Thirteen years ago, Rhan Hooper stepped out of the limelight.
A prodigious football talent, he played alongside AFL greats Lance Franklin, Luke Hodge, Cyril Rioli, Michael Voss, Simon Black and Jonathan Brown.
Having been drafted as a 17-year-old, he played 48 games for the Brisbane Lions before being delisted and picked up by Hawthorn.
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At the end of 2010, after just six games in one season with the Hawks, he quit the AFL at the age of 22 to return to Queensland to start a family.
And it took some time to adjust.
“Thrown back into the real world, I had to start at the bottom again,” Hooper told 7NEWS.com.au.
“I was hand-loading sheets at a factory.
“I’ve got people in there who knew who I was. I used to be on buses and taxis and stuff. And now you’re back in the factory hand-loading sheets.”
Asked if he found it hard to transition away from being a professional athlete, he responds: “Bloody oath, it was.”
Playing at the highest level had been “what I wanted to do pretty much from eight years old”, Hooper says.
When his AFL career finished, he had no qualifications and no idea what to do.
“There was a time there I hit rock bottom,” he said.
“I had to grow up real quick.
“You get used to having the income, so you live the high life. And then all of a sudden, you can barely make ends meet.”
But one thing remained a constant — his local footy club, Springwood.
Through his connections made via the club community, he was able to tee-up an apprenticeship, which he completed.
Then, he found a foothold in a passion he had been building in the background — First Nations art and artefacts.
He started painting more — an activity he had dabbled in since his days at Hawthorn for charity and “to keep my mind off a bad injury” — while also developing a liking to woodworking.
“Growing up, I spent most of the time in the city. So the only time I got to spend back on-country, back home, was over school holidays when mum would send me and my sister out to spend time with family out bush,” Hooper said.
“As I got older, I wanted to learn how to make my own didgeridoo — know how to find it and know how to make it.
“It sort of just went from there.
“I had a mate offer to buy one off me, if I did a custom one, and the lightbulb switched on and I was like, ‘I could probably make a living’.”
As well as designing jerseys — mainly for Springwood — and making didgeridoos, he fashioned boomerangs, clap sticks, coolamons and burl bowls.
“I’ll travel 600km out west to go and get (timber). That’s the closest to one of my tribal lands, my grandmother’s country,” he said.
“Every timber is different when you find it in the bush — depends how dry it is, how old it is.
“When I first started, you could say my first couple of digeridoos weren’t that great.
“I’ve always been creative enough to go with the flow and just learn as I go.”
Last week, ahead of the AFL’s Indigenous Round, he gifted artefacts to the Lions and Gold Coast Suns for the two clubs to exchange ahead of their clash.
He also designed special Indigenous Round shirts for Auskick players.
But working at the community level is his real passion. And he’s just getting started.
He has turned his attention to education, teaching kids at Springwood footy club and schools about the arefacts and “how the gift exchange works”.
He has recently been involved in a new project at Brisbane’s Murri School for Year 12 boys to make their own didgeridoo to receive when they graduate, “so it keeps them at school longer”.
He’s also passing on the crucial lessons he has learnt along the journey.
“My little motto is, ‘Education and knowledge are everything’,” he said.
“Any chance you can get a piece of paper saying you’ve achieved and passed something, put your hand up.
“Without that, you’re going to struggle.”
What is National Reconciliation Week?
National Reconciliation Week is an annual event for Australians to celebrate and learn about First Nations history, culture and achievements.
The week is being held from May 27 to June 3.
To mark National Reconciliation Week, 7NEWS.com.au is taking a look at the issues impacting First National people in Australia and their stories.
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