Maurie Fitzgerald, a very familiar face around the Zillmere junior club, and a man who William credits with “shaping” his footy.
While his rise through the Zillmere ranks was quick, William was a late bloomer on the representative scene. It wasn’t until Brett Fragiacomo selected him in the Queensland Diversity Team in 2014 that he pulled on the maroon.
Like petrol to a fire, that recognition was exactly what William needed to kick start his rapid rise through the academy system.
In that same year, he was picked as a bottom age player in the Queensland State Academy team, paving the way for his next two years.
“I was a bit nervous at the start coming into my first academy pre-season. I only knew three guys of the guys, but after you start to socialise and fit in, it fills you with confidence,” he said.
“That’s the most important thing, without that confidence, in my opinion, you won’t go anywhere.”
With a solid year under his belt, William took his game to a whole new level this year.
Averaging 18.6 disposals across the TAC Cup – which included a 28-possession haul in the final game against North Ballarat – put William on the recruiters map, but it was the National Championships where he truly shone.
William was outstanding off half-hack averaging 17 disposals across the three games, making people stop and watch when he tucked the ball under his arm.
“I was focused on talking heaps, breaking lines, and looking to go offensively and take a few risks. Fletchy (Adrian Fletcher) has always told me to try and run, break lines, and if it doesn’t work go again,” he said.
He rates the carnival, where Queensland claimed the Division Two title, as “one of the highlights of my footy life.”
It wasn’t just on the national stage that William impressed, proving he could do it against the bigger bodies as well for the Brisbane Lions reserves.
“I think that the big reason for my improvement was playing in the NEAFL. It gives you that mentality of not getting rattled when you play against senior bodies,” William said.
“That’s obviously really important, if I go into to the AFL system, that I will be able to play reserves straight away and not have to adjust.”
One simple conversation shows just how far William’s game has progressed this year.
“I sat down with Scott Borlace (Lions Academy) at the start of the year who said there was a chance for me to go around next year and get drafted, but for me, I wanted to do it this year. I knew it was a matter of hard work,” he said.
“I was sitting there at the end of season review and he said to me who would have thought that this would be the case, that you were picked for the combine and are a chance of being picked up in the draft this year.”
The only dampener on the year was a groin injury suffered late in the piece, which kept him out of the physical testing at the national combine and grand final day curtain raiser.
“Right now I’m closing my eyes and dreaming of running out for my first training session in about 13 weeks, that’s something I’m really looking forward to.
“It’s been my first real injury longer than two weeks. It’s been really testing, especially osteitis pubis, it’s an injury where you cant really do much,” he said.
“Watching the combine testing and the boys playing on grand final day was hard to take, but you’ve just got to look forward, and look at the bigger picture, which is getting yourself right for the opportunity if it does come.”
William has put the work in, now he just hopes his dream comes true.
“It would mean the world to me. It’s probably been the longest year of my life, to see all that hard work that’s not only been done by me, but by everyone around me would be great,” he said.
There have been a lot of people who have played major roles in William’s journey, but there is one person in particular to whom he owes the most to, a person he describes and his “role model.”
“My mum has been great. She hasn’t had much to do with footy, but she has been supporting me through everything, and making sure I work hard.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without her. It was a big jump for he to do what she did, especially as a single mum.”
William doesn’t consider himself a role model to the Sudanese community, but it’s something he hopes he can be in the future.
“Not really, some people have sort of said to me that I can be a role model, and one day I would like to be, but at this point I think I’ve still got heaps of learning to do before I can say I’m a role model. It does mean something special if a little kid could come to me and say I’m their role model, that would be special,” he said.
The AFL Draft takes place in Adelaide on Tuesday November 24.
By Andrew Wiles