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On a mission: Matt Bowen and Matt Mitchell's Australian Story

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23rd May, 2019
16

Saw some vision of the great Matty Bowen on the Twitters yesterday, and well – wasn’t he something?

What a player. What a mover. Silky, the great Mango. Just ridiculously good. And so good to watch.

He was magnificent – and more so when you know where he came from.

Did a story about him years ago for Inside Sport. Spent a couple days in his home town, Hope Vale, a one-time Lutheran mission 30 minutes and three river crossings north of Cooktown.

And if you know Cooktown you’ll know it’s four hours north of Cairns. Cooktown’s the frontier of Australia. It’s out back of the Outback.

Hope Vale’s out the back of that.

I got there early in the morning. Didn’t see a lot of vales. Or hope.

The police station was surrounded by barbed wire. There were burning bins and red dirt. And nobody about.

It was actually quite affecting.

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I’d teed it up with Matt to spend a day with him and his family, go fishing, hunting. Used to get that sort of access to players, before coaches instructed club media managers to protect players like princelings.

Anyway there I am, plump white kid from Canberra, from the suburbs, plonked out in the jungle. Looking around. Matty had said just come out.

So I drove around town a bit. Cop shop was closed. And I was thinking of taking off when Matt appeared in my rear view mirror in a ute with three or four kids in the back, curious, half-smiling.

Matt Bowen and friends

Matt Bowen among other NRL stars for a reconciliation day event. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

One of ‘em was Javid Bowen, future Cowboys player, who would’ve been 15.

Don’t know how they knew I was there.

Matty says, “Come out the property”, using some of the few words he spoke that day.

It was cool, though. It wasn’t really an interview, it was just spending time.

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His old man spoke enough for everyone. Great fellah. The pride he had in their brick house and the generator, and the stockyards for a bunch of Brahman bulls that roamed out in the scrub wherever they liked, was palpable.

The Bowens came from a tent by the river. Matt showed me where they’d fish, where they’d bring up water in a pulley system.

Did a lot of yapping with the old man. Great fellah. An old bushie in a beat-up hat, rounding up the cows barefoot.

He used to ride ‘em as a young fellah. Great rank bulls from the bush.

Off to the coast we went, the family’s little weekender. Got the ute bogged in red sand on the beach. Dug it out. Went fishin’ on the speedboat, Matty standing on the bow with a spear, looking for turtles.

We bombed about in the ute. Saw old mate Noel Pearson who waved to us and all the kids on the back.

We checked out the prickle bush in the backyard where Matty honed his footwork tooling about with a footy every single day.

And all you could think was … how the hell did a Golden Boot Winner and rugby league superstar come from this?

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It’s a great Australian story. Should be an Australian Story.

Another is Matt Mitchells. Had a yarn with him, Latrell’s, dad, the other day. While we were on the phone another call came for him.

He said, “Sorry, mate, gotta take this.”.

And I listened to his end of the conversation.

Latrell Mitchell

Latrell Mitchell of the Roosters (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“Choc! Hello, bra!”

Yep, Anthony Mundine was on the blower. He’d been helping Matt’s son Shaquai with his move to Belmore and the Bulldogs. I thought, Hello – a scoop!

Next day told my mate The Mole from Channel Nine.

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He said, “Yeah, good one. Happened three weeks ago.”

Which was news to me.

And so Matt and Choc yapped away and Matt’s side of the conversation went like.

“Just been at my cousin’s funeral.”

“…”

“He was 52.”

“…”

“I know bra, I know. Too young. But mate they drop like flies up here.”

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He didn’t say it matter-of-fact. He was sad. Resigned.

Matt Mitchell’s dad died aged 43. His grandad died aged 42.

Fact of life up in Taree.

Hope Vale, too.

Indigenous people are survivors.

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Matt Mitchell is 43.

On so many markers – life expectancy, infant mortality, incarceration – our fellow Australians, the first ones on this big hot rock – are a long way second best to the rest of us.

In 1901 they rounded up all the black people in the area and put them in Taree Purfleet Mission. Same thing they did with Matty Bowen’s ancestors up north.

It was called ‘Protection’. They didn’t give a stuff about tribes – if you were black, they had a reserve for you.

Then came the policy of ‘Assimilation’ in which they took people’s children away to “breed out the black”.

It went on for decades.

Degradation of language, colour, kinship.

Matt Bowen in his prime

Matt Bowen in his prime (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)

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You think it wouldn’t affect future generations? You think black folks aren’t less privileged than white folks?

Shit like that lasts generations. Jews have Israel because of the Holocaust.

Black Australians do their best.

Well – this is bit heavy, isn’t it!

Sorry. It’s important though.

It happened. We should know it. It’s part of our story.

Matt Mitchell’s story included being a hell of a footy player. Talented. You see old vision of him as a boy, he’s Andrew Walker, Rod Silva, the long legs of Brett Mullins.

Matt came down to Sydney as a pup, Souths put him on a scholarship in a Catholic college in Randwick. Flash joint. Yet while he was spooked by the priests and thought it was a prison, he enjoyed it the two years.

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But footy was hard. He was homesick. He had shin splints. One of the fellahs used to hang around training at Redfern Oval offered him a bag of powder to help.

The physiotherapists couldn’t fix his shins splints. He was a bushie, 20 years old. A kid doing his best.

The speed made him feel bullet proof. Helped him run. But it kept him up at nights. So he smoked ganga to bring him down.

And repeat.

Nothing good could come of it. Certainly not footy form.

Between houses, he slept on Maroubra Beach. He signed with the Tigers on a training contract worth approximately zero. He tried working a job with Telstra and competing for a spot in first grade.

Didn’t happen.

He went to Wagga Magpies, and his grandma died, and he went home to raise three beautiful boys.

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Happy, fit, he won man-of-the-match in a bunch of NSW mid-north coast grand finals.

And he taught his sons to play.

And survive.