AN UNFAMILIAR car pulls up out the front of Drew Petrie's home.

The North Melbourne great, who now works in game development at West Coast and oversees the Naitanui Academy, was naturally curious to find out what was going on.

As Petrie takes a closer look, he realises Nic Naitanui's in the driver's seat and his brother-in-law, Harry, is scurrying from the car to his gate with a parcel in hand.

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The parcel is a box of cookies from a local bakery, a gift designed to cheer up Petrie after being stood down in the wake of the AFL's season suspension in late March, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It turns out Naitanui, possibly the AFL's most marketable and popular footballer, spent the day driving around Perth doing the same for about 60 Eagles employees with the same fate.

Rewind to last Christmas, and the 201cm ruckman is organising hampers for families in need, on behalf of Woolworths, one of many major companies clamouring to be involved with him.

Among the others are Telstra – we'll get to that Reilly O'Brien moment later – and Nike, while the AFL itself engages the 30-year-old dual All-Australian in an ambassadorial role.

Adelaide's Reilly O'Brien and West Coast's Nic Naitanui share a laugh after their round six clash. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Naitanui's done the same thing at Christmas time for years – and it's not a publicity stunt, but rather an athlete with a monstrous profile who understands the platform he has to do good.

Those who know him best tell you he's somewhat of a reluctant superstar, although he's embraced that status.

Naitanui, in some ways, had no choice. With his long dreadlocks, eye-popping athleticism, dazzling smile, engaging personality and kind soul, he's always stood out from the crowd.

"What you see is what you get," one person said of him this week.

There are countless tales of Naitanui being West Coast's merchandise king, from outselling teammates 10-fold with his personalised badge and No.9 jumper number to having a club academy named after him.

The roll-off-the-tongue 'Nic Nat' moniker neatly rounds out his package, even if he isn't so sure of it at times, as he explained on a Telstra podcast in September.

"It's funny, the name 'Nic Nat'," Naitanui said.

"I'm from Fiji originally and my surname is pronounced 'Nate-a-noo-ee', but in Australia … everyone says 'Nic Natter-nui' – and that's what the commentators say in the game.

"From there on, like any typical Australian, you get a slang (name) and it just became 'Nic Nat'. It's become part of my make-up."

Indeed it has. His Twitter and Instagram handles are both @nicnat, with a combined following of almost 230,000.

EVERYONE remembers when they first saw Adelaide ruckman O'Brien's tweet, days out from his daunting match-up with Naitanui.

The jaw-dropping tweet read, among other things, that the Eagles champion was "lazy and unfit" and could be exposed aerially.

O'Brien swiftly deleted it and sent out another one with a video apology, blaming a malfunctioning iPhone for what happened.

The story goes that his pre-game scouting notes, written on his phone each week and designed to pump himself up, accidentally became public property.

Making the incident relatable for Naitanui is he's a copious notetaker himself on his opponents, with his knowledge of even the youngest and most obscure ruckmen well known at West Coast.

What was already a major talking point heightened further when Naitanui handed O'Brien a brand new Telstra phone in a light-hearted post-match moment.

This was Naitanui again putting a positive spin on something, like only he can. It was all his doing as well.

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Naitanui's natural knack for that is part of the authenticity that Adam Karg, Swinburne University's associate professor in sport marketing, believes helps create a "halo effect".

"When you're talking about one of 700, 800 players, one factor is how incredibly recognisable he is," Karg told AFL.com.au.

"It's his physical traits, both as an athlete and his appearance, his distinctive characteristics, and the story of his background – it's the halo effect of these pieces coming together.

"The West Coast brand is one of the largest, pound for pound, in the country, so that's a fair vehicle as well, and bigger brands then want to attach to him.

"It's not as simple as a nickname, either. Having a relatively unblemished record helps, because potential sponsors and partners see him as a low-risk proposition."

Nic Naitanui is one of the AFL's most marketable footballers. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images via AFL Photos

TWO ACL ruptures in a short period threatened to derail Naitanui's playing career.

The first happened on his left knee in round 21, 2016 – causing him to miss the entire next year – then his right knee failed him 17 rounds into the 2018 season.

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Instead of marking the end of a career that began with him as the No.2 draft pick in 2008, behind ex-Demon Jack Watts, he fought back to produce a magnificent solo campaign this year.

A second AFL All-Australian nod followed, eight years after his first.

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For all Naitanui's congenial nature off-field, there is a competitive spirit and belief that drives him to great heights on it, according to former teammate Petrie.

That much was obvious when he took exception to Bomber Zach Merrett's, accidental or not, tug at Naitanui's dreadlocks in a game last year, or his tackle on Port Adelaide's Karl Amon in 2018.

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The latter controversially cost the big Eagle a one-match ban, in part because he hadn't exercised a duty of care, given the significant weight difference between the two.

"Nic's got that aggression and competitiveness you need in a footballer when you cross the white line," Petrie said.

"But there's this great, caring nature about him away from the field, and that's who he is."

An injured Nic Naitanui celebrates with West Coast teammate Liam Ryan after the Eagles' premiership win. Picture: AFL Photos

That belief wasn't always part of Naitanui's package, even when AFL talent-spotter Kevin Sheehan identified him as a player to watch in an under-16s game in Queensland.

Sheehan saw a "thin slice of something" and invited him into the AFL Academy, and was sharing dinner with the then-teenager at a training camp when Naitanui announced he finally felt he belonged.

Until then, Naitanui thought of himself as a basketballer who was mates with boom AFL prospects Michael Walters and Chris Yarran.

"The penny had dropped," Sheehan recalled.

"He had never dreamed of an AFL career and didn't think he was good enough. But once he mixed with other kids from around Australia, he started to believe." 

A young Nic Naitanui looks on during the 2007 NAB AFL U18 Championships. Picture: AFL Photos