It wasn’t until Melbourne forward Alex Neal-Bullen was in high school that he realised he had a passion for working with people living with a disability.
Growing up, Neal-Bullen spent as much time as he could with his maternal grandmother, Cheryl Neal.
Neal was one of Australia’s first professional female jockeys to race against men, and the first to win a race in Melbourne.
A trailblazer in her field, Neal’s career was cut short in May 1980 after a serious race fall left her paralysed from the waist down and wheelchair bound.
As Neal-Bullen got older, he realised that the majority of Australians didn’t understand how to care for someone living with a disability or what that was like. For him, it had been the norm.
“I always assumed people knew someone living with a disability… as I got older I realised that wasn’t the case and so it became about an education piece for me,” he told aflplayers.com.au.
“For me, I see it as such an important role to support these people to be able to impact society and live a normal life without stigma.”
Inspired by his grandmother, Neal-Bullen began studying a Bachelor of Teaching, focusing on special education and disability studies before getting drafted to Melbourne with pick No. 40 in the 2014 National Draft.
Neal-Bullen is one of three players to receive a full scholarship from Torrens University as part of their partnership with the AFL Players’ Association.
Gold Coast Suns captain and AFLPA Board member Leah Kaslar and Adelaide ruck Reilly O’Brien join Neal-Bullen as the other two recipients for 2021.
Kaslar, who works as an environmental scientist, said the personal development opportunity presented by Torrens University was one that was too important to give up.
“I’ve committed a lot of time to my craft (football) – and I’ve worked for many years before it was a national competition and to be able to have a university invest in me, as an athlete and, as a person, to be able to better myself, is really huge,” Kaslar told aflplayers.com.au.
“The chance to learn from industry leaders and people that have worked in such a variety of industries is invaluable experience.”
Kaslar will be studying her Masters of Business Administration, alongside O’Brien, with the hope of forging a career when she retires that will have a positive and lasting impact on the community.
The 35-year-old is hoping to use her experience at community and AFLW-level football to provide greater pathways to help shape future athletes, as well as continuing her environmental science work with a focus on biodegradable materials, renewable energies and finding sustainable ways to provide clean water.
For O’Brien, his study journey, after completing year 12, varied from the experiences of Kaslar and Neal-Bullen.
After missing out on the 2013 draft and being accepted into an undergraduate medicine degree at Monash University, O’Brien made the tough decision to turn down the offer and instead study biomedicine at Melbourne University with the hope of still forging a career in the AFL.
A top-age year spent with the Calder Cannons and studying on the side resulted in O’Brien being selected by Adelaide with pick No. 9 in the 2014 Rookie Draft as a 19-year-old.
In his first couple of seasons at the Crows, O’Brien focused on settling into the AFL system and understanding the demands of life at the elite level.
After finding some consistency in his form and establishing himself in the club’s best-22, O’Brien returned his focus to completing his degree in the middle of 2020.
Although football is still at the forefront of his priorities, O’Brien remains passionate about a career in medicine beyond football.
Alongside his MBA, O’Brien will complete a Masters of Public Health at Torrens University – a course he felt applied to his current lifestyle and the world as we face the coronavirus pandemic.
“Health management and epidemiology is definitely a growing area of interest for me but, put simply, I still have a passion for medicine and hopefully will be able to fulfil that down the track,” he told aflplayers.com.au.
“Above all, I’m so thankful to the AFLPA and Torrens University for giving me such an incredible opportunity to study and be an ambassador for athletes to show them that there is an opportunity to further yourself outside of your professional career.”
Player and athlete development is a cornerstone of the AFLPA’s support provided to members, with a regional manager connected to each AFL and AFLW club and resources focussed on player development and wellbeing teams.
Neal-Bullen, who has played 80 games ahead of his seventh season in the AFL, said he has been honest with himself throughout his career that football wasn’t going to last forever.
“We’re in an industry where turnover is required each year and so you’ve always got to be prepared for when that time comes and what that experience might look like,” he said.
Exhausted in his first few years in the system from the day-to-day grind, Neal-Bullen said he spent most of his energy and focus on understanding what was required to be a professional athlete, but through maturity and experience he knows the importance of capitalising on personal development and growth opportunities.
“If you think about it’s (personal development) like two gas burners on a stove – one is footy and one is your PD – the footy flame is a bit higher, but the other burner is always on, simmering in the background,” Neal-Bullen explained.
“It can be hard to keep that balance but it does help.”