How wheelchair football is changing lives (and attitudes)

03 Jun 2022

It’s not how he imagined playing for Collingwood as a kid, but the club’s wheelchair captain Ben Jankovski is thrilled he is a part of the Victorian Wheelchair Football League.

Ben Jankovski remembers the moment his future career as a wheelchair football star was set.

It was 2019, and he was at the Collingwood Best and Fairest night with his dad and uncle. Speaking that night was the captain of the club’s wheelchair team, the late Brendan Stroud.

“After seeing him give that speech, it just hit me. I have the chance to get involved in the club that I loved. I went to Brendan, and I said I’ll do anything to get involved. And he gave me his card. I must have impressed him, he invited me to try out.”

That moment was only two years after a serious car accident left him a paraplegic, and Brendan admits getting back into the world of footy left him “nervous.”

“Mentally, I wasn’t sure if I was ready.”

Falling in love with footy, all over again

The Victorian teen had already achieved a huge amount since the day of his accident. In the years since he broke his C7 vertebrae, he had undergone extensive rehab, where he relearned everything from eating to talking, and then how to live life in a wheelchair.

During rehabilitation, Ben was offered mental health support, but said because the people he spoke with were able bodied, he didn’t feel like he could relate.

“I needed to speak to people in my situation.”

But one experience he did take from the early rehab days was learning to play new forms of sport.

An AFL fan “since birth”, Ben said learning to play sport in a wheelchair was “challenging,” but it was something he knew he wanted to do as he wanted sport to be part of his future.

When he finally had the chance to try wheelchair football shortly after the Collingwood Best and Fairest, he realised his years of playing the able-bodied version of the game gave him an advantage.

“When I use a football I feel like I’m playing like I was a kid. I can read where the ball goes. AFL football has been my entire life since I was a baby.”

He said the day he tried out, he had interest from all five wheelchair football teams in Victoria - Essendon, Hawthorn, Richmond, St Kilda and Collingwood, but being a Magpies fan, there was only ever one choice.

“It was a big surprise for me. I didn’t know anything when I went there. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even have my own sports chair at the time. I had everything going against me. But I had skills and ball use. A lot of different clubs expressed interest in picking me up in the draft. I politely declined them all, except Collingwood.”

Good old Collingwood forever

Ben explained his first year in the club was interrupted by COVID, but he immediately knew he had joined a community that he could relate to, and provide the support he had longed for in the early days after his accident.

“The people from the Victorian Wheelchair Football League, and players from other teams - we’re such a tight community and we all want to see each other do well and have fun.”

Not only did joining Collingwood give him the chance to meet others in a similar situation to him, he realised he would be embraced by everyone connected with the club.

“On my first day of playing we had two of my colleagues, camera guys, come and show their support for me and our team. Straight away we felt the warmth and support we would have from the club. 

“It’s a tight knit community as a whole.”

Less than two years after trying out for the team, Ben, now 21, had the chance to lead the club after the death of the inaugural captain Brendan Stroud last November.

“I was pretty much thrown into the deep end. My late captain Brendan, he always saw something in me. I always had that leadership style. I wanted to bring my team with me even playing as a kid. I know what it takes to be a great leader and win.”

He explained the role has given him the chance to work closely with teammates with a range of disabilities, as the competition allows one able bodied person to participate in a wheelchair at any one time.

“I’m enjoying working with them together, and shining light on different disabilities. It feels really rewarding to get to know these great people.

Because some of the team members don’t have their own wheelchair, Coles has come on board to provide practical support.

Coles Corporate Affairs General Manager Sally Fielke said Coles is thrilled to partner with Collingwood’s VWFL team this year.

“We’re extremely proud of our community partnership with Collingwood Football Club and we’re delighted to donate five wheelchairs to support its VWFL team this season,” Fielke said.

“Coles is extremely passionate about supporting accessibility and disability inclusion, be it through community sport programs like Collingwood’s wheelchair team, or by improving access to employment opportunities through partnerships like the RecruitAble pilot which we recently announced with Get Skilled Access.”

Ben said he is hoping the sport can get a higher profile, and is thrilled other members of the Collingwood community have come out in support of his team.

“We had a few AFL players come to watch our Grand Final, which was great to see their support. I’m always speaking to the AFLW team, the AFL men’s team. They’re always interested to see how we’re going. 

“There’s only 15 of us in the team, but we’ve got a whole community backing us. It’s very special.”