Picked up with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 AFL Draft, Richard Tambling had a rollercoaster career in the top level of Australian Rules football.
Now with his footy career over, he’s focusing on the simple things and enjoying life. He spoke to Jack Hudson about his journey.
Jack Hudson: What do you remember about your junior footy?
Richard Tambling: My junior footy was a bit colourful. There was a lot of trouble.
I grew up for four to six months out bush up until I was about 13.
Footy wasn’t always a priority and then I moved out to Kakadu, Jabiru, where I spent half my childhood.
I was travelling in and out of Darwin trying to get myself organised money-wise to pay the bus fair, then accommodation in Darwin.
I had the under 14s coach at the time look after me, his name was Gary, he looked after me on weekends, I travelled in with my cousin.
After a little while, I thought it was more beneficial if I was in Darwin, so my grandma made arrangements for me to be in Darwin.
The biggest thing I remember was sitting on sitting on that Greyhound Bus on a Friday arvo after school and trying to stay awake on a Monday morning once I returned to school.
The travelling was huge, but I remember my junior footy being pretty good, I was self-driven, had a lot of great support through the NT Thunder programs and I remember going to national carnivals.
It helped form some friendships for me, made me a bit more social, English was my second language, so it helped me a lot with forming those relationships.
JH: What was the lead up like to the 2004 Draft, and what clubs did you speak to?
RT: I spoke to Richmond, Hawthorn, Essendon, Port Adelaide and that’s all I can remember talking to at the draft.
The other clubs sort of, not to sound arrogant, but they came up and said ‘we don’t think we’ll be able to take you, so there’s no point in us meeting with you.’
I met with those clubs at the draft camp, I think I was pretty successful up until then, then I was lucky enough to be picked up by Richmond.
I think my family at the time didn’t know how significant meeting clubs and being in the AFL system was.
When the day came, I took my partner and her mother with me, my Grandma couldn’t read or write so, it was a bit hard, she’d never been on a plane, so to take me to this flash event and professional environment and she agreed Amy (my partner) and her mum would come with me.
They supported me the whole time, paid their whole way to come down and watch the draft, it was exciting the whole moment until my name was called, chucking on a Richmond polo and walking over to the clubhouse to check it all out.
JH: How did you deal with the pressure from it initially?
RT: I was just a young kid from the bush who wanted to play footy.
At the time, I didn’t really find that much pressure, it wasn’t until the media gets involved, the fans get involved.
You’re always getting put to the battering ram if the teams not going well and at the time we hadn’t been in the finals for a long time and we weren’t looking any better.
It was a pretty tough place to be around, but I was just excited to get out there and live a boyhood dream and play my first game and see where it took me from there.
JH: Your first game was a big win over Port Adelaide, the reigning premier, how huge was that?
RT: It was really good, it was Richo’s 200th and it was pretty big occasion.
I was feeling pretty good, the nerves were definitely there because I remember dropping two marks straight through the fingers, easily gettable.
I think I was putting too much pressure on myself to play well.
We won by about 10 goals in the end, it was memorable, I got to get up and get interviewed by the supporters group with Richo at the end of the game, which was fantastic.
JH: What was your relationship like with Richo, who was such a big figure?
RT: I was lucky enough that in the first pre-season I was living at Richo’s house.
Up from the draft up until Christmas break, I was living with him, it was fantastic to see such a professional, he was always busy.
You hear about a lot of players that come into the system and they’re young blokes and they don’t quite keep busy.
They don’t have too much going on.
But Richo I think owned a couple of restaurants and some businesses, he was always on the go with his days off doing the extra work that he needed to outside of footy to be successful.
It was something I picked up along the way watching him do his stuff.
JH: You had a few injuries throughout your career, how did you keep positive throughout it all?
RT: With the injuries comes a lot of downs as well, mentally as well.
The physical part of being a footballer is one thing, but I don’t think a lot of outsiders looking in realise what affects an injury or being dropped from the side, losing games, I don’t think people understand the toll it takes on a person.
Facing those injuries early on, you start questioning yourself, questioning your body.
At that young age, I did whatever I was told and I just started figuring out my body at the time as well.
We had a lot of great support around, but you don’t quite know your body at that young age, so it definitely took its toll.
I had a son at 19, that first year of my footy, we were pregnant with my little boy.
The added pressure came with that, my partner was at uni at the time and had to defer, so the injury was just another layer on a bunch of chaos.
JH: I don’t think over my time watching footy I’d seen a player cop so much pressure from the outside, how did that affect you mentally and how did you go about it?
RT: Coming from the bush, I’d never faced criticism the way I did in Melbourne.
Being a proud Indigenous man, I didn’t really think it had affected me.
It wasn’t until I started seeing a psychologist at Richmond at the time, he made me realise that it was affecting me.
He taught me after a little while, that you can’t control the media, you can’t control what people say, all you can control is how you play and how you go about your business.
After seeing him, that next year my footy became a lot better, and I became a lot more consistent.
I proved I belonged at the level and then I got a thing called Compartment Syndrome, that was another major surgery I had which set me six months back after having that great year.
I think I played 14 games the year after.
The year after that, for personal reasons, I chose to leave the club even though I had a year or two on my contract.
I needed to fix things up happening outside of footy and try something fresh.
JH: Was it always the Crows?
RT: Definitely not, I enquired with a few clubs, but I just needed to leave Melbourne.
The pressures from the supporters, the feeling of not having Richmond back me at the time, I felt like I was left out to dry a lot of the time, and I needed a fresh start with me and my partner.
We had two kids at that stage, and that’s when I started realising for myself the AFL’s a business, if you don’t look after yourself and your wellbeing both physically and mentally, you would go down a dark path.
For me, that’s when I started seeing another specialist, and they let me know the best thing for you mentally and physically is your happiness.
I just needed a move from Melbourne and the Tigers at the time to better my family.
JH: How’d you enjoy the move to South Australia?
RT: I loved it, my footy didn’t succeed in the AFL eyes, but I think I became a better footballer and a more consistent one and a better person playing at the Sturt Football Club through my affiliation with them.
It was good to get back to grassroots and go and play with people who really enjoyed their footy.
In the SANFL, there’s still some pressure, there was still some pressure from the Crows, but I felt that I played some good footy at Sturt, I won a best and fairest there and enjoyed a couple of successful years with them.
With the AFL, I was emergency about 20 times, it didn’t quite work out, but my family life improved dramatically, we were pretty happy and we’re better for it today.
My family’s still together and I’ve dealt with those personal demons now and I’m a better person for it.
JH: What’s life like after footy for you?
RT: All through footy and my free time I often did volunteer work with youth and in particular Indigenous youth.
Once I came back to the Northern Territory, I worked for AFLNT and worked as a development officer out in remote communities, usually dealt with a lot of youth and that was tied in with a health program.
After that and due to my passion with working with young and Indigenous youth, I moved over to The Clontarf Foundation, they mentor and help young men from Year 5 to 12 to educating them back into schools and employment when they graduate.
When I finished with them, I moved over to the Stars Foundation, which is a similar program with a couple of different values, but the same sort of thing.
We’re trying to empowering young women realise their full potentials in life and going for it.
JH: What advice would you give to a young player, even from the bush, that is looking to get into the AFL?
RT: That’s a really tough question, as much as I want young kids to chase their dreams, I know how hard it is, and everything that’s promised to you sometimes it doesn’t get delivered.
I would just let young people know to do what makes you happy, if that’s playing footy then putting 100 per cent into it, make sure you have the right support around you, make sure you communicate effectively, especially with your mental health.
Because you have 100 people at a football club who are willing to help you with your physical health, but you only have a couple who are there for you mentally.
My big thing with young kids would be to make sure you’re okay mentally and you have those people that support you mentally, rather than physically.