Wighton inspiring the next gen
Raiders fullback Jack Wighton hasn't always been the most vocal player, but his transformation from shy youngster to leader has been nothing short of remarkable.
A proud Indigenous man – identifying through his mother's side – Wighton first joined Canberra as a teenager as part of the club's SG Ball side and progressed through the grades to become one of the NRL's best young talents.
Having found a home on the field in the No.1 jersey, which he'll wear in this weekend's Indigenous Round, Wighton is now equally comfortable acting as a mentor for not only his younger teammates but other Indigenous youth.
For Raiders Football Manager Jon Bonasera, Wighton possesses one trait in particular that sets him apart from many others.
"The one thing about Jack that stands out is that he's relatable," Bonasera told NRL.com "He comes from humble beginnings, he's got to where he's got to on hard work and determination, tenacity, perseverance through injuries and all the other hurdles that other footballers face.
"Jack has a resilience that is probably standalone."
Raiders Manager of Careers, Welfare and Education David Thom, added: "Jack's grown into a very caring, thoughtful person. He's the first one over to a group of school kids or fans watching training, say g'day, introduce himself, ask their story. He's always thinking about other people."
While Wighton has always shown great qualities, it hasn't been until the last 18 months that he's really come into his own. Those around the club have seen a marked change in Wighton's character – he's no longer the shy kid from Orange. Rather, the fullback now has become a shining light for his teammates.
"He probably turned a corner in the last year and a half as a professional footballer," Bonasera said.
"His willingness to put himself out there and challenge himself to speak to younger players, to be a mentor for younger Indigenous players, to take his own game to the next level in terms of his own professionalism.
"The rewards are there for all to see in terms of the way he's playing and the consistency of which he performs, the way he turns up to train, the way he talks to the team has come full circle from a shy young Indigenous male into a confident, well-spoken, well-travelled player that can provide wonderful insight with a small comment."
While unsure exactly what has sparked this change, Bonasera has seen another player follow a similar path and come out the other side as one of the game's most respected Indigenous players.
Dragons back-rower Joel Thompson played with Canberra from 2008 to 2013, and Bonasera believes the tough-as-teak forward might have played a role in Wighton's transformation.
"Joel was here when Jack was a youngster coming through. I'm sure that Jack has learnt a lot from seeing someone like Joel take those challenges on and use his Indigenous profile in the community for good," Bonasera said.
"To not only better himself on the field, but to increase the awareness of issues faced by the Indigenous population, and getting out there and being a face and a voice for those that may not have one."
Wighton is currently studying a Certificate IV in Youth Work, and is joined in classes by a number of the club's Holden Cup players. Taking it upon himself to help his younger clubmates, the 24-year-old encourages them to get the best out of their education.
"He's really leading by example in that class, encouraging the younger boys to engage with the class," Thom said. "Some of the others are a bit shy, just out of school. They tend not to engage. Jack's really pushing those boys to make sure they understand their opportunity and to take advantage of that while they've got it."
Additionally Wighton is also spending his placement hours at the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre as well as the Gugan-Gulwan Indigenous Centre and Canberra PCYC working with troubled Indigenous youth.
According to Bonasera, it's Wighton's ability to treat everyone as an equal – "He would speak to the Prime Minister the same way he'd speak to an Indigenous boy" – that stands out.
"They can see, in particular Indigenous youth, that he has trodden the path they may well have to tread if they want to follow his footsteps. He makes it achievable and he shows them that with tenacity, resilience and a little bit of luck, you can achieve your dreams.
"That's not to say he hasn't had his fair share of challenges, as we all do. But he's slowly working through them and I think it's probably his transparency and honesty about what's going on in his life that has led him to where he is.
"If he continues to tread this path, there are higher honours on and off the field waiting."