By Julian Di Nezza
It’s a cold, wet, gloomy Sunday afternoon at Central Reserve, South-East of Melbourne, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see the smiles of both players and parents from the Mazenod Panthers Football Club.
It’s a league unlike anything you’ve ever seen. An open age bracket means you will witness a 14 year-old boy up against a 60 year-old pensioner.
It’s the only competition in Victoria where you’ll see an umpire make sure everyone gets a kick and if one team is dominating proceedings, players will swap teams and move in different positions to make sure the game remains competitive.
Win, lose or draw, both teams shake hands, cheer ‘hip, hip ,hooray for the umpire,’ and go off the field singing the team song loud and proud.
It’s almost nostalgic for me to come back home to where I grew up and see a group of inspiring individuals, both on and off the field, who have had to face their fair share of hurdles in life to get to where they are today.
The FIDA (Football Integration Development Association) League was formed more than a quarter of a century ago, giving an opportunity for intellectually disabled footballers to form new friendships and play the sport they have adored for the majority of their lives.
Today, there are 16 FIDA football clubs across Victoria supporting the careers of more than 600 players.
The Panthers are just like any ordinary football club. Run by devoted volunteers who give up their spare time every Sunday to watch a group of unique players in all different shapes and sizes playing for one another and the black, white and blue jumper.
The idea of Mazenod establishing a FIDA football team was thrown up in 2004 with the intent of creating a sporting hub for kids with intellectual disabilities in the Glen Waverley area, and just over a year later, the Panthers played their first official game.
Phil Ryan is the current president of the Mazenod Panthers where in his busy schedule, he flies all around the country for his business technology job and manages to be the bedrock of the club.
“They say in life that ‘to get out you have to put in’, and my limited experience is that the enjoyment, the way they play their footy, it’s the reaction of their faces, their desire, – that’s why we do this, that’s the way football should be played,” he said.
Phil joined the club just over a year ago and admits there is a lot of work that needs to be done including attracting players to come down.
The Panthers only have 12 players in the seconds and less than 10 running around in their firsts.
“The immediate priority is recruitment. We’ve lost a number of players and as a committee we are doing everything we can to get new players,” he said.
Whilst Phil remains one of the cornerstone’s of the club, the Panthers cannot function without people like Greg Hants who’s son is the youngest member of the team.
His son Ryan, was diagnosed with Central Processing Disorder – a mild intellectual disability which affects decision-making on all levels.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are 328,000 people in the country that are intellectually disabled, making up 1.86% of the population.
“What I see often is that these guys are ostracised because they are different and this is somewhere where they can all come together and play in a safe environment and not be judged for who they are,” Hants said.
A pastry chef by day, Greg and his wife Christine also see the Panthers as a support network with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters all understanding where they’re coming from.
“We can socialise with parents who are in the same boat because if you don’t have kids or family that are not handicapped, they just don’t understand. Unless if you have to live it, they just don’t get it.”
It’s halftime at the game and the boys are up against a well-drilled Mount Waverley Demons outfit.
Oranges and snakes are spread around the group and even though it has just started raining again, the boys are rearing to go out there for the second half of footy.
Their coach, Josh Crook, a corporate lawyer who is in his first year in charge of the Panthers, tells his brigade to remain positive and focus ‘on staying man-on-man.’
“I’ve been watching these boys for eight to ten years now and there’s one guy I’ve seen touch the ball twice in a decade. Despite that, they will still run out onto the ground as if they are playing out on the G’ and you see the impact that it has on them,” Crook said.
Crook is the coach of both teams at the Panthers and highlights how the two differ in physical and psychological disabilities.
“In the firsts team, a lot of the players have behavioural problems whereas the second team have more physical limitations. So working with them, their is a different focus, it’s more about getting them involved, keeping them motivated and having some fun.”
Crook underlines the importance of being there for his brother Toby, who is diagnosed with Dyspraxia – an intellectual disability that affects motor skills, coordination but also sophisticated reasoning.
“Its one of the key relationships I have in my life. He has always been this incredible sense of perspective and kept me very grounded regardless of whatever else I have gone and done,” he said.
The game ends and the boys showed grit and determination from start to finish.
Parents at the ground do not worry about the end result, it’s a tight-knit community that centres around two main principles – unity and mateship.
So as the canteen shuts, the lights are turned off and the players go home accompanied by their loved-ones, you ultimately leave with a smile on your face realising football is more than just a sport, but a therapeutic pillar of Australian society that binds together men and women from all different walks of life.
“I was having a chat with a few of the boys the other night, a lot of them acknowledged the idea that ‘whilst I might have some limitations on me in some aspects of my life, I have other skills and things that I am good at’ – which is the most pleasing thing to hear,” Crook said.
*** If you know anyone with an intellectual disability that would like to join the Panthers, please call Phil Ryan on 0408 142 250 or head to http://mazenodfc.com.au