Wheelchair coach turning lives around


Mazi Tipeo – Under 14 Coca-Cola Binatang and Sa’lle Dog with his coach Jonathon Ila.

By Murray Bird 

AFLPNG junior football in Lae, continues to thrive, and does so through no small effort from a band of very willing volunteers.

One of these volunteers has overcome great adversity to make his contribution to the sport he loves.

Sa’lle Dogs 18-year-old junior coach Jonathon Ila has been coaching in Lae for some years now. Jonathan suffers from Duchene Muscular Dystrophy. He has been unable to walk since 2002, and his wheelchair has been a very close and personal friend since then.

Jonathan’s grandfathers on both sides of his family are two of PNG’s greats of Australian Rules at club, provincial, and national levels, and are well known throughout the AFL fraternity in PNG.

Jonathon Ila also regularly visited AFL ovals in Lae and Port Moresby to watch his father and his uncles play, when he was a small boy. His interest in coaching commenced in 2005 when he witnessed many of his family play against each other in the National Championships at the Niall Reserve, Eriku in Lae.

At this time Jonathon was inspired to do something. After attending Niukick sessions for small boys and girls, and sitting on the sidelines of the Eriku Oval on the weekends Jonathan knew what he wanted to do to be a part of the sport; he took up coaching.

In 2008, after one of his afternoon strolls with friends from the streets of Lae, Jonathan approached his parents telling them of his aspiration to start coaching his own team.

Although a little surprised at the boy’s wish at the time both his parents agreed to register his team, and in 2009 Jonathan’s dream to coach became a reality when his club, the Sa’lle Dogs, registered in the under 12 & 13 divisions to play every Saturday at the Sir Ignatius Kilage Stadium and Eriku Oval in Lae.

The following year Jonathan’s club grew to U12, U13, 15 boys, and an U15 girls squad.

Since 2009 dozens of Sa’lle Dogs have represented the Momase region (Northern Thunder), and gone on to play for the Coca-Cola under 14 and under 16 Binatangs, and represented the South Pacific in Australian Championships.

Jonathon Ila has coached boys and girls who have very little experience, and limited knowledge of the fundamentals of kicking and hand passing.

In 2009 he won the “Rookie Coach of the Year” in Lae.

Many of his players have grown into responsible young citizens. The “wheelchair coach” has won the hearts of many through his coaching ability, giving young boys and girls the capacity to believe in themselves as natural Australian Rules footballers.

The 2013 Sa’lle Dogs will wear new jerseys designed by Jonathon, and sponsored by Kutubu Transport.

Jonathan always gives whole-heartedly to whatever he does, and is always looking to benefit others, and not expecting anything in return.

Strong family support from his mother Josephine, and father Ken, has been of great assistance to Johnathon’s coaching career. Friends and strangers have come from near and far to present him with equipment and support that he has always being thankful for.



  1. Jill Scanlon says

    this is a wonderful story and, if it’s okay with you, I’m going to share it with my colleagues. I work for Radio Australia (ABC International) and we do a lot of sports stories across the Pacific and particularly in PNG. This is yet another example of the great people up there and the great stories just waiting to be written about them.
    Congratulations on a beautiful piece.

  2. Wonderful stuff Muz. Thanks for sharing it. Most of us think our handicaps are in the flesh, but Jonathan shows us we are only limited by what we believe in our hearts.

  3. Peter Fuller says

    A heartwarming story, and it’s particularly gratifying to see Jill’s post with the prospect of Jonathon’s story getting a deserved wider airing. Well done Murray, the Almanac Admin (and community), Jill and Peter for your posts, and especially this indomitable young man, Jonathon

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