New Tiger Blake Austin has helped a bunch of kids with no direction and no respect turn their lives around. Copyright: Supplied. Credit: Supplied Copyright: Supplied
It's not often you find yourself choking up at a local rugby league training session... I found myself in that unfamiliar, and slightly embarrassing, situation this week at Doonside in Western Sydney.
At the start of last year the Doonside Roos Under-17s team was described as "uncoachable". The kids had been through five coaches in as many years. No-one wanted to touch them. The area has struggled with a lingering bad reputation; a lot of the kids in the area abuse alcohol and drugs, and some have been in and out of jail.
Wests Tigers recruit Blake Austin played all his junior footy at Doonside. At the start of last year he decided he wanted to give back to the sport - and the club - that had given him so many opportunities. His little brother Mitch plays in the Under-17s side, so Blake stepped in and took over the reins.
The Roos went on to win the grand final - the team's first - which was a mammoth achievement and especially gratifying as some of the boys had played since Under-6s and never held up a trophy.
In one mighty season Blake single-handedly changed the team culture. He taught the boys that fighting in a game was weak - but that tackling hard and running powerfully was strong. He showed them respect - unfortunately these kids had not learned much about respect throughout their short lives. They regrettably identified that amongst their role models, respect was in pretty short supply. And along their journey Blake went from footy coach to mentor, friend, and in some cases, father figure.
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I spoke to every player in that team - some of the stories of hardship and personal tragedy that were told to me are almost too horrific to believe. These aren't bad boys - not even close - but for many of them the wrong path was the only one they had ever been exposed to, the only choice they knew... until now.
I asked them: Where would you be if you weren't here tonight? Their replies? Selling drugs on the streets, stealing, in jail - there was an inevitable consistency in their frank and honest responses.
"What has Blake taught you?" They replied: That they can be somebody, and just as importantly that they deserve to be somebody, that they are not scumbags, that if they work hard and do the right thing they can make something of their lives, too. One 16-year-old boy told me (away from his mates, of course!) that Blake is an angel who saved his life.
Blake says the whole experience has taught him discipline. He's an accomplished elite athlete with that intimidating schedule of personal, physical and community commitments that are required of all NRL players, and of course he wouldn't always feel like rocking up twice a week to train these boys. But he does, because he knows they need him - not to run drills, but to keep them on the right path on and off the field.
There are lots of cases where the on-field endeavours of our great game lead to off-field benefits, but few where the transition is as graphic and inspiring as with the Doonside Roos.
For all the negativity in sport - and the world in general - I wanted to celebrate a true feel-good story, something incredibly inspiring and positive. I hope you find this - and the feature on the Roos on Thursday's Footy Show - as moving as I did.