‘We’re all like one big family’: When footy really is more than a game

When Netty Kuila plays football, she does it for the fitness, her mental health, and to hang out with mates.

But it’s also to show her kids that it’s important to have a crack at life.

Go team: Michael Harrison from the WynBay Bulldogs and Netty Kuila from the cohealth Kangaroos and young fans at Whitten Oval where the community cup will be played.Credit:Joe Armao

On Tuesday at Whitten Oval in Footscray, Ms Kuila will play for the cohealth Kangaroos in its annual community cup match against the WynBay Bulldogs.

And her daughters Tinjarni, 7, Yindi, 4, and Kalina, 2, will be cheering her on.

Ms Kuila, 29, a single mum, has suffered depression and anxiety and used to lock herself away. “I don’t want that for my kids,” she said.

“I want them to get out there, not to be ashamed, not be embarrassed. I want them to be happy playing sport and getting fit.”

She says that if she couldn’t play, “it would drive me crazy. It’s my outlet”.

“I’m the mum of the team. We’ve all got a special connection. We’re all like one big family.”

The “Kangas”, supported by community health service cohealth, and the Bulldogs, supported by Latitude youth support agency, are in not-for-profit organisation Reclink’s mixed metro football league for the disadvantaged.

“I want them to get out there, not to be ashamed, not be embarrassed. I want them to be happy playing sport and getting fit.”

Many players have endured homelessness, drug and alcohol issues and mental ill health.

Community cup organiser and the cohealth Kangas coach Beau Branch said when they join, many clients are “very vulnerable”, and might be living on the streets, and isolated.

Team support people are cohealth workers, and Mr Branch, who is also a cohealth homelessness outreach worker, said at training sessions they could help connect players with services such as housing support, doctors and counsellors. He said the team was an “engagement tool”.

“It’s also getting out and having a bit of fun,” Mr Branch said. “A lot of our clients say that on Wednesday, when we train and play, is their favourite day of the week. They get to play football and run around with their friends.”

Like Ms Kuila, who is a Yorta Yorta woman, several Kangas and Bulldogs players are Indigenous, and Ms Kuila is excited that this year’s cup is part of NAIDOC Week.

There will be a Welcome to Country address, a smoking ceremony, dancing and native foods lunch before kick-off at 1pm. (The game is not open to the public).

Ms Kuila says NAIDOC Week is about “healing country”.

“It helps us heal, helps us grow as people,” she said. “It’s being around community, it’s a community based cup. It’s recognising our people, too.”

Michael Harrison, 36, a Yorta Yorta man and a single father of a 10-year-old son, has been with the WynBay team for 11 years and said it changed his life.

“It’s improved my mental health. It’s got me to be more open, more talkative,” he said.

“I was never able to talk in front of people before. Now I can talk in front of the team, although I still stutter a few words here and there.”

He said the team’s training oval at Werribee felt like a second home. “I feel welcome. If I have a bad day or bad week, I go there, get my mind off things. It’s just relaxing and enjoyable.”

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