Great article on the recent trip our indigenous players took recently and how our players have engaged up North. Even better to hear indigenous kids and Essendon players skyping each other during the season between visits.
If you’re sick and tired of the supplements saga - really, who isn’t - then reading this article is a great antedote.
On Bathurst Island there’s a local in his 50s who’s known to all as Polly Farmer. “I couldn’t even tell you his real name, and I’ve known him forever,” says Brian Clancy, secretary of the education board that runs Tiwi College on adjacent Melville Island.
Among the school’s 70-odd students is a boy who’s rarely out of a Western Bulldogs jumper with No.10 on its back. For years he called himself Eagleton; lately he’s undergone an identity upgrade. “I’m Eastonwood,” he says, merging two names into one and beaming at the result.
And then there’s Kevin Fernando, who everywhere bar the college’s records is known as Pavlich. He’s one of 10 kids Clancy and his wife Jennifer, a Tiwi woman, take in so they can attend this vibrant and vital school. A daughter they adopted at 10 months calls herself Zaharakis.
Pavlich has a singular ambition - to be an AFL footballer. Watching him train with visiting Essendon players recently, it’s hard to imagine a seven-year-old could be better equipped on talent alone. In Cyril Rioli he has fresh inspiration, proof to sit alongside past Norm Smith Medal-winning legends Michael Long and Maurice Rioli that a boy rooted in the Tiwis can still live his footy dream.
The question is, how does dream become reality? And is the game better equipped to nurture the transition from a remote community to the modern AFL, and a life that even for urban-reared athletes can feel like it’s being lived in a distant galaxy?
Pavlich lives with the Clancys down by the creek at Pickataramoor, a short walk from school up past Tiwi College’s pet buffalo. The college is deliberately situated 60 kilometres from the nearest community; from Monday to Friday the students, teachers and various aids are a hamlet all to themselves.
Mini-buses bounce around the island each Monday morning, through Snake Bay, up to Garden Point and down to meet the Bathurst Island ferry at Paru, collecting students and delivering them to Pickataramoor for a midday start to classes. Home life in the communities can be challenging, but through the week they’re educated, exercised, fed and nurtured; Tiwi College is the entry point to a fuller life to which most of their parents have been exposed.
“Work hard at school, get an education, it’s the most important thing you’ll do,” Bomber Courtenay Dempsey told a class of middle schoolers. Such advice might seem easy to give for a professional footballer breezing through during his holidays, but Essendon is determined its relationship with the Tiwi Islands and the Northern Territory at large is both deep and meaningful.
The same sorry and seemingly never-ending story has overshadowed all else in red and black in recent years, yet away from the drugs scandal headlines, the Bombers continue the work that under Kevin Sheedy earned them a reputation as the team of Aboriginal Australia. Dempsey, for one, has been to the college several times in his 10-year career.
With teammates Jake Long, Shaun Edwards and VFL midfielder Daniel Coghlan, plus fitness, community and website staff, he recently spent several days in Darwin, the Tiwi Islands and the remote and troubled community of Wadeye. Dyson Heppell and his girlfriend were at the college throughout the following week. The senior students and Bombers footballers Skype each other regularly during the AFL season. These are small things, but a relationship continues to build, and with it a window to another life. The steps to make the crossover are still huge, but they’re edging closer together.
Clancy knows the Riolis well, and remembers Cyril’s early days at Scotch College when a desperately lonely child would phone his mother in tears, pleading to come home. “It was breaking her heart, but she just said ‘Stick at it son’.” "
Now his cousin Daniel Rioli is on the cusp of being drafted. He grew up at Garden Point, and when he struggled to settle at St John’s in Darwin in his early secondary years he came back to the island and Tiwi College before finishing his schooling at St Pat’s, Ballarat.
“The model of the Tiwi College has made it easier - the first step away from mum and dad, you’re away five days a week, so the jump from there to boarding school either in Darwin or down south isn’t that big,” Clancy says.
If Pavlich’s football progresses he’ll be noticed at the Northern Territory championships, perhaps make his way through the Tiwi Bombers - who made history as the first all-Indigenous football team in a major competition when they entered the NTFL in 2006 - and on to the NT Thunder in the NEAFL. Along the way he might encounter atypical hurdles; a college student currently being earmarked for bigger things is wavering under pressure from his girlfriend not to leave the island.
Behind the goals at Darwin’s TIO Oval sits a significant advance in the pathway - for producing not just better outcomes in football, but life. The Michael Long Learning and Leadership Centre opened in March, a $15 million facility that each week houses children from different remote communities who stay in dormitory accommodation, eat well in the communal kitchen, are schooled by their own teachers and utilise the AFL-standard fitness equipment. They hold leadership sessions in the football meeting rooms, gaze starry-eyed at the names of current NT Thunder players on the lockers and the premiership players the Territory has produced who are listed inside.
Another draft hopeful, Michael Hagan, is an exemplar of the facility’s ethos. As Thunder coach, former Saint and Lion Xavier Clarke is based there along with NT academy coach Andrew Hodges. Clarke reckons it’s the little things - “like sitting down and doing homework with a kid like Michael Hagan, then training him and feeding him” that make a big difference.
After his two-goal, 22-disposal Thunder debut in July, Hagan said Clarke and Hodges told him he’d earned his spot through his improved attitude and professionalism. “That’s why they gave me the chance, because they had thought I had improved not only as a footballer, but a person.”
The Thunder is permitted eight remote-contracted players, giving promising footballers from places like Elcho Island, Gove, Yuendumu and Lajamanu a taste of a professional environment. Last year they’d come for a couple of days, stay in a hotel at significant expense to the club, then return to their community and not be seen for several weeks.
“Now we can keep them here for a month if we want, train the whole time, maybe get a chance to play senior NEAFL footy. The boys actually enjoy coming to training - they know it’s a good experience, instead of being cooped up in a hotel for days.”
Clarke hears the ongoing conversation about whether a “remote” player will ever be drafted straight to the AFL. “I don’t think it’ll happen, they have to come via
somewhere like this.” He adds that’s a good thing. “Here they get to show a bit of resilience to be able to move from community, be able to commit to a program. If the talent and attitude are right, the next step is an AFL environment.”
Dempsey grew up in Cairns, Long in Darwin spending a lot of time on Melville Island where his grandfather still lives, and Edwards’ childhood was split between Darwin and Kakadu. What they saw in Wadeye startled them, the rawness of a community with a history of gang violence and abuse and neglect of children. Sugar is consumed in barely comprehensible volumes; in the two days of their visit there were multiple break-ins at the community store.
When an afternoon of football games started, the air of unrest dissipated. Jake Long was taken by the sense of togetherness footy brought. “They keep running the footy competition to make sure they don’t get bored and start fighting and doing the wrong thing. Constant footy keeps them out of trouble.”
Essendon left the community with playing gear and boots via an initiative with charity partner Boots For All. Matthew Whelan, the former Melbourne defender who is now the Bombers’ Aboriginal programs and welfare coordinator, acknowledges the danger of appearing tokenistic. As a proud Territorian he also knows the difference footy can make.
“It’s a source of inspiration,” Whelan says. “Jake and Shauny were in the Territory not that long ago playing footy and now they’re in the AFL. The more people that come from the Territory - and come back here when they can - it can have a great impact on the kids’ lives.”
And not just the locals. The travelling Bombers also caught up with a group of rural Victorian indigenous kids, from towns like Jeparit, Dimboola and Warracknabeal, who are engaged in a pilot program undertaken by Essendon and Anglicare to develop young Aboriginal leaders. Essendon’s head of community Michelle Murray said it was never going to be a “look at what we’re doing, aren’t we fantastic!” affair, but in a short time she’s been convinced it’s making a difference.
Watching Edwards interact with the 13 teenagers who were identified by the Gulum Gulum Co-operative in Horsham as leaders-in-the-making, she observed a special young man with a gift for interaction that moved her to tell him he should become a teacher. Long and Edwards went on the trip because they wanted to, revelling in showing off the place of their roots. Dempsey was out of contract at the time, could easily have said no, but threw himself in.
Edwards remembers footballers making an effort with him on similar visits when he was young, the mark it left. “To come back now as an AFL player, I’ve got a free trip home and I’ve gotta put in my time - not just because it’s my job, but because I care about these kids and I know the impact it can have.”
As they splashed about in an idyllic watering hole in Litchfield Park, Anglicare’s David Law spoke of AFL clubs being in a perilous position - if they tokenise such ventures, the lag effect will harm their whole organisation. He was emboldened that the venture showed the kids that a career in sport doesn’t have to mean playing.
“Look at our indigenous leaders - we hear from Goodesy, Noel Pearson, a few others. Wouldn’t you like to hear from more?” He reckons if a young person can break the cycle of residential care, they become virtually impregnable. “I heard Julia Gillard say resilience is a muscle, you’ve gotta use it. I like that.”
If Pavlich is to make it, he’ll need plenty of the former prime minister’s resilience muscle. Clancy fears that stories like Liam Jurrah and Tiwi Aussie Wonaeamirri - AFL stars for a fleeting time who are now back where they came from - have actually made it harder for kids to follow their lead. “It puts up a bit of a barrier up in the clubs’ minds.”
In the distant past lies a beacon of inspiration even more remarkable than the modern-day Bombers. The Tiwi College roll call features direct descendants - including a great grandson - of David Kantilla, who in 1961 moved from Bathurst Island to South Adelaide. He kicked six goals in his first game, won best and fairests in his first two seasons and was by many accounts best afield in the 1964 premiership. His resilience muscle must have been the size of Phar Lap’s heart.
“The only kid I’ve ever known at Pavlich’s age to look at and think ‘This kid’s gunna be an AFL player’, was Junior Boy Rioli,” Clancy says. He treasures a photo of Pavlich taken at a Tiwi Islands grand final when he was a toddler, wearing only a nappy, roosting a football classically from his bare foot.
He knows the odds are still against Pavlich. “But he’s every chance. We’ll keep nurturing him. If his head is in the right place, he’ll make it.”