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State Hall of Fame honour worth the long journey for a flying Cockatoo-Collins

Andrew Mathieson -

The first Indigenous Queenslander to enter AFL ranks was finally recognised for pioneering a dozen more Murri mob to follow his footy journey.

Che Cockatoo-Collins, the ex-Essendon and Port Adelaide forward, was inducted into the AFL Queensland Hall of Fame last Friday.

But that inclusion in the same breath with local greats of the game, Jason Dunstall, Michael Voss and Jason Akermanis, almost never would have happened over curious inquiries into his state eligibility three decades earlier.

AFL Queensland, on its own website, called the period when Cockatoo-Collins almost got a game for South Australia against Victoria in a State of Origin clash as more of a "curious misnomer".

That remarkable reality is notwithstanding that the proud Jupangati and Marrithiya man had not even played an AFL match in his life back then in 1993, let alone run around with the game's superstars on the biggest state stage that added another chapter to a fascinating side story.

Another is the origins of Cockatoo half of the surname, derived from his maternal great, great grandfather, who was reportedly known as 'Old Man Cockatoo' up in Cape York at the very top point of Queensland.

Cockatoo-Collins himself, was born in Brisbane, moved up north in preschool, played juniors in Cairns, and even these days, the 48-year-old father of three grown-up sons returned home, lives on North Stradbroke Island while working in the Brisbane CBD.

Just a short walk from his Indigenous Affairs Executive Manager job at NBN Australia, he is as Queensland as the 'Gabba.

But there was a time the blossoming footballer first lived in Adelaide after his parents split up where mum relocated all four children from Cairns to be closer to her sisters.

He landed during his under-15s year and was zoned to traditional SANFL powerhouse Port Adelaide, his apprenticeship flourishing in front of the eyes and from the wisdom of coaching great John Cahill.

"Jack taught me how to play wing, and he put time and care into my understanding," Cockatoo-Collins said during the induction.

There was greater influence at play than the man, who four years later, would take on the reins at Port's entry into the AFL.

From Brisbane to Cairns, then onto to Adelaide, the journey continued but a detour to Melbourne, and in particular, Napier Street, Essendon beckoned.

But Cockatoo-Collins was under strict orders to sit out a year, wait and pledge loyalty to the South Australian club, after his name was called out at selection No.42 in the midst of the 1992 AFL draft.

"I was only 17 and (Mum) wanted me to play a full season with Port Adelaide first," Cockatoo-Collins said.

"I really wanted to go, but I knew why.

"It was the right decision."

The family's love affair would turn full circle years later that not only saw Cockatoo-Collins return to the city of his birth but back on board with Port Adelaide's AFL arm.

Port was one thing, South Australia was another.

Mum had the final word again that same year.

The state's footy authorities got a rude shock when Frances Cockatoo turned down an offer of an Origin game, flatly declaring her eldest son was explicitly a Queenslander.

Cockatoo-Collins had after all teamed up for Queensland under-12s that contained not only the sheer presence of Voss but also former Queensland rugby league Origin star and Queensland rugby union coach, Brad Thorne.

That was that, and before he knew it, the teenager lined up that year for Queensland-Northern Territory, who easily defeated Tasmania in Hobart.

The fact that mum's stern call came after Cockatoo-Collins played Teal Cup under-17s for the Croweaters seemed the same logic that approved Wagga Wagga hero, Wayne Carey, to represent the same state after just a couple brief years living there.

Cockatoo-Collins, in fact, tells how he struggled playing for South Australia and before soon got advice off Essendon recruiters in the future to focus on winning his own ball, keeping his feet and not playing for free kicks.

It was only Mark Williams, returning to Alberton for a fresh preseason after stints at Collingwood, Essendon and Brisbane Bears, who was the only person to inform the 17-year-old that he had been drafted to Windy Hill.

"We didn't have a phone back then so I didn't know until I got to training the day after the draft," Cockatoo-Collins laughed.

That groundbreaking AFL debut in 1994 when footy in the day for most Murri men was rugby league – not Australian rules – came in the way of two significant factors.

Cairns, unlike most cities in the state, had a thriving Australian rules scene.

The other was that his two uncles were the original trailblazers, but fell one step short of starring when Robert and Rodney Cockatoo left the Far North for North Melbourne.

The coup was full of fanfare towards signing the Indigenous pair that included flying Kangaroo champion Jim Krakouer up to entice the brothers down back before the draft existed.

That proud heritage of an athletic ability existed with a football – any kind of football – or without one.

Che's dad, Les Collins, hailed from Cherbourg and like many before from the Aboriginal community since, he was a rugby league hero, who won the prestigious Gold Medal for the Cairns and District's League best and fairest.

It doesn't end there.

Mum Frances, whose parents moved to Cairns from the communities of Mapoon and Doomadgee, additionally was a brilliant sprinter.

But it has been the 160-gamer's career that has set up an AFL Queensland legacy that includes his younger twin brothers, Melbourne's Donald and David, who had looked up and pointed admirably to their hero for years.

It's been a trickle than a flood since, but Jarrod Harbrow, Charlie Cameron, cousin Courtenay Dempsey, Mark West, Rhan Hooper, Albert Proud, Rex Liddy, Peter Yagmoor and now Keidean Coleman, whose brother Blake is in line next, can thank Cockatoo-Collins.

To add to the accolades, Cockatoo-Collins and his brothers are the state's only family to produce three AFL players after Donald appeared nine times and David twice.

Those family ties run deep with his middle son, Preston, following the journey to Port Adelaide through their Magpies SANFL program along with his AFLW cousins, Litonya and Laquoiya Cockatoo-Motlop, the twin daughters of Che's sister Jasmin.

It's a reminder to what values are important to Cockatoo-Collins, back when he was a guest speaker for a forum on Force for good: How Indigenous Australians have enriched football.

"When we talk about an AFL player, an Aboriginal player…(they) really don't play for themselves," he said.

"They play for their families; they play for each other.

"I'd like my brothers to feel proud of themselves; I wanted my mother to feel proud of herself."


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