Hawthorn is one club, many teams, including a wheelchair footy and an AFL Blind team. With lots of time to be spent at home over the coming weeks, we thought it was the perfect time for Hawks fans to learn a little bit more about the players that make up these teams. Hawthorn’s Wheelchair and Blind football teams are made possible by the club’s social inclusion partner, Afford, one of Australia’s longest serving disability service providers.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what do you do outside of footy?
Outside of playing footy, I am very lucky to be working at Hawthorn Football Club which is a dream come true. I work in the club’s community department and focus mostly on social inclusion. I’m a huge sports-lover, so I spend a lot of time either playing or watching a heap of different sports. I also love spending time with friends and family, including my border collie, Koda - who unbiasedly is the most beautiful dog on the planet.
What made you pursue AFL Blind and how did you get involved?
I have always maintained a passionate love of footy. Like most, I see football as more of a religion than a sport; and for as long as I can remember I have always kicked footballs around trying to emulate my Hawthorn-heroes such as Crawf, Cyril, Buddy and Hodgey.
I saw that a few people I knew were involved with the trials of AFL Blind. As someone that has played many blind sports, I felt that I had to give it a go. I went to a couple of come-and-try days and loved it. I haven’t looked back since.
So, to play AFL Blind you need to have a visual impairment. What is your visual impairment, and what are some of the challenges you may face daily and in AFL?
I have an eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which affects the retina along with the cones and rods within your eyes. In my circumstance, both my rods and retina are dying which means that my eyesight will get worse over time and likely leave me completely blind at some stage in my life. Being diagnosed with the condition was by far the toughest period of my life - I had lost about 80 % of my vision within the space of approximately five days. The greatest challenge was trying to deal with the adjustment of having perfect vision to then suddenly becoming legally blind.
The main symptoms of Retinitis Pigmentosa are experiencing tunnel vision and night blindness, so while my central vision is quite good, my peripheral vison is fairly poor. A person with standard 20/20 vision would have approximately 180 degrees of peripheral vision, whereas I have less than 10 degrees. For me, it is similar to looking through a straw and I really struggle to see at night or in dark areas. To make it all the more interesting, I am also colour blind.
Can you briefly explain how AFL Blind works?
AFL Blind is a game designed for people who are blind or vision impaired. The rules are not too dissimilar to regular footy, however there is no tackling. We use a bright yellow footy with an electronic buzzer in it so that people (who use their hearing more than sight) can hear where the ball is during a game. As sound is a main guiding factor for players, there is commentary during the match along with people rattling sound shakers behind the goals so that the players know where to score. Otherwise, most rules of regular AFL still apply.
What do you love most about the game?
I honestly just love that I can play footy on a level playing field. I used to play all the time, however since I lost majority of my sight I have found it extremely hard to play footy with, and against, those who have full vision. It’s amazing to play competitively and to have a kick with my mates on the weekend.
What did it mean to you when you found out you were drafted to Hawthorn?
It meant the absolute world to me. Not until l I received my playing jumper from Grant Birchall and Justin Reeves at Waverley Park did it feel real - and even then, that was a bit of a blur. I am a massive Hawks fan and have supported the club my entire life. To be drafted to the team I love was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
How has your experience at Hawthorn been so far? What are some of the things that the club has involved you in?
It’s been incredible and I honestly can’t believe how lucky I am to be a part of such an extraordinary club. The club’s commitment to people like myself is unrivaled. The way in which the club has embraced anyone with a disability - a person with unique abilities rather than just a person with disadvantages - is a true credit to the entire club.
From its staff through to the AFL players, the club has welcomed our team with open arms. Our team has been able to enjoy some pretty amazing experiences such as playing a game of AFL blind against the first to fourth year players, attending the Peter Crimmins Medal, as well as being involved with amazing community programs including the SALT wellbeing sessions. Personally, I have been able to land a full-time job at the club and with that role, I have been able to build amazing connections with players and staff. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this could happen to me, so I feel very blessed.
Winning a premiership is always a special achievement. What did last year’s premiership-winning season mean to you?
Winning the premiership was incredible! For our team to cap-off an extraordinary season with a win in the ‘big dance’ was as special as it gets. We had the entire club’s support and so many people came down to cheer us on - which definitely got us over the line! Over the course of the year we grew together as a team and ultimately turned our season around. From suffering a massive loss in Round 1 to then winning the Grand Final was an amazing achievement by all.
Personally, to be presented on-stage as the club’s Best and Fairest at the Peter Crimmins Medal was an amazing feeling and a moment I will never forget.
Do you play any other sports??
Growing up I literally tried every sport you can think of. Since turning to blind sports I have been very privileged to play Blind Cricket for Australia, receiving my very own ‘baggy green’ in 2017. I have played in two Blind Cricket World Cups across India and the United Arab Emirates, with an Ashes series in the UK still to come. Other than cricket, I played Blind Soccer (futsal) for Australia and represented our country in Malaysia. I am hoping to get to the Paralympics one day which would be pretty cool too.
Do you have any heroes or idols that you want to be like?
Growing up a soccer fan, Liverpool player Steven Gerrard was always my idol. But I also can’t go past Hawks legends such as Shane Crawford, Luke Hodge and of course, Cyril! I love what all those Hawthorn players stood for, and what they did for the club was nothing short of amazing.
What is your ultimate sporting goal and what is a life goal of yours?
I would love to win a Blind Cricket World Cup for Australia as well as win a medal at the Paralympics. But of course, my primary goal is to win as many premierships as I can with the Hawks.
A life goal of mine is to buy a house, but more so, to just be happy with myself and to try and enjoy life as much as I can.
If someone is going through a similar experience to what you have gone through, what advice would you give them?
It’s always incredibly hard when you go through such a significant and rapid lifestyle change. To anyone going through what I did, or a hard time in general; I would say to find the things you love and enjoy most, make them your priority, and believe in yourself. I truly believe that every dark cloud has a silver lining. It’s very easy to get consumed by negative thoughts but if you can try to find those silver linings, you will be amazed by what opportunities arise.
If you could encourage someone to try your sport what would you say to them?
I would encourage them to just come down and give it a go! You never truly know if you love or hate something until you try it. The AFL Blind community are the most loving and caring people going round; so definitely come down, get involved and give it a crack.
Find out more about Hawthorn’s Social Inclusion Partner Afford by heading to their website.