Best On Ground on awards short list

Best On Ground, my story about intellectual disability football published in The Big Issue in August, has been short-listed for an AFL Victoria community football media award.

The 1200-word story is one of ten finalists in the Best Feature category.Other finalists are from the Geelong Advertiser, The Weekly Times, the AFL Record and various suburban and rural publications.

The winners of all the community football media awards will be announced on Friday 28 November.

Best On Ground

With his team winning by ten goals and likely to win by ten more, the player turns to his opponent and says “Don’t worry mate. If the ball ever comes down here, I’ll make sure you get a kick.”

The opponent nods. “Oh-kay,” he says slowly, uncertainly.

Watching from the boundary I think, That’s the spirit, that’s a nice gesture.

The player turns to me and says, “It’s all about respect, isn’t it? About giving others a chance.”

The football finally get down to our end of the ground, courtesy of some generous free kicks from the umpire so that the losing team might get a chance to score a goal. Or even a point.

Then instinct takes over and the player swoops on the loose ball and starts haring down the ground. His opponent stands still in the goalsquare, empty-handed. “Oh-kay,” he says again.

Welcome to Australian Rules football as played by people with intellectual disabilities. Some players are fast, sure of hand and foot. Some lumber across the ground. Some crash into packs with seemingly no fear of injury. Some hold back, not keen on getting bumped or tackled. And some players may not even know the goal posts from the point posts, the back line from the forward line.

Off the field the players’ life skills vary. Some are relatively independent, with jobs and cars. Some cannot read or write. Many will probably never work.

The best of Australia’s intellectual disability footballers competed for The Peter Ryan Cup in the inaugural National Inclusion Carnival in Melbourne in late June. Over four days teams from New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria (Metro and Country) played 12-a-side games of ten-minute quarters, twice a day.

The carnival was won by the Victoria Country team, coached by Rob Klemm, assistant principal at a school for people with intellectual disabilities and a man who has played and coached footy at various levels. He coached a Broadmeadows intellectual disability team in Melbourne’s northern suburbs for more than a decade before it folded and has been coaching Williamstown since it formed four years ago. A tall man with a boyish mass of curly hair, he coaches quietly, never raising his voice, repeating messages of teamwork, discipline and encouragement over and over.

“Football’s about more than just winning. It can be a bit of a metaphor for life,” he says. “You’ve got to learn to ride the bumps and get up again. That sort of resilience is crucial for people with disadvantages, and often hard for them to develop.

“Research shows that the sense of belonging and membership and the protective behaviour you can find within a sports club can reduce the risk of losing your way in life.”

One of Rob’s strongest memories from his playing days, in junior football in Western Australia, is never being told that he was good enough. “It’s really important to tell players, all players, that they are good enough, that they can do things.

“I love it when you see one of the least able players do something well, something they’ve been practising and practising for months. A player actually getting a kick, actually taking a mark. These moments are priceless, not just for the player, but for the player’s family. It’s so precious to see something like that.”

Photo by Alan Attwood/The Big Issue
Photo by Alan Attwood/The Big Issue

The Williamstown team is part of a Victorian competition called FIDA, the Football Integration Development Association. FIDA grew out of skills clinics in 1989 at Glenferrie Oval, the heartland of the Hawthorn Football Club. There were eight teams in the first FIDA season in 1991. There are now 16 clubs – about 400 players – competing in a 10 round season.

Other states are growing too. New South Wales, the surprise packet in the National Inclusion Carnival, is starting to tap into the Greater Western Sydney region. Tasmania and Queensland will be encouraged by being part of the Carnival. Fremantle CBC, a team from Western Australia, played games in Melbourne last year over a week-long visit.

Amongst those organising the initial skills clinics in 1989 was Peter Ryan OAM, a teacher in special schools and a former Hawthorn footballer.

“The response to the clinics was so good we were able to start a competition fairly quickly,” he recalls. “Teams were often aligned with agencies, such as local councils and special schools. Nowadays it’s important for teams to be attached to a mainstream football club too. It offers more integration opportunities.”

In 2000 Peter was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to sport for people with intellectual disabilities. He retired from teaching in 2008 partly to take on more duties with FIDA. This year he is president of the association.

“The competition is about giving people purpose and structure, about building self-esteem. Sometimes a parent will tell me how much it has changed their son or daughter’s life.”

Dwayne Templeton started with the Wyndham Tigers 14 years ago, and hasn’t looked back, says his mother Rhonda. “Playing in FIDA has given Dwayne companionship and mateship. He now has more confidence and has friends who all call the footy club home.”

Dwayne, 32, obtained official coaching accreditation last year and was an assistant coach for Wyndham last season. This year he pulled the boots back on.

Away from footy, Dwayne is a gardener in supported employment with Mambourin Enterprises.

“The players play pretty hard, especially in the seniors,” says his mother, “but they’ll often walk off arm in arm with the opposition. It’s fabulous to see.”

Rhonda, who is president of the Wyndham Tigers, says that in the lower-level games, winning teams often help the opposition kicks a few goals. “They know that losing by a lot is not much fun.”

Col Newcombe has umpired football over 30 years, including country, suburban and elite under-age football. He started umpiring intellectual disability games in 2012. “It’s the most rewarding footy I’ve umpired,” he says, “because you realise it’s more than just football. It’s about the personal development of these fellas and girls, seeing their social skills, seeing people coming out of their shells.”

Like any football, tempers can fray and umpires and officials have to be vigilant. “Umpiring players with special needs requires a bit of life experience. You’ve got to be able to have a particular rapport with the players.”

Col delights in telling the story of a Downs Syndrome player who kicked a point but thought that it was a goal and celebrated accordingly. “He told me, and everyone else, about that ‘goal’ for the rest of the game, another two and a half quarters. I thought we’d never heard the end of it!”

Last year, despairing at the lack of good footballs for intellectual disability teams, Col started a Facebook campaign called Footballs for FIDA. “I thought I might be able to get about 30 new footballs.” He had 50 within a week, and has now distributed 260 footballs. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to ask,” he says. “There’s a lot of goodwill out there.”

At a recent reserves game between the Wyndham Tigers and the Williamstown Seagulls, Wyndham were winning easily, but it didn’t stop a Wyndham official cheering on the opposition. “Go Seagulls, get in there! Keep trying! Well done! Keep going!”

This sort of football is all about respect. About giving others a chance. In football, and in life.

First published in The Big Issue, August 2014, edition 464

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