Photo courtesy of Australian Sporting Photos
Joining the Australian Paralympic Football team ‘Pararoos’ came out of luck while on a family holiday to Canberra at the young age of 12. At the time there was no pathway in Victoria to the national side. I’m now 27 and after all my experiences and learning, I’ve dedicated a large majority of my time to launching the Victorian Paralympic Football Program.
To begin with it was just a couple of kids coming down having a kick. We’d see people come and go. Kids were a little stand offish to begin with but they ended up making some great friends. Early on it was a bit of fun but then it reached a point where we felt there was an opportunity to turn the program into a pathway to the national team. People at all different levels of football and ages with Cerebral Palsy, acquired brain injuries and stroke became involved. Elite level opportunities became available within the program and it now has a state team and developments squads running.
Early on in the program we found kids were getting to the under 12’s age group and falling behind in football or sometimes socially. I myself gave up football at 14 as I wasn’t being given a fair go. I spent the majority of my time sitting on the bench playing maximum of 5 to 10 minutes. The coach would put me on and quickly take me off then would proceed to tell me “there you go”. One time I was having a decent run I got abused by an oppositions coach. That was a turning point for me, I didn’t want be involved anymore. I wanted the program to provide the opportunity for kids and adults to continue playing football. In 2014 National Premier League team, Northcote City FC, took control of the program for me. It was treated like a proper squad where participants received uniforms, trained on the main field and walked out the senior players on match days. These little things made such a big difference. It’s continuing to grow and the opportunities are endless.
At the same time I want kids to have the opportunity to play able bodied football, play with their mates. With the state program the players need to be playing at a challenging level and Clubs today are more welcoming. It’s about everyone being inclusive, my job is to help them do that. What it brings to the parents is one of the many reasons I love doing this. It’s so nice when you arrive at a game and see the parents all talking, sharing stories about their children in a comfortable environment. One parent wrote to me privately saying
“thank you for making my child feel so welcome on Saturday and for taking the time to come up and introduce yourselves. Her kid was naturally a little nervous meeting the boys for the first time. He came away really excited about what he saw and cannot wait to start training and playing with his new team….It was great to see how passionate the boys were during the game and the skills on show were nothing short of amazing….Reading your article on The Sports Source and watching the video has really excited and inspired him as I don’t think he ever thought it was possible for someone with CP to represent his country. More importantly, I could sense he felt he had a chance to ‘stand out’ and reach for the stars.”
It runs deeper than I ever thought it would.
The stories that have come out of the program drive me to continue to push to greater things. Over the years we have had players join the program that have acquired serious injuries late in life. Learning the basics again they come to the program with the intention of using it as a form of therapy, it then turns into something much greater. A family, an opportunity and a challenge. We had a guy get involved with our program who was an elite athlete before receiving a serious brain injury. He joined in the early stages of his recovery. He didn’t see himself as having a disability and didn’t see himself being involved. He slowly realised after a few sessions what we were trying to achieve. It was an opportunity for him. For the next six years he trained his arse off, getting himself back to an elite level of fitness to make it into the national program. He now works with others with a disability. For someone that didn’t want to be involved to now making an impact in other people’s lives; life changing. I’m not saying it all came from what we are trying to achieve but it played a big part. The story of Matty Holland, after a couple years of being involved with the program, asked the best way about joining a mainstream club. I told him to go to the club and tell them all about yourself, what you are hoping to achieve and 3 things you want to improve. That year he received the President’s Award and his football club and has grown so much. I never would have pictured him controlling the ball with both feet, holding it up and working the team around the park.
This weekend is a big few days for me. I’m taking a young group up to the 7-a-side National Paralympic Championships at Valentines Park, the home of Football NSW. It’ll be a massive learning experience for the boys. There will be 5 teams competing NSW, WA, QLD, a combined state team SA/ACT and us. It’s an opportunity for selection into the national team and to be recognised. It will be great to see how programs across the country are doing. The pathways are available but now it’s being able to recruit, get the word out and grow the programs. With the amount of people living with cerebral palsy and ABI there are individuals we haven’t reached yet. It’s something I really want to help improve and grow, not just in Vic but across the board. It doesn’t take much to create inclusive opportunities we just have to want to. There are so many kids out there that want to play we just need to be give them some support.
At the beginning of the year we lined up the kids and asked if they were in a local team, every kid put their hand up, that’s never happened before, it felt awesome knowing they were all welcomed!
Ben has now been playing football at a National level for over 15 years, and hopes to play for many more. He has become a voice for footballers with disabilities, and invests his time in mentoring many young athletes, and supporting the development of inclusive programs.