Reuben William: Another football fairytale

By Peter Blucher.     Reuben William doesn’t remember his father. But the 18-year-old Brisbane Lions rookie knows only too well of the ultimate sacrifice his father made when he was just an infant in war-torn Sudan. And on Saturday William will take a giant step forward to repay him with his AFL debut.

Deng William was among two million people who died during the Sudan Civil War that ravaged his country from 1983-2005.

He probably never heard of AFL football or the Brisbane Lions but if he was still alive he would take enormous pride in what has been a phenomenal story involving the second-youngest of his fifth children.

It is a story of horror and hope that has done the rounds of the media in various forms since he was claimed by the Lions in the 2016 AFL Rookie Draft last November, but is worth recounting now that hope is set to turn to reality.

Born in South Sudan, where the Civil War started, William lived in constant terror with mother Veronica and four siblings in his early years.

“She worked in construction so she’d have to carry three bricks on her head to carry them from one site to another,” he recalls. “What she had to do just to get money to feed us was really tough. She’s sacrificed heaps for us – and she still does – and we’ll always be grateful for that.”

Eventually, the family fled Sudan to Kenya. There they spent an extended time in a refugee camp before migrating to Australian in 2002 when Reuben was just four.

The family migrated to Australia in 2002 and settled in Brisbane, where he learned Australian football at the Zillmere Eagles.

The family lived a short distance from the club ground at O’Callaghan Park, one-time home of former Queensland AFL pioneers Frank Dunell, Danny Dickfos, Jamie Charman, Robert Copeland, Mitch Hahn, Daniel Pratt, Cheynee Stiller and Ben Warren, among others.

“Mum introduced me to footy. She wanted something for us to do on weekends to socialise,” William explained. ““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).”

It was at Zillmere where William met Maurie Fitzgerald, a very familiar face around the Zillmere junior club, and a man who William credits with “shaping” his footy.

AFLQ’s Brett Fragiacomo, too, had a big role, awarding William his first representative jumper when he picked him in the Queensland Diversity Team in 2014.

In the same year he was picked as a bottom age player in the Queensland State Academy team, before he progressed to the State U18 side coached by Adrian Fletcher in 2015.

A natural athlete, William also played soccer, rugby and basketball his mid-teens, but chose to focus on the Sherrin after being invited to join the Brisbane Lions Academy.

“I was better at it (football) than I was at the other sports so it was an easy decision,” said the likeable teenager, who was a standout member of a 2015 Queensland U18 side last year that included fellow Lions Ben Keays and Eric Hipwood, North Melbourne’s Corey Wager, Geelong’s Wylie Buzza and Richmond rookie Mabior Chol and won the division two championship.

It was a surprise when William, considered unlucky by some to miss All-Australian U18 selection, was overlooked in the AFL National Draft in November after ongoing injury concerns perhaps scared off some potential suitors.

But it all played into the hands of the Lions, who had already snared Keays and Hipwood at the top end of the draft.

They always liked the half back flanker’s blistering speed, courage and good ball use, and rated his potential highly. Shortly after the National Draft they locked him in as a priority selection ahead of the Rookie Draft.

After a lot of time with the Lions medical staff over summer William shed any doubt there may have been on his fitness and has been an improving contributor in the Reserves throughout his first season in the big time.

He will be the 37th Lions player used this year when he debuts against the Gold Coast Suns at Metricon Stadium in Q-Clash 12 on Saturday afternoon, nearly 14,000km from where he was born.

Ironically, among William’s early football inspirations was fellow Sudanese player Aliir Aliir, who will play his third AFL game for the Sydney Swans on Friday night in a fitting multicultural round celebration.

Said William when he was drafted: “Aliir’s a local (Brisbane) boy who’s only a few years older than me, and I went to his place when he was younger. It’s great when someone you know makes it because it gives you something to aspire to.”

William, a powerful 187kg and 189cm, is one of four Sudanese players listed with AFL clubs, alongside North Melbourne’s Majak Daw, Aliir and Chol, who will be hoping to make his AFL debut at Richmond later this season.

Although William insists he doesn’t model himself on any AFL player in particular, he said prior to being drafted last year he plays in a similar vein to Western Bulldogs speedster Jason Johannisen, who kicked the winning goal against Sydney last weekend.

Eventually William eventually wants to become an “explosive midfielder who can break out of stoppages”, but admits that he first needs to improve his endurance and kicking penetration.

Speaking 12 months ago, he said: “Every time I go to the Lions academy, I ask myself, ‘What can I do this session to help me be better for the next game?’ I just want to keep improving.

“I’ve got a better footy brain than most Sudanese guys, probably because I’ve immersed myself in it for a long, long time. I’m obsessed with it.

“I watch heaps of footy, and I love AFL Fantasy footy. It’s a big competition between me and my mates.”

William, whose 15-year-old brother Isaac is also a budding Lions Academy prospect, was told of his selection on Thursday by Lions captain Tom Rockliff.

He will become the 298th player for the combined Brisbane Bears/Lions, and the 164th Queenslander product to play at AFL level.

With ex-Lions rookie Sam Michael also making his debut for Essendon on Sunday he and William will be the 35th and 36th Queenslanders to play at AFL level this year. William will be the 9th debutant this year behind Josh Wagner, Josh Smith, Aliir, Keays, Jesse Joyce, Corey Wagner, Hipwood and Matthew Hammelmann.

He will be the fifth player to wear jumper #47 for the Bears/Lions behind Simon Hose (5 games), Bernie Harris (7), Jack Crisp (12) and Zac O’Brien (13).

Born on New Year’s Eve 1997, William will be 18 years and 191 days old on debut. He’ll be the 15th youngest Queensland debutant behind 17-year-olds Michael Voss, Marcus Ashcroft, Ray Windsor and David and Donald Cockatoo-Collins and 18-year-olds Marc Woolnough, Jason Akermanis, Rhan Hooper, Corey Bell, Harris Andrews, Dean McRae, Peter Yagmoor, Alex Sexton and Andrew Raines.

He will also be the second-youngest player in a Q-Clash behind Brisbane’s James Aish, who was 18 years 148 days in his first game against the Gold Coast in 2014.

Also, William will be ninth player to debut in a Q-Clash behind Gold Coast’s Joey Day, Tom Lynch and Sam Day and Brisbane’s Bryce Retzlaff (2011), Brisbane’s Crisp (2012) and Sam Mayes (2013), Gold Coast’s Louis Herbert (2014) and Brisbane’s Billy Evans (2015).

William be one of six players playing their first Q-Clash on Saturday, alongside Brisbane teammates Hipwood, Hammelmann and Rhys Mathieson, and Gold Coast’s Joyce and Peter Wright.

Gold Coast Queenslander Jarrod Harbrow will maintain his perfect record of having played in all 12 matches between the two Queensland AFL clubs, while Rocklliff, Pearce Hanley and Matt Shaw, will play their 11th Q-Clash and Day, Lynch, Michael Rischitelli and Daniel Merrett their 10th.

The Lions, outsiders with the bookmakers for Q-Clash 12, have a 7-4 advantage in head-to-head meetings overall. And after their 13-point upset win at the Gabba in Round 4 the Lions, who haven’t won since, will be looking to replicate their Q-Clash cleansweeps of 2012 and 2013. Gold Coast won both local derbies in 2015 and the teams split the games in 2011 and 2014.

In Q-Clash selection on Thursday night, the Lions included vice-captain Dayne Zorko and William to replace Josh Walker and Keays (omitted), and the Suns recalled Jarrod Grlett to replace the injured Matt Rosa.

Emergencies are Keays, Walker and Clay Beams (Brisbane), and Mitch Hallahan, Jack Leslie and Clay Cameron (Gold Coast).

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