When Justin Hodges left the NRL after 15 years, he suffered an identity crisis like many other elite athletes upon retirement.
“When you’re a rugby league player, that’s all you’re known for,” he told NITV.
“That’s all you are.”
At the time in 2015, the long-time Broncos centre admitted that the idea of life away from the sport that had defined his life was a bit scary, but he was confident he could adapt with the support of his family.
Family is a defining fact of Justin’s life. He is openly devoted to them, and says his son Carter, born shortly before his retirement, gave him the purpose he needed when he left footy.
But a burgeoning interest in his heritage prompted Carter, in the way children do, to start asking his dad difficult questions.
“They’re starting to learn about Captain Cook [at school]… about colonisation and the Stolen Generations,” he said.
“He knew I played for the Indigenous All Stars, so he’s interested to know how we are Indigenous, what tribe he’s from. So I’ll just try to teach him as much as I know, and that wasn’t a lot.
“It is hard, as a father, not to have all the answers to his questions.”
Justin’s family history was, at best, murky to him.
His father’s side had connections to Waiben (Thursday Island), while there were unconfirmed suspicions of a hidden Aboriginal heritage originating from his beloved maternal grandmother.
In a journey into his genealogy, to be shown in an upcoming episode of SBS program Who Do You Think You Are?, Justin could little know the incredible discoveries waiting for him, both welcome and unwelcome.
“It was a roller coaster,” he said.
“Each day you don’t know what you’re going to be faced with.
“The stuff that I found out was just mind-blowing.”
‘My mum’s side didn’t even know’
If you were to open Justin Hodges, you might find his blood runs maroon rather than red.
The vast majority of his club career he spent playing for the Brisbane Broncos, and for 14 years in a row, he donned the burgundy jersey for State of Origin.
He’s a born and bred Queenslander, spending his childhood in Cairns, and he’s making sure his children (he also has a daughter with partner Gyanne Watson) have that same connection to place.
“I try to take them back home to Cairns, so they can walk on Country and hang around their cousins, and go in the same creeks that we all swim in to bring a little bit of culture back into their lives.”
Though he felt a spiritual connection with his hometown, Justin and his family were unaware of the much deeper connection they have to the region.
“No, no idea. My mum’s side didn’t even know they are Indigenous.”
Justin’s maternal great-grandmother Dorothy (known as Dolly) had been adopted in the early 1900s. Through records, he discovered a harrowing fact: that Dolly was a member of the Stolen Generations.
Her mother, Minnie, was a Jirrbal woman who was forced onto the mission at Yarrabah. She was taken advantage of by a white man, Samuel Smith, and gave birth to Dolly, who was placed with her white aunt, Samuel’s sister.
In a letter to the Aboriginal Protection Board, Dolly’s aunt states that her niece had “no contact” with her people and was, therefore, suitable to be removed from their control (the request was denied).
“That’s the biggest thing that they took away from her, that she never got to live her life as an Aboriginal woman,” said Hodges.
“My nan (Dolly’s daughter) has always been a rock for me. I get emotional, because that’s how much she means.
“To know that her own mother was part of that Stolen Generation… I’ve always paid my respects to that mob with a tear in my eye, because I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have family members taken away.”
“To think that one day someone could walk in my house and take my kids…
“Yeah, that was probably one of the hardest parts of the story.”
A precious gift
As indeed was the purpose of that monstrous policy, the experience of the Stolen Generations severed Dolly, and therefore Justin, from their culture.
The discovery of that traumatic part of his family’s history was matched only by the joy in finding his people.
He was greeted by Elders on Jirrbal Country, by the banks of the Wild River, as a son.
“It gives me goosebumps just to think of it,” he said.
“It blew me away, to be welcomed like family. And that’s how they treated me, they called me ‘son’, and ‘brother’.
“They said ‘You’re one of us now’.”
For anyone investigating their ancestry, meeting unknown family members or visiting places significant to forebears long-passed can be the beginning, the first steps of reconnecting with a lost history.
But, in a gift mirrored only by the devastating loss of culture suffered by Dolly, Justin received a king’s bounty of cultural heritage right there on the banks of the Wild.
He was invited to partake in an ancient ritual that physically and spiritually connected him to Country and millennia of tradition. Wading into the river where his ancestors had hunted and swam, Justin spat into the swirling eddies, letting the rainbow serpent know he had returned.
“I had no idea about that, about the customs of my culture. It opened my eyes.”
A spiritual awakening
Having made the ultimate discovery of unknown Aboriginal heritage on his mother’s side, the knowledge of his father’s connection to the Torres Strait seemed not to offer as many surprises.
Little did he know that one of the biggest surprises would come from within himself.
His search took him from his father’s birthplace of Waiben to the island of Poruma, where he was welcomed by Kulkalgal Elder Francis Pearson, who explained Justin’s connection to the island.
Like spitting in the Wild River on Jirrbal Country, a piece of Justin’s DNA was embedded in Country, part of the landscape.
But this one was much older: the umbilical cord of his great-great-grandmother, as was the custom, had been buried in the sand after her birth.
“I remember one morning, I used to get up and run around the island. And I just always had this sense of belonging, like my hairs would stand up on my arms when I’d run in certain places.
“So I don’t know if I ever ran past my grandmother’s umbilical cord, or it’s just where she walked, or things like that.
“I wasn’t really a spiritual sort of a person… You hear stories about people, especially with our people, who say they are spiritual. My dad talks about how he feels it all the time. And I just thought he was talking rubbish, you know.
“But I actually experienced it myself. And it was unbelievable.”
‘That’s the fun part’
‘Rollercoaster’ turned out to be an apt description. Discovering his Aboriginal heritage; a spiritual communion with his Torres Strait ancestors; Justin’s journey into his history brings with it a wealth of heritage, an antidote to the cultural deprivation suffered by his family.
He says, despite the ups and downs of the process, his joy now will be to impart that heritage to his children.
“I think it’s probably going to be the most special thing I’ve ever achieved in my life,” he said, “that I can take my kids back to their Country, and let them walk on Country and ask questions and experience what life was really like for our Old People.”
It’s a relief for Justin to know that his son’s questions will no longer go unanswered, and that the cycle of cultural disconnection has been broken.
“They’re the new custodians of us when we get old. They’re the ones who’re gonna fly the flag for our people, and also for my family, as well.”
And for Justin himself, he can rest easy with the knowledge that he’s so much more than an ex-footballer.
Justin Hodges’ episode of Who Do You Think You Are? premieres Tuesday 5 July at 7.30pm on SBS and is available on SBS On Demand after broadcast.