In an industry as fleeting as the AFL can be, players transitioning out of the game can often feel lost when their careers come to an end.
For former West Coast defender Mitch Brown the sense of trepidation surrounding his retirement from the AFL was, at times, overwhelming.
After 10 seasons and 94 games for the Eagles, Brown was delisted at the conclusion of the 2016 season, before making the decision to retire and move back to his home state of Victoria.
“I struggled massively not having the structure of the AFL around me anymore,” Brown told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“It was as if that drive or purpose for getting up in the morning had gone.”
From the age of 17, football and life in Perth was all Brown knew.
After being taken with pick No.16 in the 2006 national draft, Brown packed his bags and moved across Australia from his hometown of Ballarat (a city in Victoria’s Central Highlands) to the much-larger Perth, where he knew absolutely no one.
Brown’s twin brother, Nathan, was taken with pick No.10 in that same draft by Collingwood and for the first time in their young lives, the brothers would be living on opposite sides of the country, facing challenges they’d never experienced before on their own.
“I wasn’t the kind of person to get out of my comfort zone,” Brown said.
“Perth was a foreign country for me… I’d never even been on a plane before!”
Within a matter of days, Brown had left Ballarat and was settling in to his new life at a club that was coming off the ultimate success of winning the 2006 premiership.
Led by the likes of Sam Butler and the Eagles’ senior figures, the club underwent a significant off-field cultural shift, developing a player-driven tour to Cambodia where the players would volunteer in underprivileged communities.
It was an experience that Brown said changed the course of his life and his passion for a career outside of football.
Spending significant periods of his career injured, managing a maximum of 19 games in any one season, Brown understood the importance of having a contingency plan post-football.
“Sam was the type of player who would really hammer home the idea of our role as AFL players in the community being far more important than the role we play weekly on the field,” he said.
“You can have a far great impact in the community by being that positive role model.”
When Brown’s AFL career came to an end, despite having feelings of anxiousness around the next phase of his life, he had a clear direction of where he wanted to work and what he wanted to achieve – providing transformative experiences to younger generations.
He wanted to replicate the experiences he had in Cambodia and bring them to schools around Australia so that the next generations would also be able to experience life-changing moments.
“I wanted to develop a role where I could be a positive mentor for young students and it was a coincidence that I met someone who supported my grand idea.”
That person was Dan Donati, the current General Manager at Antipodeans.
Donati played one senior game for Richmond in 1997 and understood the highs and lows associated with the AFL.
“Dan has been an incredible mentor for me and a huge influence in terms of helping me get to the next phase of my life,” Brown said.
That phase, which took a couple of years following his retirement, is working with Antipodeans as a mentor and leader.
“Now I’m in this space where I’m incredibly passionate about what I’m doing and can also be a positive role model for the students I work with,” he said.
Antipodeans, which is currently led by CEO Lachlan Bunn, offers high school expeditions and university placements to empower students through “embracing a world beyond their own borders”.
Bunn is passionate about cultivating life skills in students, having worked previously with high schools and students over the past two decades and through his role with World Challenge.
The passion stemming from Antipodean’s employees, and Brown’s ability to relate the work he does at Antipodeans back to his experience in the AFL, is what connected him to closely to the organisation.
“What I learnt through those experiences helped to shape who and what I became today,” Brown explained.
“The transition from school to graduating and AFL to your post-football career can be very similar and present a lot of trepidation for people who are unsure of their future.
“I always say it is OK to not know what you want to do but it’s important to be proactive and getting out and experiencing your life will help you find your passion.”
In his role at Antipodeans, Brown oversees student-led tours to a variety of countries around the world, including Cambodia, Tanzania and India.
During these trips, the students leave behind their phones and immerse themselves in the culture of the country they’re visiting.
As challenging as the experiences can be, Brown believes the skills acquired on these trips are well beyond those they can learn in the classroom.
Mitch Brown said he has found his purpose again since starting work with Antipodeans Abroad. Photo: Supplied
As a company, Antipodeans’ ethos is focussed on leadership, mindfulness and resilience and there are few players more resilient than former Essendon footballer Will Hams.
After spending four years on Essendon’s senior list and managing 13 senior games, Hams was delisted at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
Growing up in Gippsland (a region in Victoria’s southeast), Hams had dreamed of playing AFL and being drafted to one of the competition’s ‘big four’ clubs in Essendon was a dream come true.
After making his debut in his first season and enjoying what life had to offer in the AFL, Hams faced both personal and professional challenges.
“I hurt my hip in my second year and missed the whole season, which then led to everything snowballing after that,” he told AFLPlayers.com.au.
However, wanting to play football but physically being unable to presented numerous challenges for Hams but he focussed on other avenues outside of the game to take his mind away from the stress he was facing at work and in his home life after the passing of his father.
“It’s not that I felt my career was going to end – I really wanted that 10-year career – but I looked at other aspects outside of football because it became mentally draining not being able to play,” he said.
Those other avenues led to him completing tertiary education courses through the AFL Players’ Association’s Education and Training grants and eventually landing a graduate position with construction company Hacer Group in Melbourne.
Despite not wanting his career to end and working tirelessly to find form and give himself the best chance of a successful AFL career, Hams said the trajectory of how his career ended allowed him to build resilience and use those life skills to determine what would come after.
Through his own life experiences and after being an ambassador for Movember, Hams always felt he would find himself working in the mental health or social work space.
It took Hams five months of backpacking around Central America and a year of working with the Hacer Group to find his passion and niche in life.
Similar to Brown, he found himself at Antipodeans through a mutual acquaintance and instantly felt a connection to the organisation.
Shortly before travelling overseas with his partner, Grace, Hams was introduced to Donati.
After their meeting, it became clear to Hams that Antipodeans was an organisation that focused on improving the lives of young people during a crucial stage of their development.
“There are so many opportunities out there and Antipodeans is one that I think relates to aspects of what you do and deal with as a footballer,” he said.
“For the first time since Essendon, I feel super happy with what I’m doing.”
Brown is full of praise for Hams since starting his role with the organisation in May.
With Antipodeans aiming to create positive models for students with the employees they hire, and often the AFL attracting similar people, Brown is thankful that Hams joined the Antipodeans team.
“Will has been really awesome for us since starting… we love attracting guys like him,” he said.
Will Hams has been working with rural communities in Cambodia as part of his role with Antipodeans. Photo: Supplied
Both Brown and Hams don’t put limits on what they want to achieve with Antipodeans but feel proud to have been given an opportunity post-football that gives them a platform to inspire others similar to when they were playing.
An experience early in his career sticks out in Brown’s mind for keeping him grounded and inspired in the work he does.
After a regular hospital visit as part of their work in the local Perth community, Butler told his teammates those visits were the ‘greatest gift’ that football could provide.
“As footballers we could do something that took only a small amount of time out of our schedules but would have a lasting impact on the person that we were engaging with,” Brown said.
“As my career was coming to an end that was something that I feared most… not being able to impact people’s lives because I didn’t have that ‘Superman’ cape or football guernsey on.”
Nearly three years out of the game and having moved forward with his life and career, Brown says he has come to the realisation that there are ways outside of football where he can have that lasting impact.
Hams, who turned 25 on Saturday, feels lucky to have learnt that same message early in his life.
“There are so many negative stories out there but there is also so much good,” he said.
“I’m happy to get up every day in the morning and provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences… it’s the best job in the world for me.”
With both Brown and Hams travelling the globe – Hams is currently on a tour in Cambodia – they’ve found their calling.
“I want people to leave the game having loved the game, which is what I did,” Brown said.
“But, I want them to know that there is more to life once you leave the confines of the AFL system.”
You can learn more about Antipodeans here.