Jermaine’s story

by Tavis Perry

Last Friday was a really proud day for myself and the people of Galiwinku. Jermaine Wunungmurra, who had literally just celebrated his 18th birthday, had made the plunge and moved from one of the remotest communities in Australia, to Melbourne. Old Carey, who have been one of the shining lights in the Amateur competition and now compete in the A grade level, have done a tremendous job in laying the foundations to recruit him to their club. In what has realistically been about a 12 months process, mainly initiated through the passionate and professional work of ex-Hawthorn player Michael Cooke, Jermaine will undertake an electrical apprenticeship, live with a foster family and have the opportunity to develop his footballing skills in one of the premier competitions in Victoria.

To gauge the magnitude of the journey Jermaine’s undertaken; I’ll paint you a picture of what his life was like just 2 years ago.
Galiwinku is one of the ‘purest’ aboriginal communities in Australia, in that, given its isolation (550km east of Darwin and on an island), traditional customs, ceremonies and languages are adhered to. It is also a community where males have one of the shortest life expectancy’s in the world. Whereas the general population of Australian males can expect to live to almost 80, in Galiwinku it is a lot closer to 50. There is a cacophony of reasons for this, but one of these is undoubtedly diet-related. From firsthand experience of having lived in the community for almost 2 years, a large portion of the population wouldn’t know where their next meal is coming from. Although there is an abundance of information in and around the community on the benefits of healthy eating, the allure of convenient, sweet tasting sustenance such as soft drink and junk food is too great. Jermaine, of course, was no different to any other in this regard.

Although AFL mad, there had never been a structured junior competition in the community and only a limited number of auskick clinics would have ever been conducted at the school.

Enter the AFL NT program. The first day I arrived in town, a skinny, brash kid with very good English compared to the rest of his peers came up and said ‘I want to play AFL’. He had a massive smile on his face and spoke with the kind of authority that made me think ‘gee, this kid must have something special’. Once I’d found my bearings and started setting programs in place, I was a bit surprised to see that Jermaine was a middle of the road player – there were plenty with more pace, more skill and a better ability to find the ball. However, when I started the football academy – a joint initiative with the school to try and use AFL as a vehicle to encourage the senior school boys to attend school, Jermaine was the first one there. Before I started the program, Jermaine’s attendance at school was not unusual at 42%, or roughly twice a week. By the end of the initial introduction of the football academy, his school attendance had sky rocketed to 96%. There started being a noticeable difference in his attentiveness at school and while the program keeps progressing there is an undoubted awareness by the participants that a future in AFL is a real possibility. There’s also the realization that for this to eventuate, improvement at school is a must.

Jermaine’s love of the game was evident when the senior season started. At just 16 years old and with a light frame, Jermaine would be the first to turn up for the Kangaroos but would be lucky to get 5 minutes on the ground. With the introduction of the U17 competition, however, he relished the chance to be captain and would marshall the troops, insisting they attend team meetings and trainings. He was well and truly in his element and it gave him a leadership role and a real focus. Although he could be quite temperamental at times, Jermaine was an excellent captain, and although his team didn’t have the strongest players, they were the most structured, co-operative and efficient. They went on to have a barnstorming victory in the Grand Final and Jermaine had a break out game where he kicked 7 goals and was awarded the best on ground medal.

This seemed to ignite his self-belief and his performances in the senior competition also started to improve. By the end of the season he was the Kangaroos leading goal kicker in the seniors, which is a more significant effort considering he played on a wing. He was also named in the inaugural GFA Team of the Year.

Behind the scenes, and away from the field, the reasons behind the improvements in Jermaine’s game were becoming more evident. Similar to the testing done at AFL draft camp, I had done pre and post fitness testing of the boys. When I first arrived, Jermaine’s time over the 20m sprint was 3.3 seconds. His beep test score was a modest 5.5 and he could barely lift 30kg on the bench press. Although it took a while, the last time he was fitness tested his 20m sprint time was an electric 2.92 seconds, he ran 12.5 on a beep test and could do 10 reps of 50kg on the bench press; most AFL clubs would be reasonably happy (though admittedly not ecstatic) if a recruit could do that when drafted.

At the start of this season (we play in the wet season along with the NTFL and start in October), Jermaine had clearly improved out of sight and was in the top 3 players at the Kangaroos. Luckily, we were able to establish a partnership with the Palmerston FC, who nurtured Jermaine and 4 other Elcho Island boys for around 2 months. It gave all 5 a more realistic taste of life in the ‘big smoke’ and the basic training commitments required to play at that standard. They were also under the tutelage of ex-VFL star Russell Jeffrey, who himself has a history with Galiwinku and was a fantastic mentor. In fact, such was the faith he had in Jermaine, he ended up playing a couple of senior games for the club.

All these steps that Jermaine has taken has lead him to where he is now – playing at a very strong suburban club in Melbourne and at the same time enhancing his life skills and qualifications with an apprenticeship. In the scheme of things it’s an astronomical effort and in a way he’s a pioneer; a pioneer for the next wave of Elcho Island kids who now see him as a role model and for what can happen if you follow your dream and aspire to achieve.

I’ll follow his progress closely, but regardless of the outcome in my eyes he’s already well and truly a winner.

Comments

  1. Graeme Rule says:

    A great story and full marks to all involved in helping change “damaged” cultures. Here’s hoping Jermaine’s apprenticeship goes as well as his burgeoning football career. Do report regularly so we can all cheer, sigh or hold our breath. Well done Tavis!
    Graeme Rule

  2. Don’t you just love it.

  3. Is this the essence of footy?

  4. Djarindjin Jerker says:

    Great work, Tav. Inspiring stories like this can spark an enthusiasm for greater things amongst our kids in these communities. I read it to my class and hope that the hard working ethic of Jermaine can ignite some of our Kimberley boys to realise that with dedication, a dream and stoical resilience, they can achieve anything.

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