Star recruit gave up AFL for love of land

Home: Zephaniah Skinner and his daughter Zyntoia at the Fitzroy River. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Zephaniah Skinner gazes over the tumbling Fitzroy River and is tortured by what it is in the water that keeps dragging him back.

The fact he is standing on a red dirt mound instead of in the middle of Etihad Stadium tonight is proof for all the AFL's claims of indigenous engagement there is a great void in the game's reach.

Gold Coast coach Rodney Eade, who was guiding the Western Bulldogs when Skinner was a speculative draft pick in 2010, says the Noonkanbah flyer could well have taken his place against West Coast for their season-opening match tonight.

"Zephi was a terrific young player to coach and had enormous talent," Eade said this week.

"But getting him to come to grips with homesickness and the grind of AFL footy was very difficult."

Instead, after eight games in two years with the Bulldogs, Skinner is back among his Yungngora people, wondering what made him turn his back on his childhood dreams of being an AFL hero.

"When you're over there, it's like another place and you just want to come back home," Skinner said.

"I don't know what about this place just keeps bringing me back here. I'm still trying to figure it out myself. I just had to come home."

The Weekend West visited Skinner this week at Noonkanbah Station in the far north, the scene of an in- famous 1980 land rights dispute and a World War II base for the Royal Australian Air Force. And though football remains a daily staple in the 26-year-old's comparatively simple life, he has a lingering regret about turning his back on the dream he worked so hard at to make real.

There is even disappointment from his family, who still want to see him on television rather than have him sitting next to them.

But he said his yearning for home built steadily to a crescendo from the day he landed in Melbourne.

"Just leaving home, that's the worst feeling ever," he said. "It's really hard because you don't know what's coming.

"There are no short cuts, you've got to perform and the pressure is on you every day. And living in Melbourne, you know, it's a bit freaky.

"I regret it, man. I watch the boys and I don't like it when my little brother turns on the TV. It makes me think I should be out there with the boys and my family is still a bit pissed off at me.

"But at that time, it was the best for my wellbeing.

"Not many blokes from the Kimberley, not many remote community blokes, go up to the big-time, so I feel proud of myself. I won't forget what I achieved.

"I got some memories for life."

Derby-born Skinner said he often still toyed with the idea of an AFL comeback but wondered whether he could promise clubs he would not feel the pull of home again.

Sitting beside picturesque Sandy Billabong, he happily tells the dreamtime legends of his people.

Though he once delighted in chasing a football at the game's highest level, it is a more traditional hunt that now brings him joy.

And he likes to go fishing.

"Bush turkey, it's just nice, man," he said.

"Nice meat. I can eat bush turkey all day.

"I love hunting, working out here with the boys, playing footy with the boys and I just love the bush life. This is my home, Noonkanbah, and I just love living peacefully."

Skinner's eyes glisten when recalling his AFL debut in 2011 but the real apple of his eye is two-year-old daughter Zyntoia.

"She just makes my day, every day," he said.

"The things she does just make you smile, happy."