BIGOA Nyuon had to forge his mum's signature before he could play his first game of footy in primary school. She thought the sport was too rough and wouldn't let him play. Little did she know her son had convinced his uncle to pay the enrolment fees and he was playing with his mates anyway.
It only took a few weeks before the secret emerged one Sunday morning when there was a knock on the front door and a coach was standing there ready to drive Nyuon to a game. But by then, Nyuon was hooked on footy.
Fast forward a decade and Nyuon was signing his own name for Richmond supporters inside the MCG on Saturday after making his debut against Hawthorn in front of 40,663 people, completing a remarkable journey to the AFL.
Nyuon was born in Nairobi and spent the first few years of his life living in a refugee camp, fleeing the civil war in South Sudan, where his father was killed in battle. The family of eight children was split between refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before they were finally accepted as migrants to Australia and settled in south-east Melbourne in 2005.
The 20-year-old was too young to remember life in a refugee camp, but his older siblings have told enough stories for him to know how horrible it was. Most of them were in the rooms before the opening bounce on Saturday when club great Bachar Houli presented him with his jumper, including his sister Nyadol Nyuon, who is a commercial litigator and human rights advocate that left Fox Footy viewers on the brink of tears during a powerful pre-game interview.
Nyuon's mum is currently back in South Sudan for a few months and couldn't be at the ground on the weekend, but if he continues to build his game, there will be other opportunities to watch him running around in the famous yellow and black when she gets back next month.
"It still doesn't feel real to me; it's taking some time to sink in. Even going out there in the first quarter I was like, 'Wow, this is a whole different view from when you're sitting in the stands,'" Nyuon told AFL.com.au in the rooms on Saturday night.
"It is crazy to me that I've just been able to complete one AFL football game. I hope there's many more to come. This is something that I will definitely cherish for the rest of my life."
When Josh Gibcus entered the AFL's health and safety protocols last Thursday morning, most expected Richmond to turn to veteran key defender Robbie Tarrant to replace last year's pick No.9 in defence.
But Richmond coach Damien Hardwick and the match committee inside the Swinburne Centre had another idea. They had seen enough to go with the young man affectionately known as 'Biggie' over the 33-year-old the club had lured from North Melbourne.
"I found out on Thursday just after training. I was chilling, waiting around for a massage and Will Thursfield came downstairs and told me to put some shoes on, that we had a meeting," Nyuon said.
"I was a bit concerned at the time. He ended up telling me to walk to Dimma's office. I turned around and he'd just left me to walk in there myself. I went in and Dimma told me to sit down and then told me that my childhood dream would be coming true this weekend. It was definitely something I'll never forget."
Nyuon thought his AFL dream might have been over late last year when Richmond delisted him after two years on the senior list. But Richmond GM of football talent Blair Hartley quickly put him at ease, providing Nyuon with a lifeline via the NAB AFL Rookie Draft and a message for the summer ahead.
"For a little bit I did think it was over. But the reassurance I got from Blair Hartley and from Dimma at the end of the year was amazing," he said.
"They told me to make sure I had the best pre-season possible. I thought I put myself in a great position this year to make an impact at AFL level. It was just about cracking in in the pre-season, putting the work in and we're here now."
Nyuon backed up a strong pre-season by taking his game to the next level under VFL coach Steve Morris across the first two months of the season, putting the Dandenong Stingrays product in a position where the coaching department felt comfortable introducing him to the big time on Jack Gunston – before the triple premiership Hawk was substituted out of the game with an ankle injury.
"I was able to string some good games together in the VFL. I knew if I stayed consistent in my role, my opportunity would come along one day. I didn't know it was going to be this early in the season, but I'm super thrilled with it," he said.
"The key message for me was to be consistent with my aerial power and my ability to spoil and impact as many aerial contests as I can. I was able to do that in the VFL."
Before Nyuon arrived at Punt Road via pick No.54 in the 2019 NAB AFL Draft, he was a member of St Kilda's Next Generation Academy, where he had the opportunity to train with the Saints from time to time at RSEA Park.
The Saints chose not to match Richmond's bid for him, but Nyuon is still appreciative of the chance to spend time inside an elite environment which ultimately led to him being drafted.
"I was super grateful for the opportunity they gave," he said. "The ability to train with elite players at the very top when I was 15 and 16, not many people get that opportunity. It put me in a very good spot to get picked up, even if it wasn't by them. I'll be grateful for the opportunity they gave me."
If Nyuon can continue along this trajectory, he will need to perfect his signature. There will be more jumpers and more contracts to sign in future. He has come a long way from that forged signature.