Every player in the Bulldogs Under 20s programme is chasing the dream of one day reaching the top grade. They're lifting weights, they're watching what they eat, they're training hard. They're also ensuring they've got a focus outside of footy and for ten of our players, that means working as teacher aides in schools across South West Sydney.
They're participating in an education support programme first started 10 years ago that has involved the likes of Danny Williams, Dale Finucane, Josh Jackson, Moses Mbye, Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano.
One of our current 20s players, Jayden Okunbor is working in a school with just two male teachers. Nearly two metres tall, a head full of dreadlocks and a footballers physique he’s proving to be a very welcome presence at the school, providing particular assistance to students with special needs.
He's on deck from 8.30am-3.00pm three days a week and at the moment he’s working one on one with a student needing help to stay focused in class.
"I stay with him all day, I talk to him about things he’s interested in - he's right into video games, doesn't like sport at all but I’m working with him and trying to teach him to pass the ball," Okunbor said.
"I always thought I'd like to become a teacher and this has been a great way to test out if it’s what I’d really like to do. I'm now convinced that this is a career I’d like to follow and I’ll be taking the steps to become a qualified teacher."
All players working as teachers aides have or are working towards completing certifications in education support and Bulldogs Career Coach Renee Robson says setting players up for a future beyond football is an important priority for the Club.
"The reality is that only a small number of players will make it to first grade. The career span for professional athletes is quite short so it's important that they plan for a life after football," Robson said.
"We assist our Bulldogs players to maximise and enjoy their careers as footballers while working towards a fulfilling career off the field as well. For many of our players, working as a teacher aide is a great stepping stone towards pursuing a future career working with young people, whether it be as a teacher, youth worker or game development officer."
Adam Keighran is another Holden Cup player keen to pursue a teaching career and is undertaking a pathways programme through Western Sydney University that will allow him to commence a Bachelor of Primary Education next year.
"I float between classes, helping teachers wherever they need it, especially helping out reading to kids and listening to them read to me," Keighran said.
At morning tea and lunchtime he's setting up skills and drills, encouraging interaction between different age groups. He’s also taking great satisfaction out of the progress being made by some of the students he’s working with.
"There's one student who needed a bit of guidance and I told him that I’d bring him in a Bulldogs training shirt if he was able to improve his grades. It worked and he’s continuing to improve."
Keighran says the experience is also making him a better footy player.
"We're always told about the importance of being 'coachable' and in my role as a teachers aide I’m trying to help kids be 'teachable', so it’s making me think a lot about that how to make that happen for the students and for myself."
Mark Diamond, Principal of Lansvale Public School, can’t speak highly enough of the contribution Bulldogs players have made to his school over the years.
"We've had a long association with the club and I’m a huge fan because it's so mutually beneficial.
"We're a low socio-economic school, with a large proportion of Vietnamese and Chinese students. Many parents want their children to grow up and be doctors, lawyers and other professionals. We're working to show them that the best way of achieving that is by broadening their childrens' exposure to a whole range of different programmes like chess, public speaking and sport and Bulldogs player involvement is such a big help in that regard. In return, the players are getting some beneficial contact with the community and establishing a moral purpose in their work.
James Clark and Reed Mahoney, Bulldogs SG Ball player, are currently working in the pre-school attached to Lansvale Public.
"At that age our students are at their freshest, most curious and most vulnerable. I think it gets the players out of their comfort zone because they can't rely on their football kudos to connect with the students but they get in there and are committed to helping the students.
"They're helping out with the worm farms, setting up craft activities and also getting to use their passions helping students out with their gross motor skills. They're also having contact with a lot of families who aren’t Rugby League savvy and now those families are increasingly aware of what Rugby League is all about."
Diamond has a favourite story about a four year old pre-schooler with exceptionally good gross motor skills who kept insisting James Clark kick bombs to him.
"He'd sidle up to James every time he wanted to play and it was ridiculous to watch this tiny kid taking bombs from a professional footballer!"
Players also go above and beyond their required duties, turning up to special days at the school – sports days, school discos, swimming carnivals and getting involved in staff social activities.
Diamond also says the players probably aren’t even aware the impact they’re having in promoting messages of acceptance and tolerance.
"We had a teacher doing a unit on Aboriginal Australians and trying to explain the notion of terra nullius and profiling aboriginal histories. One kid put up their hand to say they didn’t think aboriginals existed anymore. James was sitting up the back and had his hand up while the discussion was taking place. He then gave the kids a real oral history and told them how you don’t have to represent in a generalised fashion. He talked about his family, his mother being from PNG and also having indigenous heritage. The kids were hanging off every word, he was a passionate advocate for his people."
The players' willingness to involve themselves in a school like Lansvale is also telling and is a living breathing example of the Bulldogs objective to create social cohesion across the community.
"Some people won't come to Cabramatta, they're concerned about perceived problems as a result of our low socio-economic status. But what we lack in financial resources we make up for in other ways and the involvement of Bulldogs players is an example of that. We’ve had such a great experience with a variety of players. We’ve had teachers wanting to meet the parents of players and shake their hands for creating such good humans," Diamond said.
This article first appeared on bulldogs.com.au