Main content

Our Comeback Hero: Dean Rioli

BTV: Comeback Hero; Dean Rioli Our Comeback Hero for Round 21 is Dean Rioli.

At each home game this season, Essendon will celebrate a Comeback Hero – a former champion who overcame adversity to deliver many happy moments for the Essendon faithful. For the match against Adelaide, Our Comeback Hero is Dean Rioli.

It wasn’t until Dean Rioli left the family home that he realised just how big the ‘Rioli’ name was.

His uncle Maurice was a WAFL star who between two stints with South Fremantle dominated with Richmond in the VFL. For three straight seasons (two in the WAFL and one in the VFL) Maurice Rioli was named best on ground in the Grand Final, culminating in the 1982 Norm Smith Medal – a game Rioli’s Tigers lost.

The oldest of the eight brothers Sebastian, Dean’s father, was the first to move from Tiwi Islands to play in the WAFL with South Fremantle during the 1970s.

“When you’re a kid you don’t really realise how big the name is,” Dean Rioli said.

“I know they went away and achieved great things as footballers but it wasn’t until I moved to Perth and then to Melbourne that I realised the Rioli name was pretty big. 

“People kept a close eye on whether I was any good or not and there were obviously comparisons to Uncle Maurice.

“It has never been a burden. It has always been a great thing to have that Rioli name.”

Dean Rioli kicked four goals as a 19 year old in South Fremantle's 1997 WAFL Grand Final win. But he was overlooked in the National Draft a few months later.

In the lead up to the Rookie Draft the passionate Essendon supporter spoke to 12 clubs. But the Bombers weren't one of them

“I know the Eagles were looking at me with their first draft pick, but Essendon came in at number three,” Rioli said.

“Noel Judkins was the Recruiting Manager back then and then Adrian Dodoro took over and Adrian still says I was his first ever draft pick – and he’s picked up some really good footballers since.

“To get picked up by Essendon was a complete surprise because they showed zero interest in my time in the WAFL but once my name got called I was pretty excited.”

Rioli made his AFL debut in round three of the 1999 season when the Bombers beat Sydney by 81 points. Matthew Lloyd kicked 13 that day, two courtesy of Rioli knock-ons.

As a rookie list player, Rioli had to wait for a serious injury to a teammate before he got his opportunity.

“When ‘Hirdy’ injured his foot I then got a chance to replace him on the senior list,” he said.

“I was running out there with Michael Long, Darren Bewick and Mark Mercuri – all blokes I really looked up to.

‘I was just playing on adrenalin and excitement, so it was just raw emotions and passion that got me through that first season of AFL football.”

Rioli kicked 29 goals from 17 games in that first season. But a number of injuries derailed his 2000 campaign – the year the Bombers won the premiership. Rioli played the opening two games, then was sidelined until round 19. A shoulder injury in round 21 ended his season and left the silky forward watching on from the grandstand when the Bombers won the premiership.

“When I came into the AFL all I wanted to do was play 100 games and put my name on the Essendon locker and play in a premiership with Kevin Sheedy and alongside Michael Long,” Rioli said.

“2000 was the year where we had the opportunity where Michael Long played and Kevin Sheedy was the Coach.

“Breaking my collarbone in round 21 against the Bulldogs was unfortunate and I missed the whole finals series that year.

“As disappointing as it was … to be part of that 2000 team, it was an amazing feeling because we had so much talent and we had so much belief.

“You very rarely go through a season where you have that much belief and that year 2000 was pretty special.”

Rioli is carried from the ground after his 100th and final AFL game in 2006.

Rioli said he played his best football in 2003 – a year he averaged 17 possessions per game as his spent more time up the field. His 18 games that year was the most he played in a single season.

Despite his injury troubles, Rioli did achieve his goal of playing 100 games in his final match at AFL level.

His said his father, his uncle and Essendon figures Kevin Sheedy, Michael Long, Bruce Reid, John Quinn, Robert Shaw and Mark Harvey played significant roles in his career.

“We had so many good people around the Football Club and then some really good people that you trained and played with,” Rioli said.

“’Hirdy’ was an amazing leader, he was fantastic.

“To have Michael Long and Mark Johnson, the list goes on … I was very fortunate to be part of a Football Club with so many leaders and quality people around the place.”

Rioli has recently returned to Melbourne to live and has taken up a role as Assistant Coach with Aberfeldie in the Essendon District Football League. Professionally, he’s spent the last 12 years helping Aboriginal people gain employment. “It’s very rewarding and something I’m looking forward to continuing for a long time,” he said.

Rioli will be at the Bombers match against Adelaide on Saturday night but local football and watching the next generation of Rioli’s (Cyril at Hawthorn and Daniel at Richmond) prevents him from seeing his former Club in action more often.

But his connection remains strong.

“It’s home,” Rioli said.

“Helping Aboriginal people get into work – I talk about my time with the Essendon Football Club as my apprenticeship because I walked in these doors as a shy 19 year old – one word answers and I lacked confidence in terms of engaging with the corporate world of Melbourne.

“But it (Essendon) has taught me a lot about how to engage with people and the fantastic networks I’ve met through this Football Club has allowed me to achieve amazing things post football.

“So I’m forever thankful for the opportunity they gave me on the field but extremely grateful for the support I’ve got since retiring from football.

“Once you walk in these doors, you play for the Club and you throw on the jumper and you bleed for the Club … then you’ll always be appreciated by Essendon people.

“It’s proven that when you retire, they still look after you.”