Toopi on journey to win hearts and minds

IN ACTION: Clinton Toopi.
IN ACTION: Clinton Toopi.

Of all the fields Clinton Toopi has made an impact on during his association with rugby league, one that doesn't involve a football has provided the biggest kicks.

As a player, Toopi was involved in the New Zealand Warriors' first NRL grand final in 2002, then he stunned the Kangaroos with a hat-trick at North Harbour Stadium 12 months later  the highlight of his 21-cap Kiwis career.

A ball-playing centre who typified the Warriors' audacious and often unorthodox approach, Toopi made 129 appearances for the club between 1999 and 2006  Mt Smart was the only workplace he knew before moving to the Super League in Leeds and even club rugby union in Whakatane.

Dizzy spells finally prompted the 32-year-old's retirement with three games remaining in the Gold Coast Titans 2011 campaign and the transition to life after the final whistle  often the bane of a sportsman's existence  has been remarkably fulfilling for the father of two.

When Toopi left his girls, Waimania and Brianna, and wife Turenga in the Bay of Plenty to make an unlikely comeback to the NRL  agreeing to a 12-month contract  his playing ambitions were moderate .

John Cartwright primarily signed him to guide the club's next generation of indigenous and Pacific Island talent: David Mead, Joe Tomane and Kevin Gordon.

He started out at the Burleigh Bears and when Mat Rogers was injured he joined a backline blend of youthful exuberance and the experience of Preston Campbell and Scott Prince.

Toopi was meant to retire at the end of 2010 and join the Titans' community development division but his form warranted another season in first grade, until he fainted against the Melbourne Storm last August.

So these days Toopi no longer measures success in terms of line breaks and try assists  it equates to the number of indigenous youth he mentors in Far North Queensland who can triumph against the odds.

His itinerary includes communities a million miles from the comfortable existence provided by professional sport, places he never dreamed of setting foot in, let alone helping.

Every couple of months Toopi, Campbell and former Parramatta utility Dean Widders fly inland from Brisbane to Mt Isa, refresh themselves and then travel 514km north to Doomadgee, an Aboriginal settlement on the Nicholson River.

They then head to the Gulf of Carpentaria coast and boat 40km to Mornington Island, spiritual home to the Lardil and Kiadilt clans.

Mornington Island had an Allied airfield during WWII. The Japanese never invaded but during peacetime it was often a virtual battleground as locals resisted the Queensland government's implementation of an alcohol management plan to restrict grog sales.

Riots broke out in 2003 and again five years later when the Lelka Murrin Hotel  one of two licensed premises  stopped serving when the manager had a sickie.

Mornington is blessed with pristine mangrove forests but its inhabitants are cursed by alcohol abuse, violence and chronic unemployment.

The Titans Beyond Tomorrow programme  fronted by the players of yesteryear  started in late 2010.

Broadly, it is an initiative designed to convince at-risk youth there is potential for personal development despite their circumstances. Toopi joined Campbell and Widders last November. His enthusiasm is contagious despite the magnitude and scope of his task.

He has no social work qualifications, no background in welfare but the workshops are fluid and unstructured, just like his game plan at the Warriors.

"We go in there and share our experiences, teach them the disciplines we needed to become a professional athlete and how they can incorporate that into whatever line they choose to walk," he said.

They emphasise the importance of health and education and also remind youth what social services are available in their communities  It is not unusual to see footballers from the 16 NRL clubs run coaching clinics in out-of-the-way places during the pre-season to win hearts and minds.

The point of difference with the Titans programme is Toopi never packs a Steeden ball when he heads up country.

"All those communities have had sports go in there to lure them with an AFL ball, soccer ball. We talk about the importance of education, health, planning for the future."

But what do the Titans actually get back  just the satisfaction of helping the disadvantaged?

"That's totally it, man. We're not footy scouts, we aren't trying to find the next Scotty Prince," Toopi said.

Titans Beyond Tomorrow targets the vulnerable 14 to 24-yearolds.

"We're trying to teach them to respect their community and respect themselves. We want them to set their sights a bit higher," Toopi said.

"A lot of them think finishing school early and going on the dole is the norm. We try and help them think outside the square."

Groups from Doomadgee, Mornington and Cherbourg (250km north-west of Brisbane) are brought to the Gold Coast and accommodated by the Titans - a batch of 50 timed their visit to coincide with the NRL and Indigenous All Stars game on.

"That was a reward for those kids who are willing to make a change for themselves personally, whether that be looking to get a job or going back to school," Toopi explained. And although they went to Skilled Park to watch their heroes Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston and Sam Thaiday, the group also visited the Titans sponsors to explore employment possibilities and there was a class trip to Bond University.

"Some of them walked away really taken by it, they really want to do it," said Toopi of the campus excursion. "From that, we have to figure out how we're going to get them there."

Naturally others preferred dreamtime to Dreamworld and yearned for home.

"We want to show them there's a little bit more out there but if they want to stay in Doomadgee or Mornington or Cherbourg that's fine," he said. "But while they're there we want them to be good citizens in their communities, to make their communities better."

Toopi and Campbell acknowledged the work government agencies do in these confronting settlements but felt their sporting reputations made it easier to relate to the kids and young adults.

"They already feel like they know you," said Campbell, the driving force behind the concept.

"I think it works because we tell them a little bit about ourselves, what we needed to do to be able to succeed as a footballer.

"Then they tell us their stories. A lot of the time they have sad stories but they want to make a difference.

"What I've learned," added Toopi, "is some organisations do their hours, tick the boxes and go home. These kids appreciate a relationship, they appreciate that you care."

That means Toopi's daughters are not the only kids seeking guidance.

"I've had phone calls already, kids ringing me up. They've got my number if they ever need help." Some of the calls have been distressing calls though there has also been good news amid the grim.

"The kids who came down for the All Stars game returned to their communities and they're taking other kids to Job Seek; the Job Seek people had never seen them before," Toopi said.

"I'm not saying we can change the world up there but we're making a difference. People would go up there thinking these kids are going to be little ratbags but they're not.

"They want more out of life  that's what gets me buzzing."

Toopi, meanwhile, grins at the irony of not exactly practising back then what he preaches now.

Asked what he would be doing had the Titans not organised this dream job he pondered: "Mmmm. I'd probably be playing football locally. I was scared to give up footy. For 10 to 15 years that's all I knew, and that's all I relied on.

"When I came to the Warriors I had opportunities to get an education or just develop some skills for life after footy.

"I didn't do any of that. For me it was always 'next year, next year '."

Sunday News