Never tire reading his story ...
Mum has been the driving force behind Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti’s AFL success
ANTHONY McDonald-Tipungwuti walked past Essendon coach John Worsfold’s door four times before he mustered the nerve to go in.
McDonald-Tipungwuti was working in Essendon’s community department and had spent three years on the Bombers’ VFL list, but was just about ready to give football away for good.
Playing AFL never seemed like it was going to happen.
But after some words of encouragement from his adoptive mother Jane McDonald, he tapped on “Woosha’s” window.
“It was Mum’s idea,” McDonald-Tipungwuti, 24, said.
“She just said, ‘Just go and ask – the only thing he can say is no. If you want this, just go and do it’.
“I walked past a couple of times until I had the courage to go and knock on his window and ask him if he was free to chat. He said, ‘Come in’ and I just asked him, ‘Is it OK if I come and train for a week or two, because I want to get drafted?’.”
He’d never even met Worsfold — only heard about his playing prowess and coaching style — and was sent to talk to the fitness staff.
He had a week to show what he was made of, and managed to deliver a handy time-trial.
The 2015 rookie draft eventually loomed, but when Bombers list manager Adrian Dodoro’s number appeared on McDonald-Tipungwuti’s phone while he was working at a school clinic, he was nervous.
Dodoro invited him for “a chat” in his office, and when McDonald-Tipungwuti spotted a video camera inside, he knew he was in.
“I saw them and thought, ‘This is for real’,” he said.
He went home to tell Jane – but not before a quick ruse.
“I had told her I was going to see Adrian and that I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
“She was waiting for the good news. I went to the door … I went in with a sad face and sort of said, ‘I’m getting drafted’. She said, ‘You gave me a heart attack’. There were few tears.
“I’m really lucky and grateful that they gave me the opportunity. I haven’t looked back since.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti arrived in Gippsland from Bathurst Island for Christmas in 2009, having met Jane on the Tiwi Islands where she had been working with her daughter, Nikki,at the local school.
He didn’t speak much English then. Barely any.
A pair of socks first brought them together.
“There was one training session where I forgot my socks and I said to Mum, ‘Do you have any spare socks?’,” he said.
“She said to my sister (Nikki), ‘Go on, take off your socks and give them to Anthony’. From then on, we had a connection.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti’s father died when he was a baby and, while his mother is still alive, he was raised by his beloved grandmother until she died when he was 10.
He then lived with his aunt, couldn’t read or write that well and kind of ran his own race until he was 16 and crossed paths with Jane.
He wanted to travel back with her later that year and he did, becoming enraptured by Longwarry life and, in particular, the non-denominational Chairo Christian College near Pakenham, where she worked.
It was where he decided he wanted to study, and he returned in 2010 with his main goal being education.
Football was an added bonus, and he started playing with TAC Cup outfit Gippsland Power — where he featured in two grand final teams — and the school eventually gave him one afternoon off a week to work with his coaches.
Plenty were impressed with his output, but Jane’s sometimes brutal honesty poles apart from their praise. He preferred to listen to the positivity at times, she said.
It wasn’t until a late-season reality check from a coach that he realised he needed to step things up a notch.
Jane recalled: “I was on snow camp with the school and I got this phone call at the top of the mountain and he said, ‘Mum, my coach has told me what I need to do to get better and they (AFL clubs) might look at me’.
“He said, ‘I know that I can do it with you. You’re the only one that can do it with me’.”
Jane “took off her mum hat” and turned coach.
There were endless sprint sessions, then longer running spells into a headwind at Port Melbourne, swimming and gruelling gym sessions in Warrnambool. She made him run seven repetitions of 1km when the program required only five, then tell him he was off the pace.
They fought a bit. He doubted his ability. There were times where Jane “just wanted to wrap him up and hug him”.
When he wasn’t drafted, McDonald-Tipungwuti considered quitting football in favour of rugby, maybe with Melbourne Storm or Rebels if he could crack it.
“She was pretty hard — that’s what mums are for,” he said.
“But I look at it as a real positive. She’s made me become a good footballer rather than taking all the easy roads. She gave me that hard feedback to improve on, giving me advice and pushing me to become a better player.”
He didn’t know it at the time but often he was well within the times required. Jane wasn’t going to tell him that — it made him work harder.
They worked through game plans together, and still do. Sometimes articulating the strategies to Jane helped McDonald-Tipungwuti learn them inside-out himself.
Some recruiters had doubts about a back injury that meant he couldn’t complete the beep test.
Some called him lazy and overweight, not realising his adoptive mother – who knew how hard he had been working – was sitting only metres away.
“Not one recruiter except for Essendon spoke to us,” Jane said.
She knows those who didn’t bother must be kicking themselves now, especially since Essendon club doctor Bruce Reid solved the young gun’s back problem.
Like all others, Jane brings McDonald-Tipungwuti back to earth when he needs it, reminding him that while he’s fulfilling media commitments she might be cleaning the house they share in Gisborne, 40km north-west of Tullamarine.
Supporters offer a “Go Bombers” or a toot of the car horn in the main street — McDonald-Tipungwuti said they often spot his hair before they see him.
He has sister Nikki to thank for the now-famous dreadlocks. She suggested them after McDonald-Tipungwuti got sick of his “fro”.
Jane is a fan.
“They’re a bit long at the moment — I wouldn’t mind them being cut a bit,” she said.
“But without them, he’s got a funny shaped head.”
Home used to be Glenroy, but McDonald-Tipungwuti said he is “a bit of a country boy — (Gisborne) is just nice and relaxed”.
Jane still works at the college in Gippsland and is there for him as he continues to adjust.
“She’s helped me with life and footy,” he said. “She’s teaching me a few things around the house and how to look after it.”
Diet is a big focus.
She said McDonald-Tipungwuti “bulked up” when he arrived in Gippsland, unused to the type of food he was eating, and the quantity.
He doesn’t eat bread and hass pasta only once a week – the night before a game – and she is in regular contact to ensure he gets the sustenance that suits his metabolism.
“I get very angry when he deviates,” she said with a laugh.
McDonald-Tipungwuti doesn’t know what he’d be doing if he hadn’t met Jane. He took her family’s name in 2014.
“We had all bonded straight away,” he said.
“So we made it official. I said, ‘I’m part of the family’, but the one thing I needed was the name.
“I explained the reason (to family on the Tiwi Islands) and said, ‘Jane is my mum and they’re my family now and I’m lucky to have them in my life’.
“She has said she’s lucky that she found me but we’re both lucky to have found each other.”
Raised a Catholic by his grandmother, McDonald-Tipungwuti fully embraced Christianity in 2015.
“In the year before I got drafted, I made that decision to give my life to God,” he said.
“I made the decision where I needed a change in my life. He’s been good. He gave me a good opportunity and from the start and hopefully to the end. He is there to look up to and encourage me to work through life.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti and Jane pray together before he goes into the rooms before every game, and he joins the club chaplain again before the match to communicate with God.
But he conceded it wasn’t always easy at a football club.
“It’s one of the things that just reminds me that God is there to guide me through the tough times on the field and off the field,” he said.
“It’s building in me, Christianity. It’s pretty hard in an AFL environment, but I really enjoy the challenge. It’s a good challenge – you’ve got to be truthful in your faith and accept people for who they are.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti might have summoned the confidence to voice his dreams to Worsfold eventually, but confidence remains “Walla’s” biggest hurdle, according to Jane.
“I think that’s his biggest pull-back on footy at the moment,” she said.
“Once he gets confidence, boy, he’ll be something.”
It’s not just indigenous children McDonald-Tipungwuti wants to inspire.
He has worked hard, earned an education and taxed his body physically to achieve his dream, so far playing 30 games at the top level.
“I’m not trying to go ahead of what I do – I just let the footy talk and let everyone enjoy footy when they come and watch,” he said.
“I love to share my story, to encourage others to come out of their shell and that they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it.”.