Second chances for AFL's Indigenous prodigal sons


Liam JurrahIn November 2013 two coincidental events in Darwin demonstrated the powerful role that AFL football can play in the lives of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. One was the announcement that former Melbourne Demons star Liam Jarrah (pictured) would wear the red and black strip of the Tiwi Bombers in the NTFL Wet season competition. The other, that Xavier Clarke had been appointed as coach of the NT Thunder AFL side.

Jurrah's fall from grace had been well documented. His rare football talent had not provided him effective protection from the sometimes overwhelming social challenges confronting young Indigenous men in the Territory. But now another chance had been offered. 

In Darwin, Aussie Rules is played in sometimes atrocious conditions. Even when tropical thunderstorms thrash tonnes of black rain onto the oval, crowds are drawn to watch the silky skills and flawless dexterity of so many Indigenous players. Pundits were sure that Jurrah's skills would add to the exhilaration of footy in the Top End.

What was exciting about the appointment of Clarke was that he is home-grown. He attended primary school in Darwin and graduated from O'Loughlin Catholic College before being drafted by St Kilda FC. Clarke started his football career at the famous St Mary's FC in Darwin and now brings his experience back home to pass on.

Some may think Aussie rules is like a trampoline catapulting young Indigenous footballers into a fairytale AFL life. Certainly there have been wonderful examples of success. But for every bounce and somersault there is a twist. Many a trick fails to come off and our gymnast ends up sprawled on the matting.

While Jurrah at Melbourne FC could leap and hang as he flew for one of his famous 'speckies', he found the stress of daily life a sterner opponent than a ferocious full back. The recent resignation from Hawthorn FC of young Indigenous player Dayle Garlett echoes the hypothesis that AFL success depends on more than talent.

Clarke's AFL career was less flamboyant than Jurrah's. Recruited as a high draft pick, he never reached the heights foreshadowed by his talent. Perhaps the most significant feature of his career was that he was able to return to senior football and play well after suffering a number of serious injuries.

And that's what footy's about — the courage to get back up after injury, getting the hard ball, backing back into the pack, punching from behind, playing defensively to stop the other bloke from getting a kick, playing where the coach wants you, being so fit that you have no time for anything but training, eating, sleeping and playing.

Australian football offers every player something that a cut throat sport like cricket denies them — a second chance. In the game played on the narrow strip, one snick off the first ball can end your innings in an instant. But in footy you can be beaten all day and then when the game is there to be won you can rise, mark, kick and goal and become a hero in seconds. You just have to keep working and believing.

These are the personal qualities that define a successful footballer, as well as a successful person. Some players have them before they start to play the game. Others have to develop them. And the game helps. Strong leadership is necessary. Coaching that develops resilience. Powerful support structures. The contest is central. Every player who conquers the challenges develops moral fibre.

Clarke has them and has been rewarded for it. He will pass them on. His story might inspire the likes of Marley Williams, the young player of Maori descent who recently stood down from Collingwood FC following his conviction on charges of grievous bodily harm. Williams may yet have a chance to live up to his potential.

As for Jurrah, sadly, in December, after three wonderful games with Tiwi, once again he ran afoul of the law. Many might say 'enough is enough'. I say if Jurrah has the courage to get back up; to ask permission to 'pull on the boots' for another go; to submit to the self-discipline and team discipline of AFL footy, then he deserves forgiveness and another chance. Hopefully he'll be a champion yet.

Mike Bowden headshotMike Bowden is a former player at the Richmond Football Club and member of the 1969 Premiership team. His sons Sean, Joel and Patrick and foster son Charlie Kellett also played for the Tigers. Mike coached in the Sunraysia League, the VFA and the Central Australian Football League and finished playing as a member of the Rovers FC B Grade Premiership side in Alice Springs at age 49 at the Club his son Sean coached.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Liam Jurrah, Marley Williams, Xavier Clarke, AFL



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Existing comments

Liam Jurrah's 'second chance' may have little to do with football. It could be that significant. I hope, and pray, so.
Pam | 16 April 2014

I'm a Tigers supporter and was present at both the 67 & 69 grand finals, so anything Mike writes or says has the gravitas of gospel truth and gospel values. I'm thinking when the coaching team at Richmond is divided up into specialist areas - defence, midfield, attack, followers - and game plans involve such things as the tactical use of the interchange bench, why isn't there a full-time life skills coach and mentoring program? I know from living overseas (admittedly in a non-English speaking environment) with teenage children how distressing home sickness can be for them and how bizarrely culture shock can affect their behaviour. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for indigenous young men when they come to Melbourne and on top of home sickness and culture shock have to face living in the glare that is the Melbourne media's coverage AFL, on and off the field.
Uncle Pat | 16 April 2014

Thankyou Mike for your insight into the rarefied world of the AFL youngster. I can't help but highlight the complexities that face indigenous young men that originate from remote communities. Often the only support from the community is being asked for a handout. I have seen this in about half a dozen cases. This is not meant to denigrate the members of the communities, but point out that things are much more complicated than being homesick and being on TV. Perhaps this is an area that can be considered for another discussion with regard education, employment and cross cultural integration.
Julian | 17 April 2014

I am a Dees supporter and loved watching Liam Jurrah play.He is one of the most exciting , and talented players I have ever seen.Come back Liam because you will be welcomed with open arms.
James | 17 April 2014

Poor Liam, A few additional charges that I won't elaborate on. Suffice to say they are complex issues revolving around community troubles. Unfortunatley, the prospects of a return to Footy look very slim.
Julian | 29 April 2014


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