By Peter Blucher .
In a season in which Queensland football has been battered amid the struggles of the Brisbane Lions and the Gold Coast SUNS the state’s AFL production line has continued to produce elite talent.
On Saturday afternoon Sudanese-born Queensland product Mabior Chol will make his debut for Richmond, becoming the 11th Queensland debut of the season.
He’ll join Brisbane’s Ben Keays, Eric Hipwood, Matthew Hammelmann, Reuben William and Archie Smith, Melbourne’s Josh Wagner, Collingwood’s Josh Smith, Sydney’s Aliir Aliir, Gold Coast’s Jesse Joyce and North Melbourne’s Corey Wagner.
Aside from 2011, when numbers were distorted by the addition of the Gold Coast Suns to AFL ranks, this makes season 2016 the most productive in the game’s history.
Remarkably, too, Chol will be the third African-born product who learned the game in Queensland to progress to the elite level, following in the footsteps of Aliir and William.
Eleven debutants in 2016 tops the 10-man Queensland debutant class of 2006 – Marcus Allan, Courtenay Dempsey, Sam Gilbert, Scot Harding, Rhan Hooper, Luke McGuane, Wayde Mills, Brad Moran, Marty Pask and Cheynee Stiller.
It also bettered the nine-strong debutant class of 2007 – David Armitage, Daniel Dzufer, Will Hamill, Shaun Hampson, Jarrod Harbrow, Brad Howard, Ricky Petterd, Albert Proud and Tom Williams.
Chol, who will debut against Aliir and the Sydney Swans at the SCG, will be the 39th Queensland product to play in the AFL this year.
This betters the 37 of last year and the 34 of 2014. Only in the first two years of the Suns in 2011 and 2012, when 43 and 46 Queenslanders played at the level, have there been more.
And collectively the 2016 contingent will play more than 500 senior games.
This will better the 2011 game total of 503, which ranks second on the all-time list. And, depending on final selections for Round 23 and the finals, could yet challenge the all-time high combined output of 526 games in 2012.
But as much as this historical data will be reassuring to the game’s heavyweights, from 4.35pm at the SCG on Saturday it will count for nothing.
Then it will be all about Mabior Chol and yet another good news football story of triumph over adversity.
It’s like Aliir and William all over again. A family that escaped the perils of war-torn Africa to make a life for themselves in Australia and ride the football bus to personal betterment.
Chol, the oldest of six siblings, was born in war-torn South Sudan. At age three he and his family moved to Egypt.
But things were not much different there. Although he has limited memory of his earliest years, he has told how one day in Egypt his younger brother was nearly kidnapped.
“”It was ridiculous,” he said. It was just on the street. We were out having fun and some random bloke came and just tried to take him. I rushed inside and called my mum. Lucky enough they came out really quick before anything happened.”
That was enough. The Chol family moved to Brisbane in 2005 to begin a new life. He was eight years old.
At 17 Chol was like any other teenager. He liked to hang with mates, watch action movies, and go to parties. He’s a big soccer fan, Arsenal in particular, and was a useful junior soccer player. Basketball, too. And he was a real car buff, with interest in an automotive apprenticeship.
But it all changed when Chol, capping a meteoric rise, was claimed by Richmond at #30 in the 2016 AFL Rookie Draft last November.
It wasn’t even six years earlier that a mate at school had introduced him to AFL football.
He admits at first he thought the Sherrin was “really weird”. Especially its shape. But quickly he took a strong liking to it.
In his first season he was part of the Yeronga State High School team that won the Brisbane Lions Cup at the Gabba.
A year later he played his first game of club football at Yeronga, kicking 10 goals in what proved a launching pad for entry to the State’s elite junior pathway.
He played at Yeronga alongside ex-Brisbane Lions premiership star Tim Notting, and is full of praise for the Notting influence.
A two-year member of the Brisbane Lions Academy, Chol played in the State U16 Championships, and last year was a Queensland U18 representative, playing in a combined Allies team at the MCG on AFL grand final day.
But it’s a story that has had its hiccups, too.
There was a time last year when State U18 coach Adrian Fletcher was concerned that Chol perhaps wasn’t as focussed on football as he might have been, And had missed training. And then he discovered why.
Chol’s parents were working at night to support their family, and the teenager mature beyond his tender years had to look after five younger siblings. At times, too, he had no way of getting to training.
In a pre-draft interview last year Chol gave an enlightening insight into his mindset. “Loyalty is so important. It’s a huge thing to stay as a family, and not to split up in the bad times. I’m proud of my family, we stuck together all the way, now we are in Australia and enjoying a good life,” he said.
“With my family, knowing where you’ve come from, a small country where there is a lot of violence, a family could just split up like that. I’m proud of my mum and dad for sticking together, believing in what they can achieve.”
Once things were sorted Chol continued to grow as a footballer.
Having played senior NEAFL football at Aspley and as a Lions top-up player, he excelled at the AFL Draft Combine, winning the standing vertical jump with a leap of 334cm from Essendon rookie Gach Nyuon (330cm) and Carlton’s No.1 draft pick Jacob Weitering (327cm). He was second 5cm behind Nyuon in the running vertical jump, leaping 357cm, and was second in the 30m repeat sprints, clocking 24.30sec to be beaten only by eventual Richmond teammate and Round 22 NAB AFL Rising Star nominee Daniel Rioli.
Although he missed out in the National Draft he’d done enough for the Tigers to give him a chance as a rookie.
After a taste of senior football in the NAB Challenge Chol settled into his apprenticeship with the Richmond VFL side coached by another ex-Brisbane Lions premiership hero Craig McRae.
Not insignificantly, it was the strong recommendation from McRae that helped get the 198cm stripling elevated from the rookie list and into the senior side for Round 23.
In his weekly summary for the Richmond website on the VFL’s team, McRae was particularly complimentary of Chol’s performance against Sandringham last Sunday.
“Played down back in one of his more consistent four-quarter performances,” McRae said. “He’s had concentration lapses in recent weeks, but didn’t have them in this game and he was strong. When the game had its most pressure, he was standing up. I was really proud of his 13 disposals and his effort on the day.”
That was enough for Richmond coach Damien Hardwick and his brainstrust. Chol, who has taken huge strides physically and personally while quickly become something of a cult figure at Tigerland, would become Queensland AFL player #166.
Blessed with great athleticism, good skills at ground level and enormous agility, Chol has played up forward, in defence and in the ruck in the VFL to give him a taste of all facets of the game.
On Saturday, wearing the #41 Tigers jumper that Scott Turner and Nathan Foley (among others) have worn with distinction in recent years, he could find himself directly opposed to Aliir on debut as Aliir, one of the Sydney Swans ‘big success stories of 2016, prepares for the AFL finals next weekend.