Tarni White never felt like an outsider growing up in the eastern suburbs of Brisbane, but she had more than enough reasons to feel like one.
The young Queenslander was already a rarity as a young female playing Aussie Rules in the Sunshine State; a sport she first picked up after switching over from rugby when she was nine years old.
Making her even rarer was the fact that for six straight seasons, White was the only women’s player at her local club, Wynnum Vikings. Not just in her team or age division, but at the entire club.
“I was always a part of the team at Wynnum, in amongst it, really well respected and the boys would always stand up for me,” White told saints.com.au.
“I was treated as one of them and I could really appreciate that because I never felt like I was an outsider.”
Turning her back on rugby – Queensland’s game – for footy was an action many Maroons would view as sacrilegious, particularly doing so for a sport whose presence in the female space was scarce, if not virtually non-existent, just over a decade ago.
It didn't stop her.
White was consistently the youngest in the team due to regularly playing two years below her age group, but it never fazed her from pulling on the boots, crashing into packs and coming off the half-back line with the same bravery she carries with her now.
After more than 100 games for the Vikings, football had become a cornerstone of her identity.
The only roadblock – one which she was “oblivious” to at the time – came when she was nearing the top-age of her Under-14 days and would soon be unable to continue playing with the boys at Wynnum.
It was only word of mouth and being “in the right place at the right time” which opened the door to Coorparoo Football Club and a whole new world to women's football.
The unflinching (even back then) half-back would play two matches per weekend – one for Wynnum and one for Coorparoo – for as long as she could before eventually being drafted by St Kilda in 2019 after opting for the Victorian draft pool rather than her native Queensland.
Despite a pair of knee reconstructions before the age of 19, White has earned several plaudits across her two seasons at the elite level. Her campaign just gone yielded a Rising Star nomination and selection in the AFL Players’ Association 22Under22 squad, along with another top-10 finish at St Kilda’s AFLW Best & Fairest.
But arguably the most esteemed honour is not one she’s received, rather one named after her from the club which first welcomed her in with open arms.
The perpetual Tarni White Rising Star Award is now one of Wynnum Football Club’s most distinguished accolades, presented yearly to the best first-year player regardless of age category or gender.
White was presented the Shield earlier in May when she got the chance to return to her home state after several months away due to her Saints commitments and border closures as a result to COVID-19 .
“I had no idea that was going to happen to be honest and I was so chuffed,” White said.
“I knew before they even named that award after me that Wynnum was so proud, and it just made me so proud that a club would do that. I just was so happy and grateful that they would even do that.”
Despite feeling “a little bit anxious” stopping back up north after moving to Victoria to chase her football dream, the impact she’s left at grassroots level and what she’s achieving in the AFLW hasn’t been lost.
“It’s actually been really good that I’ve so openly said I’m from Wynnum, because so many girls have actually gone to that club now.
Wynnum Vikings currently fields all-female Under-9s and Under-11s sides, with the aim to expand into the Under-13s space the following season.
Although she was an outlier when she first began her junior football career, 10 years on and the courageous Saint been a shining inspiration in driving women’s participation within the region.
Unlike White only a few years ago, the upcoming crop won’t have to face the hurdle of potentially having their dreams dashed due to absent or invisible pathways.
And who knows how many potential Tarni White replicas there now are rising through the ranks.
“It’s growing massively. Speaking especially from Queensland, we had so little numbers playing AFL when I first started,” White said.
“Even when I was 12 years old, it was just unheard of and now the participation is through the roof at the moment and it’s growing stronger and stronger each year.
“I definitely feel that I’m a bit of a role model in a way. I think I’ve more shown that there’s more out there as well and you can move elsewhere and can do other things on top of that.
“I think as long as the AFLW keeps growing and is healthy, the competition below it will also keep growing and it’ll stem from the AFLW and what we make of it.
“It’s up to us and what we do that’s going to pave the way for the younger generations and hopefully we can make a competition that’s there for a while for them.”