WHEN Will Smith found out last week that he was to captain the Parramatta Eels in their NRL clash against the Penrith Panthers on Friday, one of the first people he called was his grandfather.
"He cried and laughed at the same time," said Smith, who could see his grandfather as they talked via FaceTime. "I'll hold onto that moment for my whole life."
Will Smith's grandfather is Indigenous leader Uncle Bill Smith. Just a few days after that conversation between an excited "Pop" and his grandson, Bill Smith died from pancreatic cancer.
Bill Smith was a pioneering businessman, helping establish Smith General Contracting, a major employer of Indigenous workers. He had been a co-founder of the Awabakal Newcastle Aboriginal Co-operative, and a member of many committees and organisations, both locally and nationally, for Indigenous people, and to promote closer relations with the broader community. He was a representative at the National Aboriginal Conference for five years, and a councillor of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
On Sunday, the Hunter had lost, in the words of Newcastle historian Emeritus Professor John Maynard, "one of the most prominent figures in this community in more than 50 years".
Will Smith lost a beloved grandfather and an inspiration, both on and off the football field.
"He was a giant," Smith said on the phone from the team's Gold Coast base.
"It's hard to put into words what he means to me. I just thought the world of him."
When Will Smith made that call to his Pop to tell him that he was captaining the Eels for the first time, sitting with Uncle Bill Smith was his eldest child, Carol Widders.
"We just felt so proud and honoured," said Carol Widders of that moment.
"Dad said, 'You just go with it, son. Go fly with that eagle and make that game your own'."
Bill Smith loved rugby league. And, just as he did in every aspect of his life, he worked to make the game even better, ensuring those footy grounds could be fields of dreams realised for more Indigenous players. He was the foundation chairman of the National Aboriginal Rugby League Association.
Nathan Towney, the deputy chair of the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council, praised Bill Smith for what he had done for the game.
"He was heavily involved in the community in many ways, and he saw rugby league as a way of bringing families and communities together," Mr Towney said.
"He loved the game, but he loved what the game did, bringing people together."
Rugby league was a uniting force in Bill Smith's own family, with talented players among his sons and grandsons, including Will.
As a junior, Will Smith played for teams at Bolton Point and Glendale and then joined the Western Suburbs Rosellas, before signing on with the Newcastle Knights. He headed to the Penrith Panthers in 2014, and he became an Eel in 2017. And all the while, his grandfather cheered him on.
"He was one of the first people to phone after a game," Will Smith recalled. "He never really tried to give me tips; he just supported me."
For Friday's game, Will Smith said, he would have his grandfather's name written on his wrist, and his team mates had resolved to wear black armbands.
The Newcastle Knights have announced they would also wear black armbands in their match against the Brisbane Broncos on Saturday as a mark of respect for Uncle Bill Smith, who worked with the club, sharing cultural knowledge, for many years.
"It will be the toughest one yet," Will Smith said of playing in Friday's match, adding that he didn't consider withdrawing after the loss of his grandfather. "If anything, it made me hungrier to get on that field and put everything into it."
Carol Widders said the family would be watching Will play five-eighth and lead his team on Friday, "and he will have his grandfather watching over him".
"No doubt I'll be thinking about my Pop the whole game," Will Smith said.
IN THE NEWS:
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: