Nicho Hynes remembers walking bigger to school that day.
For the first time in his life, the then 13-year-old had a sense of belonging.
For the first time in his life, he could tell people where he came from.
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“I remember in Year 7 I started to open up and take pride in being Aboriginal,” Hynes said.
Yet Hynes’ pride did not match the brutal reaction in the schoolyard.
“It was a special moment for me to say, ‘I’m Aboriginal,'” the Cronulla Sharks star explained.
“But immediately they (classmates) said: ‘Bulls***, why are you only coming over now?’
‘You’re not black, they said. They started questioning me.
“I didn’t tell them it hurt, but it hurt terribly.”
Between the ages of five and twelve, his mother, Julie, was in and out of prison and Hynes lived with his father Mick Wilson.
Along with his older brother Wade, that was his entire family.
One day he was in elementary school when he saw his mother put in the back of a rice wagon and taken back to prison.
It’s an image Hynes will never be able to erase from his young mind.
After years of mental pain, tears and a seemingly simple childhood dream of living as a family, Hynes’ mother finally came out of prison with answers.
And that’s why Hynes says he would never change his upbringing, his love for his mother, or the hard life experience he carries with him every day.
“Because Mom was in and out of jail, I never got to talk to her about who we were or who my family was,” Hynes said.
“Her mother died and her father was taken from her when she was young, so I never knew anything.
“When Mom went in and out of prison, it was the other women in prison who taught her about our heritage.
“I heard from my grandfather, a proud Aboriginal man. Then she started to be more proud of it.
“She came home and spoke openly about our indigenous background for the first time.”
Hynes discovered that his family has ties to Griffith and the Wiradjuri people, Australia’s largest nation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Growing up in Umina on the Central Coast, Hynes also felt a responsibility to represent both the Darkinjung and Mingaletta clans in the area.
Reassured that he finally had a story to tell about who he was and where he came from, Hynes went to school with shoulders held high.
That was, until he received the response from his colleagues.
“It made me feel like, ‘Am I pronouncing it, or am I not pronouncing it?’ I decided I wouldn’t be open or expressive about it,” Hynes said.
“Looking back now, I’m like, ‘Nicho, you idiot.’ That’s who you are, that’s your identity.
“Looking back, it really hurts when people wonder who you are.
“I remember when we had all our paperwork done, I posted it on Instagram as kind of like stuff to all of you.
“Once I reached an age where I was confident to speak about it, I’ve been proud and happy to do so ever since.
“If someone were to question me, I’d say they must be full.”
Hynes is second on the Dally M standings after an influential start to his career with the Sharks.
The ‘Kurranulla’ Sharks receive the ‘Gadigal’ Roosters at the PointsBet Stadium on Saturday night for the NRL’s Indigenous Round.
When he talks to Hynes, he is extremely focused, as the main playmaker on the team, to make this Sharks side his own.
But Hynes, the footballer, is much more.
There’s Hynes, the proud native man who is driven to use his profile for change.
“If I was just an average Joe in Umina, I probably wouldn’t be confident talking about who I am,” Hynes said.
“But rugby league has given me this platform to go out and express who I am.
“People would look at Latrell Mitchell. He’s a black guy, he’s dark skinned, he grew up knowing all about who he is and he’s so proud of it.
“I’d like to be like that.
“People look at me and see this white, tanned guy, who doesn’t look like a whole bunch of Aboriginal people, but I do and I’m so proud of it.
“This is what’s so important about Indigenous Round, we can share about who we are and the kids who look up to us, they can strive for what we do.
“We are paving the way for the next generation.
“It makes me so proud to be a part of the game, as well as all week.
“I watched Johnathan Thurston growing up and I loved him. He was my idol. My hero.
“I always said, I want to be on the big stage one day, like Johnathan Thurston.
“He has done so much with his work outside of football to educate young people.
“Now I can do that. I’m not nearly as good as him, but I’m on that big stage.
“I will be content in life if I have a child from an Aboriginal community who says I want to be like Nicho Hynes one day.
“That’s my dream. If I can get one kid to say that, then I’ve done my job. That’s why this round is so important.
“I would really like to start a foundation. Whether it’s mental health or troubled kids who can’t afford to go to representative fairgrounds.
“I have a lot of ideas, it’s about playing good football first.
“You can’t do all these things if you can’t play football well, so I’m really aware that I have to make sure I have the football right on the pitch and then the rest comes.
“I just want to have a huge impact on younger generations, to make sure they’re going the right way, not the wrong one.
“I wouldn’t change any of my experiences for the world. That made me who I am.
“I wouldn’t have changed my mother if she went in and out of prison, I still love her to death and everything I do is for her. (Hynes spent Wednesday on the Central Coast for his mother’s 50th birthday).
“I’ve learned lessons and that’s the advice I’ve been given to give to the next generation to come.
“Speak up and just be proud of who you are.
“People don’t know your past, they don’t know what life you’ve led.
“They have no right. So speak up and be proud.”
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