Don’t be mistaken. Although Naitanui has learned that he needs this self-styled sanctuary to balance his existence, reluctant or reclusive sporting giant he is not. He might be able to leap higher than most people on the planet, but his spirit is quintessentially down to earth.
Ask West Coast insiders and they remark on his humility and generosity. A man of Christian faith, he counts his blessings in daily prayer and has his handsomely paid career in healthy perspective. “A lot of it comes from hard work,” Naitanui says, “but at the same time a lot of it is genetics and being blessed with some talent.”
Success depends on both, of course. But it doesn’t stop there. As Naitanui continues to demonstrate, for your career to really take off you need to keep setting yourself benchmarks. Even more importantly, you need to keep asking yourself questions.
Born to Fijian parents who migrated to Australia the year before his birth, what Naitanui lacked in the way of luxury was more than made up for by his rich sense of family, culture and community.
He describes the Perth suburb of Midvale, where he grew up, as “a low socioeconomic place with a lot of kids from broken families or with people at home with drug problems or in and out of jail. It was a pretty rough area.” Naitanui’s father, Bola, passed away with cancer when he was one, which left his beloved mother, Atetha, who died last August, to steer the ship.
Having the basics – like food on the table – was the financial focus of the household early in Naitanui’s life. Comparative luxuries such as footy fees were often covered by guardian angels like local sports coaches and community workers Tony Miracchi and Frank Cavicchio, who Naitanui counts as his greatest life guides, along with his mum.
A fraternal twin to Mark, now Naitanui’s only blood relative in Australia (he has two elder siblings in Fiji), sporting opportunities abounded for young Nic. Basketball, athletics, rugby – the football code most popular in his parents’ homeland
– and, later, Aussie rules. All of them not merely pastimes but preoccupations.
“I was always picked first in school sports by other kids who wanted me to be on their team,” Naitanui recalls. “I was tall and probably more athletic than most of the other kids at my school.”
Naitanui’s first vivid memory of dealing with the sporting spotlight was back when he was 15. He tells the story of how, at an interschool athletics carnival, all other competition paused and the attention of an entire stadium focused on him as he attempted to break the state high jump record.
He still sounds somewhat bemused by the experience. “Everyone came and watched me jump over this one pole. Thankfully I got over it. High jump was my best event, but any sort of jumping really – long jump, triple jump – I did all right with.”
Setting the state record that day inspired a scout from a US college to approach Naitanui there and then. “Do you want to come over?” the scout asked.
Naitanui didn’t even come close to what might have seemed the natural next – but very long – leap into the unknown.
“Because it was only me, my mum and my brother in Perth, I didn’t really want to get up and go,” he says. “I was comfortable here at home, and by that stage I was starting to go okay in my football as well.”
In the countdown to the Rio Olympics, it would appear Naitanui has no lingering regrets about a professional track-and-field career that might have been. “I think if I’d spent the rest of my life just going around the world jumping over a pole I’d be a very boring person,” he says with a quiet laugh.
He did, however, think more than twice about the prospect of a career in basketball. And with good reason. Another scout with US college connections put a separate proposition to him that would have seen him shooting hoops in the States.
“I think the best bit of advice I got from Mum was to do what makes you happy – don’t do things for the money, don’t do things to please anyone else, just do it if you want to do it,” Naitanui says. “My heart, ultimately, was with footy. I enjoyed it more. And basketball in Australia was okay, but it wasn’t as exciting as watching an AFL game on the weekend.”
Atetha Naitanui championed this plan in the wings and, her athletically gifted son confides all these years later, probably wouldn’t have liked it much if he’d packed up and embarked on a sporting adventure abroad. Somehow, though, in indicating she’d rather he stay, Atetha also made it known she wouldn’t stand in the way if he went.
The fact that Naitanui turned down the opportunity to pursue the American dream meant he’d put all his eggs in one basket. The knock-on effect? He chased a footy career even harder.
No pressure? Yeah, right. The pressure you put on yourself is often the most punishing and powerful of all.
“Once that seemed possible, I thought you’ve really got to make sure you get to that elite AFL level now because you’ve made that decision,” he says. “You need to do everything in your power to work hard and get there.”
Preparing For Take-Off
Naitanui was spared the burden that accompanies being first pick in the AFL’s national draft, recruited by West Coast with pick two in 2008.
The career, to date, of the player who went before him – Melbourne’s Jack Watts – rates among the most heavily scrutinised in modern football. In 2016 Naitanui is the more decorated of the pair, though he’s undoubtedly been aided by playing in a more successful environment.
Still, Naitanui hasn’t been spared from the footy blowtorch either, and knows full well the great weight that comes with the tags of expectation and potential.
For many years, Naitanui reckons, he was only managing to approach his best between operations. Injury followed injury and some form of surgery became an almost annual event. Of course, he had a sense of the impatient and, at times, very vocal critics. He doesn’t ignore his social media streams after any performance – good, indifferent or downright ordinary. But he uses some sage advice from a level-headed old teammate, Chris Judd, as a constant reference.
“Chris used to talk about learning to deal with two scenarios: not getting too carried away with the good games and not getting too carried away with the bad ones,” Naitanui says. “You can play a good game and still get negative stuff!”
Sound advice, whether your job’s setting up centre clearances or compiling spreadsheets.
The truth is, with his freakish athletic gifts, Naitanui has never had a real template on which to model his style of play.
“When I first got drafted I thought I should just copy Dean Cox,” Naitanui says of the retired West Coast champion, who now coaches at the club. “He was such a great player, I thought if I just do what he does I can be a great player too. But I realised I’m not as skillful; I can’t get 30 touches like he used to do, I play a different game. I might get 15 touches, but I do things differently.”
The 2012 season marked Naitanui’s breakthrough. He won football’s official nod of approval by being selected as starting ruckman in the AFL’s best 22-player line-up, the All Australian team. He followed it up last year, coming off his first injury-free preseason in three years, to make the long list of All Australian nominees, although this time not the final cut, after what was his most consistent and regularly outstanding season.
Having closed in on the pinnacle of his sport, though, Naitanui hasn’t stopped asking himself tough questions about his progress and status in the game.
“Have I fulfilled my dreams? Have I reached that potential? Have I met the expectations that I have of myself and that others have for me? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of that at times. It probably still sits in the back of my head most weeks.”
It makes you think: if someone as gifted and successful as Naitanui doesn’t stop assessing where he’s at, doesn’t stop looking for ways to improve, why should you?
You can bet, for example, that he’s got another All Australian selection in his sights. And a premiership of course, after West Coast’s deeply disappointing showing in last year’s Grand Final. At the same time, though, sometimes there are bigger things to play for.
As much as the Grand Final loss might have burned, the emotion of the experience is blurred with the grief Naitanui had to somehow manage after the passing of his mum, just a little over a month before. It was a life-changing event that saw him retreat to Fiji to lead the traditional farewell ceremonies with relatives.
Today, still grieving that profound loss, football remains Naitanui’s constant. His mum was his biggest fan. He plays today, as always, to make her proud.