Former Melbourne and West Coast player Jamie Bennell understands more than most the challenges facing the AFL and AFLW Indigenous playing groups.
Bennell, who played 87 games across his seven-season career with Melbourne and West Coast, moved from Bunbury (a port city south of Perth, WA) to Victoria to pursue his football dream as an 18-year-old.
Although the journey from west to east presented challenges for Bennell, it is an experience which he believes has landed him where he is today.
“I wasn’t the most well-known player but I got a lot out of my time in the system and it’s given me everything,” he told aflplayers.com.au shortly after starting his new role as the AFLPA’s Indigenous Relationships Manager.
After beginning the role in August, Bennell’s position will involve establishing strong connections and relationships with the AFLPA’s Indigenous members to help equip them with the right tools to navigate their way through their time in the professional football system and set them up for life after football.
He joins the AFLPA with a wealth of knowledge, having worked in the Indigenous relationships space with organisations such as the Wirrpanda Foundation, AFL SportsReady and Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne.
Bennell’s passion for player development began during his time at the Demons when he was out-of-contract and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in 2012.
“I was facing a bit of the unknown and dealing with (the injury) and not having a plan after footy triggered something and sparked an interest in me,” he said.
Bennell was delisted at the end of the 2012 season, but was given a lifeline from West Coast in the Rookie Draft ahead of 2013.
He joined the Eagles with a renewed sense of what was important as an AFL player – most notably planning for life after football.
Growing up a proud Indigenous man from Noongar country (south-west corner of Western Australia) and Yamatji country (Mid West region of Western Australia), Bennell was always interested in giving back to Australia’s Indigenous communities but didn’t know where to begin.
Through West Coast’s association with the Wirrpanda Foundation, Bennell began working with long-term unemployed Indigenous people, upskilling them to be better placed to find sustainable work.
After being delisted at the conclusion of the 2016 season, Bennell made the decision to retire and continue his work with the Wirrpanda Foundation until he decided on his next steps.
With his professional playing days behind him, Bennell still had a desire to work with footballers in developing them as people and athletes.
“With what I went through during my career and what I was able to learn, I wanted to help the young players and steer them in the right path,” he said.
“I came out of the system alright and ready for life after footy but there are a lot of players out there who don’t have it the same way.”
In addition to nurturing relationships, Bennell will be responsible for supporting the Indigenous playing group in upskilling themselves and developing a plan for their transition out of the game.
Indigenous players are four times more likely than non-indigenous players to access hardship support when their careers are finished and Bennell is passionate about working to reduce that figure.
“Football is about making the most of your opportunities and setting yourself up for life after… it’s about taking the chances presented to you,” Bennell said.
“You learn a lot of things being a footballer, like time management skills, and they translate really well into the workforce so it’s about harnessing that.”
Despite the challenging move from Western Australia to Victoria, Bennell was supported by long-time friend and fellow Melbourne draftee Neville Jetta.
The pair grew up playing local football together in Bunbury and for the Swan Districts in the WAFL Colts before both being taken 21 picks apart by Melbourne in the 2008 National Draft.
Jetta, a member of the indigenous advisory board, said Bennell was well-suited to the role.
“Jamie has an understanding of how he can help the past, current and future players as he has been part of the discussions on issues we face as players at past Indigenous camps throughout his career,” Jetta said.
“Jamie is someone who I hope will be in the role for many years to come and I’m looking forward to seeing him build strong relationships with players, clubs and families through his role at the AFLPA.”
In their early years at Melbourne Bennell and Jetta lived together with a host family before moving in with Jetta’s family when they came to Melbourne.
“We did everything together and it made the transition so much easier,” Bennell said.
When Bennell reflects on his career, he is proud of what he was able to achieve and is grateful for the opportunities football presented him.
“Football has given me everything and when you’re in the system it’s about how you conduct yourself,” he said.
“Hold your head high, be respectful and treat people how you want to be treated… I think that’s why I am where I am today.”