'I just love it. I love watching them get out there and get a smile and get near the football and enjoy themselves,' said coach Graeme Glanville.
By now, Peter Keath has come to expect winter Wednesdays at work to be filled with a nonstop stream of football talk. "I like training day. Yeah, we got good players," his teammate Tyler Wilson tells him, as the pair scrub a car clean. Even on their half-hour drive to Echuca Moama on the Victorian-New South Wales border, their conversation is all about the approaching footy training. According to ABC, both men play for the Echuca Moama Rockets, an Australian rules football team for players with intellectual disabilities that has changed the lives of its players for more than a decade.
It all began 12 years ago when local Australian rules football—aka Australian football or Aussie rules—coach Mark McGann noticed a group of players on their own at the oval field. "Why are they... pushed across the other side of the ground? And why [aren't] there more people being involved in helping these people out?" asked McGann, who is better known as Cheezel in the community because of his red hair. Working together with team manager Suellen Betts—who is also the mother of one of the original Rockets—he quickly put into motion the launch of an all-abilities team.
"One great thing about Aussie rules football is that it can be played by virtually anyone... no matter what their size, weight, whatever," McGann explained. "When I saw this, I thought, 'Well, it's definitely applied to this as well.'" Today, the Rockets feature a wide spectrum of ages, ability and gender. "The biggest challenge, I think, is working out the right way to talk to the individual players," said coach Graeme Glanville, who has been training the team for about five years. Like many of those involved with the Rockets, the coach has a personal connection to the team: his son plays for the Rockets.
"I just love it. I love watching them get out there and get a smile and get near the football and enjoy themselves," Glanville said. "Some of 'em are full-on footballers that are brilliant at it... and others, they're not an athlete really at all. We try to accommodate everyone. It's all-ability. So, even if we gotta carry you around out there, we'll figure out a way to get you a kick." During games, the focus is more on what the experience is like for players than the score. Every three or four weeks, the Rockets take part in a series of games scheduled by the Victorian Football Integration Development Association—a competition for players with an intellectual disability. For team members and their families, these games offer an experience that most Australians take for granted.
"They can have a typical day of footy, just like everybody else," Betts explained. "Mum and dad can go to the footy, watch their child play, just like a regular family. So, that's all you want in life, really. Some of these parents have never thought their child would play footy [or] would have a day of traveling around the countryside supporting them." Wilson's parents agree, revealing that they've witnessed their son blossom during his time with the Rockets. "He's really out of his shell now. It's great," Gary Wilson said, while Elaine Wilson added: "It gets us out of the house. And we love supporting, not just Tyler, but all of them. They're a great bunch of guys and girls."
Many of the Rockets players are part of supported work crews run by disability service provider Vivid. Scott Alexander, the chief executive of the nonprofit, shared that he has witnessed the team make a significant impact on its players over the years. "If I was to pinpoint one thing, it's that growth in self-belief, confidence and social interaction. It's very healthy," Alexander said. Although it's a major commitment for everyone involved with the team—from organizing and running training, fundraising and planning the team's travel to games—they say they wouldn't trade it for anything. "It brings great joy, not just to these guys and girls wanting to play a game of football, but to everyone that's involved," McGann said. "The satisfaction of watching these smiles on these faces, not just on the players, but even on the parents and the carers on the sidelines... it's a great, great thing to be involved in."