What's it like to be an Indigenous AFL or AFLW player in 2021?

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Ahead of Sir Doug Nicholls Round, ESPN spoke to four Indigenous footballers from the AFL and AFLW -- Ben Long, Bobby Hill, Kitara Whap-Farrar and Cam Ellis-Yolmen -- to learn more about what it means to be an Indigenous player in 2021. We discussed things like who inspired their journey, how they felt about the tragic death of George Floyd, racism, advice for aspiring Indigenous kids, and their greatest hurdles that helped mould them into the players we see today.


How did your Indigenous roots influence your football path?

Ben Long: Where I'm from in the Northern Territory, my pop is from Ti Tree, which is 193 kilometres north of Alice Springs. And my nanna is from Daly River. Growing up as a kid my family was quite into footy. All I've known is footy growing up starting at grassroots. I had cousins and an uncle who played the game. I looked up to them and they paved the way for me and I just fell in love with it.

Bobby Hill: I grew up with all my cousins. My family is pretty big. On my dad's side he's got seven siblings and my mum has got five. My first cousin is Sydney Stack from Richmond. Football was very competitive in my family. We used to play the game King of the Pack where you kick the ball up and go at it. It was very competitive. Since I was four or five I went through Auskick, then skipped it for three or four years so I could play with my cousins instead.

Kitara Whap-Farrar: I'm a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. I'm very big on my culture. I grew up with my Torres Strait Islander family in Cairns. My heritage and my culture plays a big part for me. My story is a little bit different but similar to some of the other AFLW players. I came from track. I was a sprinter for the first part of my life. Up until the age of 11 I was solely focusing on 100m and 200m. My dreams were to be the next Cathy Freeman, the next Indigenous Australian to make it to the Olympics. Dad suggested playing a team sport like football to balance out the sprinting. It was becoming too much for me. Mum was hesitant because I'd never played a contact sport in my life. She was very scared for me. But I tried it out and played with the boys. I loved it.

Cam Ellis-Yolmen: My older brother and I are really close. He's been one of my biggest influences on how I played. He's 18 months older than me. I pretty much followed him through all the grades and learned from him and competed against him at everything. He gave me that competitive edge. And my mum, being a good netball player when she was younger, gave me good genes in my sporting abilities. The Indigenous side of my family is all from Ceduna, South Australia. I have strong family roots in football. I was really lucky. Port Adelaide was my favourite team and they had so many idigenous players - the Burgoyne brothers, Byron Pickett and Gavin Wanganeen. It was unreal to watch them play on weekends.

Who inspired your AFL journey the most?

Long: I looked up to my older cousin Cyril Rioli and my uncle Michael. He was obviously older. I didn't get to watch him play. I definitely looked up to my cousin Cyril who's seven years older. I wore his jumper around. Got it signed. And never took it off.

Hill: I'd have to say my dad when I was growing up. He played footy as well. At a very young age he was the one who was buying me footy boots, in the backyard kicking the footy hard at me with mum looking through the kitchen window telling him to stop. He was the one that pushed me to the limits. He worked his backside off so I got to have opportunities to play state football. Obviously mum and the rest of the family helped to take me to those places. My dad is my idol. He's the one that inspired me to be the man I am today.

Whap-Farrar: The two big ones for me are my mum and dad. They both were athletes in their prime. Both never had the opportunities that I do now and my siblings do now. The way they've held themselves to raise an amazing family and the way they supported me from my track and field transition into AFL, and the way they're supporting me now living away from home, they're resilient. They keep reminding me that when anything knocks me back, I just keep driving forward. They inspire me everyday to keep reaching the highest level that I possibly can.

Ellis-Yolmen: Andrew McLeod was one of my idols I watched. He looked majestic when he ran with the ball. He was an unreal footballer on the field but then he was a great person off the field. It wasn't until later he had a role in getting me drafted. Playing football with my cousins also inspired me. Guys like Byron Sumner, Tim Sumner and Jared Petrenko - those boys were a bit older than me and were my inspiration And of course my older brother.

Football is full of highs and lows. What's been your greatest challenge that you've overcome?

Long: I moved down to Victoria on an indigenous scholarship at 16 and got the opportunity to go to Melbourne Grammar and stayed at a boarding house. Moving down was a challenge. It's different from Darwin. I moved away from pretty much my whole family. The three years I spent at school was one of the biggest hurdles. But I think that has held me in good stead. I think being away from home and family helped me along the way with things like getting drafted, playing football. I think in terms of football, with five years being in the system, I am still at times finding my way. During footy there are highs and lows and there's still things I'm working on in that space.

Hill: When I was younger, I didn't make a couple of Indigenous footy teams. That was a hard time when I didn't get picked for that. I just proved them wrong and ended up making the state teams and went on from there. Being in the Indigenous footy teams would have been good, being surrounded by other Indigenous players, but that didn't really matter I guess.

Whap-Farrar: Being away from family has been a big one for me. I grew up with my family all around me. I'm still young (20 years-old). I'm a big family person. Moving away from home at 17 to pursue my dreams, it's obviously something I wanted to do and I would never look back and change it, but that has been my biggest challenge. To be away from home and still play hard football because everytime I have played football, I've had family with me. Especially with dad. At halftime, quarter time we had a ritual where he'd give me little pointers. I'd hear my family on the sidelines cheering for me and I think, just the change to adapt to that is still a big challenge. That will always be a struggle for me, that separation from my family.

Ellis-Yolmen: I was unfortunate when I was 16 to have a knee reconstruction. I just remember the doctor saying you're probably done with your footy career. I got in the car with my nan and cried on the way home. I thought footy was over. I was lucky I could do my rehab with the Eagles. And then the next year they invited my back to try out of the Under 18 development team. I was able to progress to playing and eventually getting drafted. That was a big hurdle I had to overcome. I think 2017, when I did my other knee, was probably one of the worst years of my life. Watching on the sidelines your team go to a Grand Final was pretty tough. That year I came out and played the first game and did my knee in the first 10 minutes. I struggled mentally off the field. It was the last year of my contract too. But I was able to turn that around.

It's been a year since the tragic death of George Floyd. His murder evoked a strong reaction in Australia. How did that impact you and how did you react to it all?

Long: I saw quite a bit of it on social media. It was hard to watch and think about. There's a lot of things happening in Australia in terms of that space - deaths in custody. Even in terms of just racism. I think we just have to keep trying to change. No-one is born bad or born racist. A lot of it is just education.

Hill: Knowing that it is still happening in the world, I was a bit angry. It's not only the people over in America it happens to our people here as well. Nobody deserves to go through that. It just gets you frustrated. No-one deserves to be treated like that even if you're black or white. Knowing too, in America it still happens and happening for years and happens here to our Aboriginal people. It's just sad we had to grow up in this way and see it.

Whap-Farrar: When I saw the video and everything on the socials I cried. The fact that it is still that severe, we're still dealing with racism, we're still dealing with discrimination, and it's just crazy. Not just for the Indigenous Australians, but for every other culture and religion in this country. It's still upsetting, because we're still dealing with that and a family has to go through it. George went through that. One day hopefully, we can all just come together.

Ellis-Yolmen: It shows that just when you think things are going well, that happens and then you realize it shines more light on what is really going on in the world, in America, in Australia. When it actually gets put on the news and magnified then you realize that stuff is still going on like all the deaths in custody. It's a massive problem. The George Floyd tragedy happened in America but there's still so many things that's wrong, that's happening in Australia and they need to be addressed. And they need to change if we do want to get better as a country.

Racism is still a problem in Australia and because of that, racism seeps into the AFL and football community. How do we change that?

Long: The biggest thing is curriculum. The education part of knowing about the history of Australia and first nations. It's about where you come from and what you learn as a kid. A lot of older people still don't know much about the history of Australia or first nations people and can still be educated which could, I think, potentially make a change in everyday life and how you see people.

Hill: I guess it's just teaching everyone about aborginal culture. It's not black versus white. Racism is racism. It's' getting everyone on the same page. You learn aborignial culture and see where we're coming from and what it is, then everything will be a lot easier. It's 2021 and you want to put that (racism) aside and just live life without having racism in the world.

Whap-Farrar: There's always a few that unfortunately will never change. We just have to accept that. It's sad for the game because we have Indigenous Australians who are very talented and sometimes racism stops from wanting to get that far. Education is probably what will help in schools. Not only the Aboriginals but Torres Strait Islander history as well would be beneficial for those that aren't educated in Indigenous cultures.

Ellis-Yolmen: It needs to start with schools. I think the truth needs to be told and uncovered about the stolen generation. It doesn't matter how confronting the truth is, it just needs to be told. It's part of Australia's history. If we want to move forward together then these things need to be told so that the next generation coming forward knows what really happened. You can say sorry and stuff like that but if you're not willing to make a change and learn the reality of what really happened it's not really going to change anything.

Since playing AFL/AFLW, what have you learned about yourself?

Long: I've been injured a few times, so I'd say resilience. That's part of my highs and lows in footy, and missing a lot of footy. I've become a better person and bigger person in terms of sticking at the process and the goal to be out there playing at the top level for the Saints. I think just growing as a person and knowing footy isn't going to last forever.

Hill: Pushing my body to the limits. Eating right. Training well. Knowing you're a role model for Indigenous kids and non-Indigenous kids in the community. They look up to their idols. I remember when I looked up to Cyril Rioli and now back in my town I have young Indigenous kids looking up to me. It's a blessing to be in the AFL.

Whap-Farrar: I thought I could never ever be up there with the AFLW competition. I was very doubtful of myself. But after experiencing it first hand I know I can do it. And to anybody that does doubt themselves just give it a crack and see where it goes from there. I've definitely grown more resilient since I've experienced the AFLW environment.

Ellis-Yolmen: I've learned how much influence I have with Indigenous kids. I explain to the kids that finishing school is so important. You need simple skills like reading and writing as a footballer. Telling Indigenous kids that footy isn't everything and that they have to know that it is only the minority of people that make big careers and earn the big bucks. Learn to focus on aspects outside of footy and not just inside of footy.

What does playing football give you that nothing else does?

Long: When I'm at the club, especially out on the field, it's something that I love quite a lot. It's really my dream job. You're around people you love being around and play footy with that you see everyday and on weekends. When you're out there playing footy it brings a lot of joy to a lot of people.

Hill: Running out week to week and performing for the jersey you wear, the past players, coaches, famly, and the fans, and especially running out with the boys as well. You go through so much with them in pre-season. It brings me joy. It just sets your life up outside of footy as well. As a kid, I'd always be in the backyard. Running through the banner was my big thing. On the clothesline I'd have a big doona hanging up that we'd run through and then play footy against my cousins. You grow up as a young kid wanting to play AFL but to actually do it as a job and get paid for something you love doing, it's truly a blessing.

Whap-Farrar: It's definitely an honour to play at the highest level. Not everybody gets to that level because of injuries, pathways. Seeing Indigenous females playing AFLW, means it's possible for anybody.

Ellis-Yolmen: I get to represent my family. It was my dream to get drafted. I really loved it. Just seeing the smile and celebration on my family's face when I got drafted, seeing how proud they were that I showed resilience and got through injury to get drafted and then make it as an AFL player as I have has been unreal. It gives kids where I grew up and my younger cousins and brothers the knowledge that if they actually put their mind to it then they can follow my path whether that be goals and aspirations of being an AFL player or other occupations.

What's some advice you'd give to an aspiring Indigenous footballer who wants to play at the elite level?

Long: If you get an opportunity, take it with both hands because it doesn't last for long. When opportunities come up, work hard for it and enjoy your footy along the way.

Hill: Work hard and dedicate yourself. Eat right. Train well and hang around the right people. Listen to your parents. And If it happens.

Whap-Farrar: Don't rush it. There are AFLW players getting drafted at a later age. Build up your experience. Build up your skills. The last thing you want is to get here and think you have everything only to get knocked back and there goes your confidence. Take your time.

Ellis-Yolmen: Enjoy playing footy because you love playing the game. Practise your fundamentals (kicking, handballing and marking etc). Don't limit yourself to just one sport. Try other sports as well because skills from other sports can help you become a better footballer.

What continues to motivate you to stay on your AFL/AFLW journey?

Long: Obviously I had an uncle and cousin play the game and they're the best, but I wouldn't be compared to them. I'm not worried about the footy DNA, it doesn't make me think any different. My family have been the main ones that have helped me along the way in getting to where I am. I just want to make them proud.

Hill: My family motivates me, inspires me to get up out of bed and go work my butt off. As a young kid they always said you're going to make it. To have them on my back and get up everyday to do this as a job, yeah that motivates me.

Whap-Farrar: I have got a little sister who's moved down who wants to be playing at the highest level for netball. So I think of being a big sister as a role model, for her to see that I'm still here trying to get up to the top and that anything is possible. I've sacrificed a lot moving away. I gave up an apprenticeship in Cairns to pursue my football career. I've left two brothers and my mum and dad at home. Just before I moved away from home mum got sick which made it harder for me to go but now I'm motivated everyday to keep striving for the top and never letting my head drop.

Ellis-Yolmen: Setting my life up outside footy and being a role model for my family and other people.

Whether it be playing in front of fans, walking around the club rooms or being around teammates at training, how does it feel to be an AFL Indigenous player in 2021?

Long: It is special being an Indigenous player and being at the St.Kilda Football Club. A lot of things are changing. To be an Indigenous player, to go out and play, you're not just representing yourself and your family, you're representing all Indigenous people around Australia. That's quite special in itself. Because players have an impact in changing a lot of the issues that go on in Australia.

Hill: I love it. I love being a young Indigenous man in the AFL. To have me and Jeremy Finlayson pushing things along with the Indigenous stuff, there's still things we need to work on more but to run out in the AFL it's unbelievable. The Sir Doug Nicholls round is one round I can't wait to play and it means a lot. It's an honour.

Whap-Farrar: When I was in the AFLW environment I was extremely proud wearing an AFLW uniform. Just to be an Indigenous Australian playing AFL here in 2021 is an honour. It's not something that comes along everyday.

Ellis-Yolmen: I'm proud to be an AFL player and hopefully young Indigenous kids see me and my journey, get motivated and realise they can also make their AFL aspirations a reality.