Out of Africa, Aliir Aliir happy to follow Australian rules
WHO said Aussie rules wasn't an international sport?
It was the exploits of a Fijian that made a Sudanese boy born and raised in a Kenyan refugee camp fall in love with our national game.
Though following in the footsteps of Majak Daw and becoming just the second Sudanese player to make it on to an AFL list, Aliir Aliir says it was one particular bit of play by West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui that got him hooked.
"It was Nic Nat taking a hanger," the second-year Sydney Swan recalled to APN this week.
First introduced to the game by friends at Kedron State High in Brisbane, Aliir had been enticed to have a kick of the 'footy' with the Aspley Hornets U14s.
"I wasn't a fan of the sport," he said, owning up to the fact he was among those that referred to it as "GayFL".
But that was before he realised standing on players' shoulders, heads or backs to take a mark was a part of the game.
"The first thing I did was ask the coach (at Aspley): Are you allowed to do this?'," he said. "He said 'yeah, you can do it as much as you like, as long as you grab it'.
"So, going into games, my plan was to take as many hangers as I could."
It took something special for him to switch codes - football, or soccer, after all had been such an important part of his life growing up in Kenya after his family had fled war-torn Sudan.
Kicking a ball around took Aliir and his friends away from the harsh realities of life in the Kakuma refugee camp, where he spent his first seven years.
"It was pretty hard sometimes because there were a lot of things going on around us ... we, as kids, didn't understand, we just wanted to play our sport," he said.
With the conflict escalating - Aliir said he remembered often hearing gun shots - and a want to provide her children with an education, mum Zainab took Aliir and siblings David, Piath, Atong and Dombia to Australia, first Sydney and Newcastle, then Brisbane for the next decade.
Little did any of them know part of that education would be in the ways of Aussie rules.
Aliir learnt quickly, and backed by his natural athletic prowess, would make a world U16 representative team in 2010 under the guidance of ex-AFL stars Michael O'Loughlin and Chris Johnson.
It was a fateful experience, with another Sudanese boy named Reuben also chosen. It turned out he was Aliir's cousin, prompting mum Zainab to discover her long-lost sister in Perth.
While she relocated to the west to be closer to her family, Aliir stayed back in Brisbane, and though impressing enough with Aspley to be chosen in the Queensland U18s team in 2012, he missed out on being drafted.
"I was thinking about not playing footy at all, but my brother said 'why don't you give it another go'," he said.
He did, but with East Fremantle in the WAFL where he made a successful transition from ruckman to key defender. It would ultimately lead to Swans list manager Kinnear Beatson taking a punt and selecting him at pick 44 in the 2013 national draft.
Now 20, the 196cm Aliir is being groomed to replace Swans premiership backmen Ted Richards and Heath Grundy - and, honing his skills in the NEAFL, a senior debut isn't too far off.
"I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunities," he said.
"I'm learning every day. At the moment I'm taking it session by session. I've still got a lot of things I need to work on.
"I'm still kind of new to the game.
"I'm trying to get around the coaches and the older boys and pick their brains as much as I can and fast-track my development.
"Hopefully I can get selected in the seniors."
While initially enamoured with 'Nic Nat', Aliir has relished rubbing shoulders with another superstar, Sydney forward Lance Franklin.
"I've played on him a fair bit (in intraclub games)," he said. "It was definitely an unbelievable experience playing on one of the big forwards of the game.
"He taught me a lot - where to run, where to position myself ... coaching me while we were playing on each other. It was really good of him."
Aliir admits he doesn't "get too many chances to take hangers down back", but has learnt discipline. "If you drop it, it could be a goal ... just got to spoil it over the line - do the team thing."