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‘Footy is home’: Marlion Pickett’s grand final debut

From the first moment he walked out into the Melbourne sunshine and looked up at the towering stands of the MCG, he knew that he belonged.

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“I felt at home,” he said amid the crush of the jubilant Richmond rooms, a premiership medallion hanging round his neck. “Footy is home. It takes my mind off a lot of things. If I am playing footy I enjoy the game.”

“Footy’s footy. Doesn’t matter if I’m playing local, WAFL or AFL. Footy’s footy.”

At the final siren, Pickett was standing casually on the sidelines, hands on hips, looking more like a man waiting for bus than a league footballer about to complete a journey so remarkable, it would sound fanciful had it not been told and retold so many times over the past two days.

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He ran onto the ground to embrace his teammates but it was a little later that he got to savour the moment that will really count for this fiercely proud family man – looking up at the stands with his youngest son Levi and daughter Shaniqua cradled in his arms and his two older kids, Marlion jnr and Latrelle, milling at his feet.

Let’s talk about those feet.

Early in the second quarter, when this lopsided grand final was still up for grabs, those feet had Lachie Whitfield, one of the most beautifully balanced footballers in the AFL, all at sea as Pickett came dancing and spinning out of the centre square.

Pickett had come charging away from a centre bounce with ball in hand when he was confronted by Whitfield. It wasn’t so much a blind turn as a graceful, balletic spin, more Baryshnikov than Leon Baker, and it left Whitfield bemused and beaten in equal parts.

It wasn’t so much a blind turn as a graceful, balletic spin, more Baryshnikov than Leon Baker, and it left Lachie Whitfield bemused and beaten in equal parts.

The smooth, left-foot pass that followed set up Jason Castagna for a nice little hanger and shot on goal. The three or so quarters that followed set up Pickett for what everyone at Tigerland expects to be a rich, late-blooming career.

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“I think ‘Dimma’ [Damien Hardwick] said, ‘he’s born for this stage,” said Trent Cotchin. “I can’t wait for more of his story to come out because it’s a special part of today and our footy club.”

Hardwick, the Richmond coach who made the bold move to select Pickett for his first game in a grand final, said he lost sleep on Friday night worrying about the decision.

“I thought ‘I’m gonna look like either a dill, or a champ,'” Hardwick said. “The thing that he has, he’s just so composed with the ball. Our recruiters back him and said ‘this kid can do it’.”

Pickett started each quarter on the bench. Each time he ran on, he looked like a player at ease in his work. As the afternoon wore on, the bloke wearing No.50 looked like someone who’d been in the big league his entire adult life rather than someone who only walked into Punt Road midway through this season.

It was Pickett’s little give-and-go and kick to advantage that gave Dustin Martin his second goal and Pickett who, in the third quarter, snuck forward so that Martin could return the favour. “I seen Dusty looking at me so I said just kick it here,” was Pickett’s matter of fact recollection of events.

His first goal in the AFL was equally nonchalant. He marked about 30 metres out, walked back and kicked it through as calmly as a kick at twilight in Manjimup, practising shots at the end of training.

Richmond debutant Marlion Pickett's low-key salute to his goal.

Richmond debutant Marlion Pickett’s low-key salute to his goal.Credit:Justin McManus

Pickett’s celebration was the only giveaway about what it truly meant. A straight fist salute, pointed to the sky, as his teammates buried him in an avalanche of yellow and black.

In the stands were Pickett’s mother Angela and father Thomas, who flew from Perth to watch the match despite being confined to a wheelchair from the effects of emphysema. When Marlion greeted them the rooms after the match, he gave his mum a hug and gave his dad an affectionate pat on his newly bought Richmond beanie.

Thomas Pickett said he was lost for breath and lost for words. “I just can’t talk at the moment. But he did good.”

Marlion Pickett celebrates in the Richmond rooms with mother Angela and father Thomas.

Marlion Pickett celebrates in the Richmond rooms with mother Angela and father Thomas. Credit:Justin McManus

Angela said Marlion had taught everyone about the power of redemption and giving people a second chance.

“I was very proud of him,” she told The Age. “I’m over the moon. He has come a long way from where he was.

“I am very proud for what he has achieved in life. He made a promise to himself that he won’t go backwards and he will go forwards and he has done it.

“You give anybody a second chance and they can do this. Marlion is a role model for the Aboriginal children and white children who have been in jail. They can turn their life around and do this too.”

He made a promise to himself that he won’t go backwards and he will go forwards and he has done it.

Angela Pickett, Marlion’s mother

Pickett’s teammates need no convincing. Martin, who knows how difficult it can be to change people’s assumptions about your background and character, applauded his club for taking a risk.

“The club’s given him a second chance,” Martin said. “People make mistakes. I couldn’t be prouder of the club for taking the chance with him and he’s a big-time player. I can’t wait to see him next year as well.”

For Pickett, his past mistakes are as much a part of him as his present triumph.

He doesn’t remember much of what happened on the MCG on Saturday. He can’t tell you much about the blind turn or the goal, the way he used the ball and the way he saw the game. But he can tell you why he was playing this game, rather than sitting in a pub somewhere, a dank commission flat or perhaps, a jail cell.

“It is the reason why I am here, doing what I am doing, because of the obstacles I have faced in life.”

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