“The first few swings missed me, I ducked back and it went across my face. The next time it got me…”
Jamal Idris is talking about September 2010 in Forster, where – at a family gathering – he was attacked with a samurai sword.
“The sword sat there for a while so it got fair rusty. Thank God. It was a fair big sword too, it was about the size of my arm or so.
“… it bounced off my neck. What can you do?
“(The assailant) put himself in two days later, he was in for a while, got back out, and he was in again for a while. Obviously, he’s my cousin. He got out again, then he went back in again. I think he’s been in, maybe, two or three times since then.”
That is, in jail. In almost any other area of journalism, this would be an extraordinary and disturbing conversation. But Idris, 192cm and seemingly still growing, just sits there and smiles as he tells it.
We are in the foyer of what used to be the Titans’ Centre of Excellence, one Thursday afternoon. Idris is still recovering from the leg injury which prematurely ended his season. Training has finished for the day and he says he hasn’t got anything better to do than chat to A-List.
No subject is off-limits. For all the brutality of his profession, Idris is an ingénue, a man unable or unwilling to be as cold and dispassionate as his contemporaries. The topics veer from his litany of injuries, moving to the second row, African rugby league and his new academic pursuit, journalism.
But the most moving subjects are family, racism and bigotry. Jamal’s childhood on the NSW mid-north coast looms large for him, and he seems to harbour a deep sense of having being wronged since he walked through a set of gates that led to the outside world.
“I did grow up with a strong sense of family but I grew up in an aboriginal mission,” he explains. “You go outside them gates … when I was younger I did walk into a shop and they kicked me out because they thought I was stealing. I sat there and I looked at them and I was, like, ‘are you serious?’, and they were ‘get the eff out of my shop, you’re stealing you effing black, yada yada yada’. I was maybe 13, 14 years old.
“You don’t understand racism as a kid but as you get older you start to see it and you see your cousins getting arrested, you see people in your family being stopped by cop cars as they walk down the street, and you sit there and you start saying ‘what’s going on?’ You start thinking the world’s against you.”
To illustrate his viewpoint, Idris describes a schoolyard fight in which he punched a kid three years his senior for a racist slur.
“As a kid, you don’t understand. I looked at it, like, he can say anything he wants and I can’t do anything about it. I felt helpless. He (principal) said ‘I’m going to ring your mum’. I stood up, I was in year three so I was seven or eight or so, and I said ‘fine, effing call my mum” and I walked out.
“It all falls back on the parents, that kind of racism. Kids don’t walk around saying those kind of things. Where have they heard it?”
The 23-year-old Australian international recently spoke out against a parent who described a 13-year-old Mudgeeraba Redbacks player as a “fucking nigger” from the sidelines and finds suggestions that racism is fading laughable.
“It’s not in the past, it does happen, that’s stupid,” he says. “The people who believe that aren’t opening their eyes. That annoys me when they say it doesn’t happen anymore. Are you kidding me? Australia’s a young country, of course it’s still happening. It’s frustrating, man.
“That little kid .. he’s a grown man, this is a kid on the field. Who does he think he is?”
Like Jamie Soward and Scott Prince, Idris is taking an interest in journalism and media as a career after football. Like both of them, he has had his run-in with the fourth estate. Those baby-fat photos from a couple of years ago have left much more of a scar than the samurai sword.
“I was 17 or 18 years old and for a bloke to come out and write something like that …. why doesn’t he look at the people in his family, why doesn’t he look at the people in his life. What’s he doing?
“You’re walking down the street and someone’s saying something. You pick up the paper and someone’s saying something. All I do is read the person’s name who wrote that and the next time they try to talk to me – good luck!
“There’s a lot of criticism that’s constructive. If they’re criticising something that I didn’t realise, I’ll look at it and go ‘fair enough, what can you say?’.”
Likewise, Idris was shaken by criticism of his form last year when he was battling the effects of a congenital hip problem, which required surgery. “All of a sudden, round five this year, people say ‘what’s the difference, what’s the difference?’.
“The difference is: I’m not injured. I can run. I can play. The people that who were bagging me are all of a sudden sitting there sucking up to me.
“People look in from the outside and say ‘he must be disappointed, he didn’t do this, he didn’t do that’. I’m happy and blessed every time I run onto a field. When I’m most upset is when I am injured.”
Playing for Canterbury in Sydney between 2008 and 2011, Idris found these two issues – race and celebrity – forming a poisonous combination.
“I got real flustered in Sydney,” Idris says. “In Sydney, you walk down the street and people go for Parramatta. Just because you play for Bulldogs, they want to fight you. There’s so many teams in one area, they think it’s their right to say whatever they want.
“I used to be a fan when I was a kid. I used to love supporting it. But, you know, if you don’t support someone and their team, it doesn’t give you the right to go beyond that and start insulting their family, insulting their race. Insult the team, say what you want, whatever. But for me personally, that’s going too far.’
But, as detailed at the start of this story, Jamal found that even Forster stopped being a refuge after he had become a big star in the city.
“Some of my family members, if I don’t go back to Forster for a year, because I’m playing football, I come back at Christmas time and they say ‘what, you think you’re too good for us because you play football?’ Simple little comments like that and it gets exaggerated when they drink alcohol, you know what I mean?
“You’d go out in the Cross and someone would try start a fight with you, argue with you, and you’d see his mate filming it. Sure enough, you look at the paper the next day and they say ‘so and so was out at this time having a fight’ They don’t say what led into it.
“When they were talking about Choccy Watmough and Matai, when they got bashed and jumped by five or six blokes at, I think, Stevie Matai’s house, and they turned it so negative on him. I thought, ‘they’re victims. They’re at home. They got jumped. What’s going on? Should they not breathe?’
“At the end of the day, why so negative on us? For trying to live a normal life? They go ‘oh, you’re a role model’. We are role models, we go out and do the right thing. They don’t put in the paper every time we go to children’s events or a hospital but they’ll put it in every time they see us out or they see someone blowing up at us or there’s a scrap.
“You know why? Because it sells papers.”
Idris says he’d like to try coaching as well as media work upon retirement. He’s been paying his own way to away matches to cheer on the Titans. He’s anxious to move into the forwards, saying it probably suits his game more. And over the next two months, he will travel to Nigeria and meet pioneers trying to start rugby league there.
“Africans as a race: fast twitch muscles, we’ve got all the skills,” he says enthusiastically. “In saying that, we’ve got to get our hands right.”
Hang on, isn’t that racial stereotyping? “I am African,” he responds. “I said ‘we’, I didn’t say ‘they’.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK