Nicho Hynes remembers walking taller into school that day.
For the first time in his life, the then 13-year-old had a sense of belonging.
For the first time in his life, he could tell people where he came from.
Stream every game of every round of the 2022 NRL Telstra Premiership Season Live & Ad-Break Free During Play on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-days free now.
“I remember I started being open and proud about being Aboriginal in Year 7,” Hynes said.
Yet Hynes’ pride didn’t match the brutal schoolyard reaction.
“It was a special moment for me to say, ‘I’m Aboriginal’,’’ the Cronulla Sharks star explained.
“But straight away, they’d (schoolmates) say, ‘Bulls***, why are you only coming out about it now?’
“You’re not black they’d say. They started questioning me.
“I didn’t tell them it hurt, but it hurt it like hell.’’
Between the age of five and 12 his mother, Julie, was in and out of prison and Hynes lived with his father Mick Wilson.
Along with his older brother Wade, that was his entire family.
On one particular day, he was in primary school when he watched his mum being put into the back of a paddy wagon and taken back to prison.
It’s an image Hynes will never be able to erase from his young mind.
Following years of mental anguish, tears and a seemingly simple childhood dream to live as a family, Hynes’ mother finally emerged from jail with answers.
And this is why Hynes says he would never change a thing about his upbringing, his love for his mother, or the hardened life experience he carries with him every day.
“Because Mum was in and out of jail, I never got to talk to her about who we were or who my family were,” Hynes said.
“Her mum died and her dad got taken away from her when she was young, so I never knew anything.
“When Mum was going in and out of jail, it was the other women in the prison who taught her about our heritage.
“I learned of my grandfather, a proud Aboriginal man. That’s when she began to be more proud about it.
“She came home and openly spoke about our Indigenous background for the first time.”
Hynes discovered that his family is tied to Griffith and the Wiradjuri people, the largest nation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
Raised in Umina on the Central Coast, Hynes also felt a responsibility to represent both the Darkinjung and Mingaletta clans of the area.
Comforted in the sense of finally having a story to tell about who he was and where he came from, Hynes went to school with his shoulders back and his head held high.
That was, until he received the reaction from his peers.
“It left me feeling like, ‘do I speak up, or do I not speak up?’ I decided I wouldn’t be open or expressive about it,” Hynes said.
“Looking back at it now, I think ‘Nicho, you idiot.’ That’s who you are, that’s your identity.
“Looking back, it really hurts to have people question who you are.
“I remember once we had all our paperwork, I posted it on Instagram as a bit of a stuff you all.
“Once I got to an age where I was confident in speaking up about it, I’ve been proud and happy to do that ever since.
“Now if anyone questioned me, I’d tell them to get stuffed.’’
Hynes is running second on the Dally M leaderboard following an influential start to his career at the Sharks.
The ‘Kurranulla’ Sharks host the ‘Gadigal’ Roosters at PointsBet Stadium on Saturday night for the NRL’s Indigenous Round.
Talking to Hynes, he’s steely focused, as the team’s chief playmaker on making this Sharks side his own.
But there’s much more to Hynes, the footballer.
There’s Hynes, the proud Indigenous man who is driven to use his profile for change.
“If I was just an average Joe, back in Umina, I probably wouldn’t be confident to talk about who I am,’’ Hynes said.
“But rugby league has given me this platform to go out and express who I am.
“People would look at Latrell Mitchell. He’s a black fella, he’s got dark skin, he grew up knowing everything about who he is and he’s so proud of it.
“I’d love to be like that.
“People look at me and see this fair-skinned, tanned fella, who doesn’t look a whole heap Aboriginal, but I am and I’m so proud of it.
“This is what is so important about Indigenous Round, we get to share about who we are and the kids that are looking up to us, they can strive for what we’re doing.
“We’re paving the way for the next generation.
“It makes me so proud to be part of the game, but also the entire week.
“I used to look at Johnathan Thurston growing up and I loved him. He was my idol. My hero.
“I used to say, I just want to be on the big stage like Johnathan Thurston one day.
“He’s done so much with his work away from football in helping educate young people.
“Now I get to do that. I’m nowhere near as good as him, but I’m on that big stage.
“I’ll be satisfied in life if I have a kid from an Aboriginal community saying I want to be like Nicho Hynes one day.
“That’s my dream. If I can have one kid say that, then I’ve done my job. That’s why this round is so important.
“I’d love to start a foundation. Whether it’s to do with mental health or troubled kids who can’t afford to go on representative carnivals.
“I’ve got heaps of ideas, it’s just about playing good footy first.
“You can’t do all these things if you can’t play good footy so I’m really aware of making sure I’ve got the footy on the field right and then the rest will come.
“I just want to be a massive influence on younger generations, to make sure they’re going down the right path, rather than the wrong one.
“I wouldn’t change any of my experiences for the world. That’s made me who I am.
“I wouldn’t have changed mum going in and out of jail, I still love her to death and everything I do is for her. (Hynes spent Wednesday on the Central Coast for his mother’s 50th birthday).
“I’ve learned lessons and that’s the advice I’ve gained to give to the next generation coming through.
“Speak up and just be proud of who you are.
“People don’t know your past, they don’t know what life you’ve walked.
“They have no right. So speak up and be proud.”