How 9/11 helped make Waleed Aly a household name
FOR a young Waleed Aly, it was just an average day at the footy in his home town of Melbourne.
But an unexpected turn of events stemming from a trip with his family to watch his beloved Richmond Tigers train would lead him to becoming a household name.
"It feels like there was a script written for me," he said.
It was September 11, 2001 and Aly says it was precisely because his family were so clearly Muslim, on a day when Islamic terrorism so horrifically came to the fore, that sowed the seeds for his media career.
This week, Aly spoke to commentator and writer Rachel Corbett on her podcast You've Gotta Start Somewhere which asks notable Australians how they got their first break.
The Project host and academic told Ms Corbett he was nearing the end of his law degree and had been toying with the idea of writing, partly because he had been so slack at lining up legal jobs.
But he put career deliberations aside to head to the Punt Road Oval with his sister in law to watch the team train. He was 23 years old.
"It was September 11 and I remember the day. It was a Tuesday and the weather was stunning, one of those perfect spring days.
"Richmond were in the finals and I went along to see them train because it was the first time they were in the finals for a while and I was at uni so I had the time," he said.
Hours later the co-ordinated US attacks took place.
"On Saturday, Richmond were playing Carlton in the semi-finals, which we won, and before the game starts I was reading [The Age] and I read a piece by Martin Flanagan, a sports writer I've always loved.
"He wrote about that Richmond training session on September 11 … and he described looking across the ground and how he saw this visibly Muslim family and they were just another Richmond family.
"I went with my sister in law and her kids and I thought there was only one family it could be. He described my family."
A while later, Aly wrote to Mr Flanagan.
"I said, 'you don't know me but you wrote about me'. I said I had an interest in writing and how much I admired him and sent it off and assumed that would be the end of the matter.
"I must have left my phone number because not long after he gave me a call and he said 'Waleed! It's Flanagan,' and a relationship was born."
At the time, the most ambitious Aly dared dream was that his writing might, one day, make it into Melbourne University's student magazine.
Yet, on a whim, he sent some examples of his work to Mr Flanagan.
"He said to me, 'mate, writing is like playing footy. You can either play or you can't and you can play'
"I was blown away by that and that gave me the impetus to write some more," he said.
"Martin said I might be able to sneak something into The Age and I was like 'are you serious?' and a whole world opened up to me."
He didn't have to wait long. In November 2002, just over a year later, his first piece was indeed published in The Age.
Firebrand NSW MP Fred Nile, who was infamous for praying for God to make it rain on Sydney's gay and lesbian mardi gras parade, had claimed the chador - a cloak commonly worn by Muslim women - could be used by terrorists to conceal weapons and explosives.
"Fred Nile had proposed some kind of ban on face veiling and all kind of garments Muslims were wearing and [then Prime Minister] John Howard's response was something like, 'I have no clear response to that … because Fred speaks for a lot of people'
"[Howard] backtracked but the damage was done and I wrote about that," he said.
"I couldn't sleep the night before, before the paper arrived, I was waiting for the delivery and I was awake at the moment it came.
"My mum still has the clipping. She still tells me off if I don't tell her about something I've done."
Aly did indeed take up law for a time including a role as a solicitor at the Human Rights Law Centre. He is also on the staff of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University.
His writing led him to pen articles for just about every major Australian newspaper as well as becoming an ABC host.
In 2015, he took on helming duties on Channel 10's The Project where he has become renowned for his monologues on topical issues often co-written with the show's managing editor Tom Whitty.
In 2016, he won the Gold Logie for best TV Australian TV personality.
Mr Flanagan's long career as a sports writer for The Age ended this month, as swingeing cuts have left Fairfax bereft of many of its most illustrious names.
"It feels like there was a script and I was fulfilling it," Aly told Ms Corbett.
"I frequently say my whole career is [Mr Flanagan's] fault."