The Mordialloc Braeside Under 9s are running around on Walter Galt Reserve on a mild Tuesday winter evening.
Each player is getting as much of the football as they can, with the coach telling them they need to try and get 120 touches for the hour-long session.
This is the routine for thousands of kids across the South Metro Junior Football League (SMJFL) every week. Training on weeknights, playing on Sundays. For many, it happens somewhat effortlessly and with little thought about the energy that parents, coaches and clubs put in to make it possible.
But not every child in this Mustangs Under 9s team has had an easy journey to the football field.
Louis Shepard was born with Usher Syndrome. A condition which is characterized by partial or total hearing loss and vision loss which worsens over time. In Louis’ case, he was born deaf and his vision is slowly deteriorating. Already his peripheral and night vision is poor.
“Particularly starting out in the sport it was really difficult for him in noisy environments, so when we first brought him down to Auskick he really struggled and didn’t enjoy it at all,” his father David explains.
Louis also struggles with vestibular function, meaning that his balance isn’t good. All these elements added together, along with wearing cochlear implants so he can hear, can make footy a real challenge. Especially for a nine-year-old who just wants to run around and have fun with his mates.
Louis’ first experience with Auskick nearly made him give the game away. But there was another pathway. He was invited to the Parkdale Access for All Abilities Auskick (AAA) Program, which works with kids who need that extra help to get started in football.
“That program was fantastic. Small group, six or seven kids who had disabilities and they were able to do it at the same time as mainstream Auskick but just separate them out so they could avoid all the noise and chaos of 50 kids trying to get the ball at once,” David said.
After three years in the program, Louis was ready to take the step up to Under 9s at Mordialloc Braeside, an SMJFL club which David says has been amazing in making small modifications to ensure Louis feels totally included.
“We were a bit hesitant again, but they’ve just been so supportive. The club understands the condition that he’s got and are happy to make small little accommodations to fit him in.
“He’ll stand at the front of the group when the coaches are speaking so he can hear, they run the runner out to him on match day rather than yell out the messages from the sideline. Just little adjustments so he hears what he needs to hear and can get all the benefits of playing this great team sport.”
In Round 7 of this season, the Under 9 Mustangs travelled to Hurlingham Park to take on East Brighton Vampires. That was the day something no one initially thought was possible happened. Louis kicked his first goal as a Mordialloc Braeside player.
It was a special moment, not just for the goal itself and the years of hard work it represented, but for who was there to witness it. Louis’ parents, his grandparents, who were watching him play for the very first time, and his former AAA coach were all on the sidelines as Louis did what no one initially thought was possible.
“It was unreal. His AAA coach was there because his son happened to be playing on the oval next door and he’d just wandered over at the right time,” David said.
“Watching the ball come down, seeing Louis in the goal square, it just landed in his arms and he turned around and kicked the goal. Everyone was up and there were a few tears in the eyes.
“It was just a pretty special occasion for a kid who’s always wanted to play the game and knows how important a goal is for his team.”
A long-time football fan, Louis was converted to supporting Richmond by his uncle just prior to the Tigers’ drought-breaking premiership in 2017, much to the disapproval of Essendon-supporting dad. It’s a splintered household in terms of AFL allegiances, with mum Emily supporting Hawthorn.
Dustin Martin is Louis’ favourite player, like many kids his age whose imaginations have been captured by the Tigers superstar.
“It was pretty amazing to kick my first goal for the club,” Louis says.
“It’s fun to play and I like making new friends.”
Here’s hoping there are many more goals and friends to come.