Indigenous representation in the VFL/AFL has come a long way since Joe Johnson became the first Aboriginal player, pulling on the boots for Fitzroy in 1904. There are currently 79 Indigenous men playing in the AFL, making up 9% of the total number of listed players.
In 2006, the AFL established the Flying Boomerangs program, a development program targeted at Indigenous men aged 14- 16 years. The program focuses on furthering their pathways in to the AFL and the growth of individual and cultural identity. As part of the initiative, the squad has toured overseas to emerging AFL countries.
In 2013, they travelled to South Africa where tour highlights included the Apartheid Museum, a tour of Soweto, Mandela House, Cradle of Humankind (World Heritage Site), Sun City and the FootyWild Clinic.
“It’s often talked about how this international tour is life changing for these young men,” says Indigenous Leadership Coach Mark Yettica-Paulson.
For the majority of the boys, the tour is a once in a lifetime opportunity. With many of them never having ventured out of their own state, the trip is a big leap in to the unknown.
“There’s a bit of excitement around but also a little bit of anticipation as well. None of them have travelled overseas before so for these boys it’s going to be one of the best experiences they’ve had.”
As with all elite sporting teams, the boys are selected on the basis of their talent and personal character. They come from all around Australia and as they often live in remote communities, the squad requires a high level of commitment from both the boys and their families.
“My clan is the Cuckoo clan from the Torres Strait Islands. It’s definitely been tough for my mum taking us to all the training. Just to see how much effort she’s put it, we want to make her proud for all the work she’s done, we want to make sure we put that effort in as well,” says 2012-2013 squad member Ben Davis.
Like many in the AFL, Davis follows in his brother’s footsteps, who has previously participated in the Flying Boomerangs squad.
“He came back he talked about how much confidence he had gotten from it and also how he learnt so much about his culture that he didn’t know before and how he learnt more importantly about other cultures.”
“Being selected and having my name read out – that’s definitely one of the best moments I’ve had so far in my AFL career,” Davis grins.
This year the journey to South Africa was a two week long adventure, with the squad touring some of the country’s poorest townships while also learning just how explosive the power of AFL can really be.
“One of the things this program is designed to do is bring these kids outside of their comfort zone,” Indigenous Cultural Programs Mentor Aaron Clark explains.
“Each individual that has come on this trip has come from around Australia and what has impressed them the most is that we’ve actually got a shared history with South Africa. What you find is coming and sharing that culture, you actually see the pride and the boys grow – you seem them stand a couple of feet taller.”
“We went to a lot of poverty stricken areas and saw a lot of tin sheds with rocks and tyres on their roof just to keep them down. It really opened my eyes to see how they live with what I’ve got at home. It really opened my eyes. People really need to see it because I think people take it for granted what they’ve got,” reflects participant Jayden Gerrand.
While the tour has a strong focus on a journey of self-discovery, the boys also act as ambassadors for the AFL. As part of this role, the squad played two games against the South African Lions, one in Johannesburg and the second in Durban.
As one would expect, the Boomerangs comfortably won both games, with both teams earning a mutual respect from each other.
“We’ve learnt a lot from those guys and I hope they enjoyed playing with us,” Lions captain Akholiwe Figala said after the game.
“They came out pretty good, pretty hard. They played pretty good I’d say, they’re still learning which is good and they can learn from us,” Boomerang player Geoff Taylor said.
While like any game, the goal for the Boomerang players was to get a win, the Boomerangs’ staff also acknowledge the underlying importance of partaking in such a match.
“It’s more about what we can get out of the game and what we can teach these young boys going forward. We want to teach them to be elite athletes and try to get them to the next level, which is obviously playing AFL footy one day,” says…
The efforts of the AFL and the South African communities have not been in vain, with a substantial growth in the number of South African’s playing in the past few years.
South African Lions Coach Wayne Miller estimates that figure to be well over 20,000 kids playing footy in schools alone.
“I’m certainly seeing more senior players and certainly with the kids.”
Another one of the great traditions of the Flying Boomerangs program is the naming of the Michael Long medalist. This award undermines everything the program is about in terms of development and is presented to a player who has shown leadership on and off the field and has displayed qualities important to the program.
“I guess the Michael Long medal is unique because the players actually vote for it themselves and it’s a 3, 2, 1 vote. This year it went to Callum Ah Chee, a young kid from WA who comes from a great family and he’s just an exceptional young kid. He’s very talented but he is also well mannered, has great leadership qualities and I’m sure that he will go a long way in his future,” says Jason Mifsud, AFL Community Engagement Officer.
Although the South African children learnt a lot about AFL from the Boomerang squad, the Indigenous Australians undoubtedly returned home having learned just as much from them.
“They are really strong with their culture, not ashamed to sing their songs and share their dances and language. I think that’s what we need to be and learning from them teaches us that, that we can’t be ashamed and we need to open up and share our culture everyday with different people around Australia,” says Ah Chee.
“It was just amazing to see how little they have but how happy they are. At one point I thought they were going to start singing in the middle of the game, how they will sing anytime anywhere, how they just want people to know who they are and how proud they are of it,” Davis says.
The Flying Boomerangs program is an integral part of the AFL agenda. The number of Indigenous players being recruited to clubs is ever increasing and there is little doubt that it will continue to do so in the future. The AFL recognises this and will continue to provide young Indigenous men with opportunities that will help them to play at an elite level while at the same time fostering their pride of being Indigenous Australians.