THERE are many things that can disable a blossoming football career.

Injury, doubt, homesickness, distractions. For Sydney champion Michael O'Loughlin, the thing that nearly derailed his career was the overwhelming desire to return home to Adelaide. Having been drafted by cellar-dwelling Swans, O'Loughlin felt alienated and needed some familiarity.

A young Michael O'Loughlin back in 1997. Picture: AFL Photos

He rang his mum.

I was devastated to go to the Swans. I remember ringing home every day wanting to come home. She said, 'Your going to thank me for this one day. Just stick it out. Anyway, you can't come home your bed's gone. One of your cousins has got it.  

With that O'Loughlin resigned himself to his fate and owing his career to his mother's staunch insistence and the rationalisation that at least with the battling Bloods he would get a game.

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As a proud Narrungga and Ngarrindjeri man growing up in Adelaide, O'Loughlin spent a great deal of time on the York Penninsula at Point Pearce and around the Coorong at Point McLeay.

Coming from a big extended family was important for O'Loughlin and his development, and football played a massive part in his family's life.

My earliest football memory was being in the backyard kicking the footy with my Uncles. Growing up, you'd be sitting around at night and you'd hear your father or your uncles talking about how good a certain player was. It was really important. 

For O'Loughlin, the real spark for his football interest came from his mother's side in the form of his Uncle Wilbur and Magarey medallist Gilbert McAdam, both of whom played for Central Districts in the SANFL.

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Wilbur played at Centrals Districts.  He was the first guy that I saw that was playing on the TV. That really struck me and naturally that's what I wanted to do. Growing up, I idolised Gilbert McAdam. To me he was one of the first Aboriginal players who was just a superstar. I just thought he was the best. He was the king to me and still is one of my favourite players. 

Once O'Louglin's interest had been sparked and he could see a football pathway, he knuckled down and concentrated on how he could get better as a player. It was then that he was given the opportunity to play Colts for Central Districts in the SANFL. 

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As a kid who came from the suburbs, to then be playing against the best kids in South Australia was great. I must have played a couple of OK games and on the strength of that and the Teal Cup, I got drafted.  

Despite his reluctance upon going to the Swans, this was tempered because he had the chance to play under the coaching doyen Ron Barassi.

Ron Barassi was the coach and the recruitment managers were Rob Snowden and Laurie Dwyer. I put it down to the Swans thinking, 'Let's get him up for a year or two and see how he goes'. 

O'Loughlin had an inauspicious start to his AFL career in 1995. He played 11 games and kicked 12 goals, averaging 10 disposals a game. The year of O'Loughlin's debut, 1995, was also the year the AFL introduced their racial and religious vilification laws. Reflecting on this now, O'Loughlin sees how important these were in assisting him to transition into the AFL.

I'm very fortunate I haven't been racially taunted from another player. We don't have to worry about all that kind of stuff because these guys have gone before us and have, you know, laid the groundwork, laid the foundation and stood up and said, 'Look, enough's enough'. When you are a teenager, you've got enough problems with moving away and dealing with everything. That's why the past Indigenous players have got so much respect from us younger guys.

For O'Loughlin, the thing that set the tone for his future success was the culture of Sydney and the advice he got to iron out the chinks in his game.

Once he received the feedback, his ability to focus on his deficiencies and not get distracted were pivotal, something he puts down to his mother and grandmother. Coming in and being surrounded by some of the champions of the game further enabled him to grow and become the resilient player he was. 

I was very lucky that the year I came through it was with two superstars in Roosie [Paul Roos] and Plugger [Tony Lockett], so I sort of slipped under the radar a bit. I came to training and did my thing and it was a good.

Tony Lockett and Ron Barassi in 1995. Picture: AFL Photos

With the retirement of Lockett at the end of the 1999 season, the expectation that O'Loughlin would fill a key forward role became a reality. This paid dividends in 2000 as he had an excellent season, kicking 53 goals and was selected in the Virgin Australia AFL All Australian team. 

It was in 2005 that O'Loughlin, playing in tandem with Barry Hall, and provided a potent forward line attack. That year Sydney made the Grand Final and were victorious against West Coast in one of the most thrilling games ever witnessed at the MCG.

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The following year O'Loughlin played in another Grand Final only to be beaten by the Eagles by one point. 

At the end of the 2009 season O'Loughlin retired, having kicked 521 goals and played 303 games to become just the third Indigenous player to achieve the 300-game milestone.

In 2005 O'Loughlin was selected as the starting full forward for the Indigenous Team of the Century. Being selected by the AFL community in the Yokayi Footy's Deadliest in 2020 is another honour which he is also very grateful for.

A lot of the guys in the Deadliest are the guys I had as posters on my wall. Those guys were game changers and to be put in that category is unbelievable. It's humbling. My Mum was very happy too.

Since retiring from football at the end of 2009, O'Loughlin along with his cousin and teammate Adam Goodes, established the Go Foundation. Initially looking at various community and vocational programs in 2014 the Go Foundation focused on education for Indigenous students.  

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The Foundation will be our legacy not football. Football was great and helped look after my family and opened doors. But the Foundation draws on our experiences and how important school was for us. Focussing on education was really a priority. Footy can take you so far but education is key. The scholarships we provide can help making the students and their families lives more comfortable.  

O'Loughlin still has a keen eye on the competition and the players coming through and his advice to young players is simple.

I think the path to success for young Indigenous players needs to be made clearer. Knowledge about this needs to be better and more available.  If I could talk to my younger self I say 'let my defences down. Open my heart and mind to what it takes. Listen to the ones who have come before'. I was a bit wary at the start and needed to listen more.

>> Dr Sean Gorman is an author, historian, and Indigenous AFL specialist. He currently works for the AFL and was the lead investigator in the AFL's review of its vilification laws.