March 29, 2020
At home

Ryan Fitzgerald: Locked down again but loving life

Ryan Fitzgerald, 43, rose to fame through footy, then reality television, before carving out a respected media career. Here, “Fitzy” talks about his injury-plagued time in the AFL, Big Brother, becoming a dad and his recent brush with COVID-19.

Ryan Fitzgerald and BJ on their wedding day

I was born in Loxton up in the Riverland but we moved back down to the south of Adelaide when I was very young. I spent most of my childhood in Port Noarlunga.

We had a very happy upbringing. I had a younger sister Holly and Mum and Dad – Claire and Mick – had a big group of friends. Our lives revolved mostly around sport (Dad coached numerous local footy teams) and then we would socialise with friends.

We lived in Christie Downs for a while. My parents didn’t have much money but I never heard them complain about money once. Mum was a dental assistant and Dad was an electrician. Now that I look back, I have so much appreciation for their work ethic. My mentors through life I would say are my parents. As I’ve matured, my respect for them has grown even more. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today without Mum and Dad.

When I was 11 years old we moved to Port Noarlunga and they were the best years of my life. The beach, the jetty, the reef – it’s every kid’s ultimate playground.

One of my most vivid memories is competing in the state titles for Little Athletics at Olympic Sports Field. Deckchairs set up, fritz and sauce sangas and Dad knocking off his sixth Fosters can. Great days. I won the long jump.

Ryan showing his junior long-jumping form.

I wanted to study at Underdale and become a physical education teacher when I grew up. I couldn’t believe that someone could get paid for teaching others how to play sport.

As a teenager, I used to love going to the “Superstitions” under-age disco at McLaren Vale Town Hall on the first Friday of every month. Mum used to drop us off. We’d sneak a couple of beers at the gazebo down the road from it and then waltz up in our Kuta Lines jumpers thinking we were the kings of the south. It was the best.

One of my worst teenage memories was when my friends and I helped pull a deceased scuba diver off the bottom of the ocean at the end of the Port Noarlunga jetty. They tried CPR for a very long time but to no avail. That freaked us out.

I always played club footy and one game that I will never forget is winning the 1997 SFL Premiership with Port Noarlunga. I had grown up at the club and we’d only ever won three premierships before that. A lot of my mates who went through juniors with me were in the team and it just meant so much to us. They were the best years of my life. I can’t stress enough how important a team environment is for a kid growing up.

To get the opportunity to play in the AFL with the Swans in 2000 was an absolute dream and to have my family there on the night meant so much – snagging five goals on the night also helped. It was, unfortunately, my only shining light as I was hit with injuries all through my career, including my time with the Crows, until my eventual delisting in 2002. It shattered me.

Ryan hugging the premiership shield

Although I can’t play footy any more, I try to get to the gym every day. It keeps you sharp. The knees are stuffed. I’ve had four knee reconstructions and I have just been told that my right knee will have to be replaced at some stage.

The injuries have been devastating – all I ever wanted to do was to play footy.

After my AFL career stalled, I was recovering, playing at South Adelaide, trying to get back into it when my mates said I should audition for Big Brother in 2004.

So, I did but I was completely oblivious to what was about to happen. I knew the show was big but didn’t realise it was that big.

I loved that experience. What I liked about being in the house was being completely isolated without having any idea what was going on outside, which is fitting for the isolation I’m in at the moment (I wish I could block out the news). The down part was dealing with some of the personalities in there and not being able to escape from them.

My most memorable moment in the house was when I broke my nose doing a suey into the pool. Not my finest moment.

Trevor won the million dollars that year and Merlin protested against the treatment of refugees.

Unfortunately, I don’t talk to many of the people who were in the house with me. We all just lost touch.

I’m still a reality TV tragic, though. I love watching the human experience, from the trash on MAFS to the cunning instincts on Survivor.

Ryan with his parents

After Big Brother I ended up working in the media. I started out doing breakfast radio at Nova in Adelaide and, in 2011, I was offered the same gig in Sydney where I’m still on air as half of the “Fitzy and Wippa” duo. All up, I’ve been doing breakfast radio for 15 years and it’s a great gig.

I love Nova. They’ve been very loyal and that is something that is very important to me. It’s an amazing job – you get to develop relationships with some big names and I cherish that.

I also have some regular appearances on shows such as Before the Game, The Front Bar and The Project and a few other television bits and pieces. It’s great. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in the media.

I first saw my now-wife Belinda “BJ” at Savvy Nightclub in Adelaide in 2002 and I instantly fell in love with her. She was unfortunately in a relationship at the time so I had to wait a couple of years to make a move! It was worth it, though – she’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

We were married in 2008 at Adelaide Oval and had the reception up in the Chappell Stands. It was 40 degrees but that didn’t stop us having a cracker of a day. We had 180 customised Sherrins made and at 10pm we scattered them on the oval and Les Burdett, the legendary curator at the oval, turned the lights on so everyone could have a kick. Even my beautiful wife snapped one from the Fitzgerald Flank and may have taken a hanger over Mark Ricciuto.

Ryan and BJ: “she has been the best thing has ever happened to me”.

A few years later we were thrilled to be expecting our first child, but we lost our gorgeous baby daughter Cayley-Jay, who was stillborn. It was probably the toughest moment of our lives. It really affected us but then again it also galvanised us even more. It’s astounding to hear that so many women go through this. It eventually led to two beautiful healthy boys, so we are very grateful. We have Hewie who is now 10 and Lenny, six.

It was a very emotional day when we first became parents to Hewie, but thoroughly worth the wait. Being a parent completely changes your life. They are our everything.

I see a lot of my characteristics in our boys which, in a way, is scary. Teaching them to be respectful in the community and then seeing them execute it is very pleasing.

I’ve brainwashed them into barracking for the Crows and they absolutely love it. I took Hewie to the 2017 grand final: unfortunately, the Crows got flogged but it was a bonding experience that we both will remember forever.

What I find most challenging about being a dad is the kids’ inability to listen at times. They can be very well mannered boys, but not around us sometimes!

Ryan at the footy with sons Hewie and Lenny.

As a family, we love getting out, kicking the footy, bike riding, but we also love a good movie.

These days what brings me joy, other than family and footy, is seeing live music. I absolutely adore going to see a band with my mates. I still keep in touch with the mates I grew up with and they always make me lough out loud. They have me in hysterics every time.

We are not getting out at the moment, though! We interviewed Dicky [Richard Wilkins] on our show on the day he got tested for COVID-19. It eventually came back positive, so we all got tested and went into lockdown.

It was a bit of a shock but we were always confident that we’d get through it. Lockdown has actually been quite enjoyable, we’ve spent more time together as a family, handball, yo-yos, Atari – my son even interviewed me for his new podcast.

I love living in Sydney – it’s such a beautiful city, but it is flat out. Eventually, we plan to come back to South Australia. My wife and I talk about it all the time and we eventually will. The opportunities are far greater in Sydney so we’ll stay here for a little longer before settling down in Port Noarlunga.

We can’t wait to get back to Adelaide. Don’t get us wrong, we love Sydney, but there’s nothing like the place where you grew up. I’d love for my boys to experience that.

My South Australian Life is a first-person series, published each Sunday. Read our previous profiles here.

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