West Coast Eagles star Nic Naitanui has revealed fans and commentators alike have been mispronouncing his name, saying he has a love-hate relationship with his “Aussie” nickname.
The superstar ruckman made the startling revelation to Mark Fennell on the first episode of Telstra’s new Guess What? podcast.
Speaking candidly on the defining moments in his career, the Eagles big man said the moniker Nic Nat was born from Aussie slang butchering his surname.
“It’s funny, the name Nic Nat, so I’m from Fiji originally and my surname is pronounced ‘Nait-a-niu’, but in Australia, you come to Australia and everyone says ‘Nic Nat-a-nooi’,” he told the podcast.
“And that’s what the commentators say in the game and from there on — like any typical Australian — you get a slang and it just became Nic Nat.
“I like it but at times I hate it, sometimes you’re walking down the street and you hear people yell out or little kids on the side of the fence, “Nic Nat, Nic Nat, Nat”.
“It’s now become part of my makeup now”.
Growing up in Australia, Naitanui said he was always the “odd one out” in school.
“It’s just the fact of growing up where I did and living where I do, no-one really looks like you,” he said.
“For me it was hard, especially playing football. I copped it a fair bit out on the footy field from other kids.
“Things like ‘what are you doing out here?’, ‘are you lost?’, ‘this game is not for you’, as a kid you had to have a fair bit of resilience to get through some of that stuff.
“It did hurt but it also fuelled me to get better and prove these guys wrong.
“In the back of my mind, I knew I had some talent.
Naitanui said he struggled with the lack of “heroes or idols that played the sport that resembled me”.
“Every Australian kid would have an idol that looked similar to them or played similar to them and I didn’t really have anyone that was tall, dark and had an afro in the AFL,” he said.
“Sometimes I feel like I filled that void a little bit, where there’s children now who are of a similar descent or come from overseas background that can relate to my story and have someone they can idolise.
“It was tough but I’ve been using it as fuel for my entire career.”
A career, Naitanui claims, began with a little help from another ground-breaking WA athlete.
Naitanui’s close relationship with Fremantle superstar Michael Walters began when they were young, with the ruckman claiming the Dockers’ vice-captain was — in no small part — responsible for introducing him to Aussie Rules football.
“I remember walking home from primary school and I always carried a basketball with me, and I saw these kids… one went on to play for Carlton (Chris Yarran) and one went on to play for the Fremantle Dockers (Michael Walters),” he said.
“They were walking and kicking this funny shaped kangaroo leather-thing out the front of their house.
“I remember going over and asking and they showed me how to kick it — I still can’t kick it properly — but they taught me the basic skills.
“And from then on I went down and joined the local footy club and I just fell in love with the game.”
In Naitanui’s 179-game career, the 2020 All-Australian fancy has suffered the devastating lows of professional sport — long-term injuries, grand final losses, premiership heartache among them — but says the defining moment of his career was the first time he was told he was picked in the 22.
“It’s something that stood out for me and a highlight in my life,” he said.
Taken at number two in the 2008 draft, Naitanui made his debut a year later in West Coast’s round 12 match against Richmond.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the 201cm giant.
“My whole life I played sport and, being through a Fijian family, AFL football wasn’t a thing at all,” he said.
“A lot of families that come from overseas want their children to get a good education, get a good job.
“Trying to convince my mum that playing a sport that was foreign to her and my family for a living was beyond thinkable for them to think I could make a career from it.
“I pursued it a lot as a young kid, put a lot of hard work and effort into it. There was happy times and a lot of tears.
“We didn’t have much growing up so having to convince my mum to buy new $200 footy boots or pay for footy fees was hard, but when I was told I would play my first game it was almost a sigh of relief.
“Proving all the hard things we went through was all worth it.
But before he even donned the blue and gold, then 19-year-old Naitanui had a decision to make after former coach John Worsfold approached him with the prospect of taking on West Coast’s number nine jumper.
“At the time Ben Cousins’ number was available, they questioned me asking ‘do you really want this? There’s a lot of baggage with this number,’” he said.
Asked if he hesitated before accepting, he said he’d “be lying if he said he didn’t” but that Cousins’ off-field “demons” didn’t deter him from “carrying on his on-field legacy”.
“Maybe I can build my own reputation with this number,” he said.