Tears and tributes flow for AFL legend, Tiwi Islands leader and ‘great man’ Willie Rioli Snr after sudden death at 50

Willie Rioli Senior smiles at the camera wearing a Tiwi Bombers shirt.

Willie Rioli Senior has been remembered as a football legend and community leader, and a man whose “cheeky” smile brightened the lives of those around him.

Key points:

  • Around 500 people attended a memorial service in Darwin for Willie Rioli Senior
  • He died suddenly of a heart attack in July at age 50
  • Mr Rioli will also be commemorated at a burial at his home on the Tiwi Islands

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this story contains the name and image of a person who has died.

The ABC has permission from Willie Rioli Senior’s family to use his name and image.

Hundreds of people filled the pews at St Mary’s Cathedral in Darwin on Wednesday to pay tribute to the father, grandfather, star footballer and respected leader in the Tiwi Islands community.

Mr Rioli died suddenly last month, age 50, of a heart attack, according to a statement from AFL Northern Territory.

Willie Rioli Senior smiles at the camera wearing a Tiwi Bombers shirt.
Willie Rioli Senior died suddenly in July at the age of 50. (Supplied: Tiwi Bombers Football Club)

Northern Territory Football league (NTFL) broadcaster Dominic McCormack remembered his friend as a man with a “cheeky smile” who “brightened all our lives”.

“He always brought great energy, experience, organisation, a big smile, lots of humility and a bit of stubbornness to all he did,” Mr McCormack said in a eulogy.

He said even Mr Rioli’s opponents could not help but like him.

“It would be rare to ever hear a bad word about him,” Mr McCormack said.

“Even while he was taking [the opposite] team apart they still loved him — they just wanted him on their side.”

Proud of his children and a lifelong love story

In his younger years, Mr McCormack said Mr Rioli would sneak out of boarding school at night to visit Georgina Vigona, the woman who would remain his wife until his death.

A woman hugs another woman in a crowd of people. A woman hugs another woman in a crowd of people.
Mr Rioli’s wife, Georgina Vigona, had been by his side for decades.(ABC News: Myles Houlbrook-Walk)

The couple raised three children: Nikita, Kathleen and West Coast Eagles premiership winner Willie Junior.

A man holds a small child and sits next to a woman wiping her eyes with a tissue. They are sitting on church pews.A man holds a small child and sits next to a woman wiping her eyes with a tissue. They are sitting on church pews.
Mr Rioli is survived by his three children, two grandchildren and wife Georgina.(ABC News: Myles Houlbrook-Walk)
A red AFL ball sits on top of a casket in a church. A red AFL ball sits on top of a casket in a church.
(ABC News: Myles Houlbrook-Walk)(ABC News: Myles Houlbrook-Walk)

“He was so proud of all of his children.” Mr McCormack said.

Cousin James De Santis remembered Mr Rioli’s passion for caring for country as a ranger supervisor.

“His passion was the land, looking after country,” he said.

“[Mr Rioli] was very devoted to his land management, he’s the only reason we’re on top of feral cats.

“We’ve been together pretty much all our life … he was a great man.”

A long and storied football career

Mr Rioli won the NTFL’s highest honour, the Nichols Medal, at just 16.

He went on to play for the South Fremantle Football Club alongside his brother Maurice Rioli.

He was drafted by Hawthorn in 1990 — the club he grew up barracking for.

Willie Rioli Senior while playing for South Fremantle in the late 80s.Willie Rioli Senior while playing for South Fremantle in the late 80s.
Mr Rioli played for South Fremantle in the late 80s before being drafted to Hawthorne.(Supplied: WAFL Collectables)

When his playing career finished Mr Rioli returned to home, where he coached the Imalu Tigers to a premiership in the Tiwi Islands Football League.

He served as president of the league until his death.

Another commemoration will be held on Friday, when a burial will take place at Mr Rioli’s home community at Pirlangimpi on the Tiwi Islands.

Source: AFL NEWS ABC

    

Author: Ivan Robinson