It’s 5.30pm on a chilly Wednesday afternoon. At Central Reserve in Glen Waverley the scene looks pretty much like any suburban sports ground in the middle of a Melbourne winter.
Footballers are training, running through squad drills and yelling encouragement to each other as yellow leather footballs fly through the air.
Amongst the pack is OC Connections participant, Roger, aged 49 and one of the team’s oldest player: a moniker he proudly wears thanks to the retirement last year of a former team mate who was 82.
As forward pocket for the Mazenod Panthers, Roger is an AFL enthusiast; he loves the Hawthorn Football Club and even admits to a ‘man cave’ dedicated to all things gold and brown.
The Panthers are one of 17 clubs from around Melbourne and regional Victoria who compete in the Football Integration Development Association (FIDA). With more than 400 players, the association was established in 1990 to give people with an intellectual disability the opportunity to play football in a structured competition.
Keen to have a club based in Melbourne’s south east, in 2005 FIDA approached former OC Connections volunteer, Andrew Sharp, to set up a team. With five players from OC, Andrew also recruited others from nearby disability organisations. Today, there are two Panthers teams with a combined 50 players.
Now retired from his role as club president, Andrew recalls the greatest satisfaction he gained was seeing the difference playing football had on the players.
“It was fantastic to see how their confidence levels went up: suddenly there were boys who felt more confident doing things, like catching public transport. Best of all, it gave each a great sense of belonging.”
With training almost finished, team mates gather to give Roger a celebratory slap on the back for slotting a goal. He grins at the achievement and camaraderie. Belonging indeed.