At a house in Pirlangimpi, a community of less than 400 people on Melville Island, sits a frail woman, her grey eyes gazing over the front fence as people pass by on the red dirt road.
Throughout the day, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and unrelated neighbours, who affectionately call her “aunty” or Mrs Kalippa-Rioli, pop in to sit and have a chat.
Helena Rioli is the matriarch of the Rioli footballing dynasty — a group whose skill and flair has once again captured the hearts of football fans around Australia.
West Coast’s Willie Rioli Jr has become the third Rioli in four years to play in an AFL premiership.
Even the youngsters are on the radar, with Essendon and Fremantle eyeing off Maurice Rioli Jr.
John Rioli is proud of his football star nephews — but won’t be letting them get a big head. (ABC News: Dijana Damjanovic)
Their genes are legendary. How can a family, from a tiny remote community off the Australian mainland, produce so many footballing greats?
“It’s a little joke that we have is that there’s something in the water, just drink the water up here and you go back a champion,” said Helena’s son, John Rioli.
“Even when Gary Ablett Jr came here he drank from the water up here.”
Humble community breeding ‘strong characters’
Helena Rioli has never travelled out of her small Tiwi Island community to watch her boys play in a grand final.
Helena Rioli has never travelled outside her small Tiwi Island community to watch her boys plays in a grand final. (ABC News: Al Dowler)
It was always her husband, Cyril Rioli Snr, watching from the sidelines.
The football dynasty was forged over six decades ago, when the couple met during a recreation night at the Garden Point mission, run by the Catholic Church.
The shy pair were both taken from their birth parents at a young age and went on to have 10 children together. Sadly, four were laid to rest.
While her husband went bush for months on end working as a chains man across the Northern Territory, Mrs Kalippa-Rioli stayed home running a tight ship, getting her children to school and ensuring they were helping around the house.
“It was hard but they were good children, they all did their work that they were told to do,” she said
“Every morning one had to make the bed, one had to wash up and the youngest had to pick up all the rubbish around the house and clean up the yard.”
She believes the active lifestyle — part and parcel in an abundant Aboriginal community like Pirlangimpi — and the household’s tight discipline produced strong characters in her children.
“They’re good, I am so lucky to say that all my children are good, obedient children,” she said.
Helena Rioli with her children Sebastian, John, Helena, Lawrence, Maurica and Maria (L – R). (ABC News: Dijana Damjanovic)
Cyril Rioli Snr (third from left) worked across the Northern Territory as a chains man. (ABC News: Dijana Damjanovic)
Like previous grand finals, Mrs Kalippa-Rioli spent this year’s at home, playing a replay of the game on television.
West Coast’s latest win with her grandson Willie Rioli playing on the field brought her great joy.
“I was hoping he’d come like Daniel Rioli and win his first grand final, and so he did,” she said.
“It was very pleasing, I am so proud of him.”
Despite the pull of footy, Pirlangimpi will always be home
When asked about the sporting genes in the family, Mrs Kalippa-Rioli just shrugs.
Her husband Cyril loved his cricket and she was good on foot.
“I used to be a good runner all right,” she laughed.
“I remember during the Second World War we were evacuated down to South Australia and there was this one priest wanted me to have a race with him outside of the convent — and I beat him.”
Footy is a staple in Pirlangimpi, where children walk the streets holding footballs. (ABC News: Dijana Damjanovic)
Around Pirlangimpi children walk the streets holding footballs. Some have even been seen bouncing used coke bottles like an AFL ball.
The Rioli children were the same growing up.
“They never get tired, they want to play all the time, every Christmas they play football and they play cricket outside the road there,” Mrs Kalippa-Rioli said.
Her humble home, with mango trees and a woodfired cooker in the yard, is affectionately known as the Rioli footballing academy.
Despite the pull of professional football, it will be the location of this year’s family Christmas gathering.
“[My family say] ‘where are we going to have Christmas?’,” said Mrs Kalippa-Rioli.
“I say, ‘there’s only one place, you can have it here, I can’t get around much any more so I do look forward to it’.”
This celebration will be a homecoming for family who live on the mainland and some of them will spend weeks on the Tiwi Islands, camping, hunting and fishing — a time to get in touch with nature and family.
A connection to culture was one of the reasons why Cyril Rioli Jnr’s mother Kathy Long moved her family to Pirlangimpi when her children were young.
It’s also part of the reason why the 29-year-old retired this year.
‘I missed home a lot… it was time’
Cyril Rioli Jnr’s genes are a fusion of Northern Territory greatness — the Longs are a mob from desert country in Central Australia, whose bush skills vary from those on saltwater country.
The patriarch of the Long family is Jack Long. His son Michael Long was a Norm Smith medallist renowned for his speed and evasiveness.
The Long family is filled with athletes — including Michael Long, a Norm Smith medallist (ABC News: Dijana Damjanovic)
But despite wide speculation about the young player’s motives, his self written piece for Player’s Voice is telling.
“I don’t have one ounce of regret about retiring from footy and going home. Not with all that happened. I missed home a lot, even before those things. It was time,” he wrote.
“In Melbourne, I could never do things like going shooting and fishing, things I grew up with and still longed to do.
“Dad had a heart attack in September last year. That was probably when I truly lost the desire to keep playing AFL footy. It was very upsetting.
“I spent a lot of time with dad in hospital as he recovered. My uncles, Maurice and Sebastian ‘Sibby’ Rioli, had already passed away after heart attacks.
“It’s such a weird feeling, the recognition that comes with footy. My role models were my dad, uncles and older cousins.”
Cyril Jnr’s mother Kathy Long is back on the Tiwi Islands to look after family, and is in support of her son’s decision to retire early.
“Just growing up here with a family network and being able to compete in sport and going away and just having a love for this place has been special,” she said.
“I think you only have to be around our family to know that it’s a priority sometimes.
“I think with everything that’s happened and how he feels about his closeness with his dad that obviously took a toll on him.”
But beyond the sporting glory, when the Rioli boys come home, there are family members who bring them back down to earth.
“We’re really proud of all of them for what they’ve done, we just don’t really tell them to their face,” said John Rioli.
“When they come we say ‘we’d tell you more about how good you are or how well you did but your head wouldn’t fit through the doorway — and you’re still our nephew and you still stink’.”