George Tonna dreams big. As founder of the NSW Physical Disability Rugby League (NSWPDRL), he’s considered the Godfather, so to speak. Despite obstacles, the league has successfully provided a pathway for people with disability to play football.
I met George back in 2014. I was covering the inaugural Indigenous Combined Nations versus the All Stars game, which has now grown to become the pinnacle match for the NSWPDRL.
I was immediately inspired, surprised and… hooked!
The NSWPDRL, now in its sixth season, kicks off on March 12th at Cabramatta Sports Ground in Sydney’s south-west. It has five clubs: defending premiers South Sydney, Manly, the Roosters, Newtown and newest side the Wests Tigers.
Players involved in this competition have varying disabilities, from cerebral palsy to vision and hearing impairments. There are even a few amputee players.
George Tonna believes his disability is a plus.
“I always say to people, ‘if I was normal George Tonna, who cares for George?, but being disabled I've got my own stamp. I've travelled the world; I've met three Prime Ministers.
I've actually done more with a disability than without a disability. I'm lucky to have a disability because it's made me who I am today, he says”.
The players defeating the odds
As the opening whistle blows, spectators immediately realize they shouldn’t be fooled by the players’ disabilities.
There is plenty of skill on display and everything you’d expect from football: big hits and length of the field tries. There are no backward steps, no holding back and the players give their all.
Bill Bussell, who I’m also proud to call my brother and friend, is one of the true characters of the sport. The 39-year-old has cerebral palsy, which has struck him down with poor co-ordination, stiff and weak muscles, and frequent tremors.
When you first see Bill (or “Bunyip” as he’s lovingly called), walk to the dressing sheds you wonder, how is this bloke going to play football given his awkward walk?
But once that jersey comes on, once the boots are tied and once Bill gets onto the ground, he undergoes a transformation… He turns into a running machine! He will often throw a dummy-pass and even a side-step in for good measure.
His mother, Kay Bussell, says her son is a miracle, and I agree. She was told that he wouldn’t live past the age of ten, and that he’d never walk or talk. Well, Bill has showed those medical professionals just exactly what he’s capable of!
Kay Bussell believes most people are in awe of her son’s achievements.
“Just because you have a disability doesn't mean to say you can't do what the next person can. You may not be able to do it as good - but you can still do it,” she says.
Embracing what life's throws
Todd Philpott shouldn’t even be alive. Over 20 years ago, he was involved in a near-fatal motorbike accident. He lost his right leg, but that hasn’t stopped him. Now, the 59-year-old is back playing the sport he loves, complete with a prosthetic limb.
Todd feels he’s making the most of what life has given him.
“To be upset about what I don't have as a former athlete with a leg, is to waste what I do have. So I concentrated on what I could do with what I had left,” he says.
I witnessed this amazing footballer put a chip-and-chase kick, off his prosthesis leg, which resulted in a try for his team mate. Some able-bodied players can’t even do that!
Indigenous Combined Nations and Manly fullback, Kyle Schaberg, is one of the biggest stars of the code. He cleaned up at the end-of-year awards for 2016. Not only did he take home the top try scorer and point scorer, the flashy player was also named the best-and-fairest.
Kyle also lives with cerebral palsy and has never been able to talk, but what he lacks in speech, he certainly makes up with his stylish football skills.
The players’ families have expressed the importance of the Physical Disability Rugby League and what the sport has given to their loved ones… Increased self-esteem, physical contact, friendship, and a sport that they own and can finally play.
“It's actually a victory for humanity you know. You've got so many varying abilities, but the thing about it is all that when we get on the field it doesn't matter. You just do the best with what you can and the beauty about it is, is that there's no quarters asked for and there's none given, and we go hard as we possibly can,” Todd Philpott says.
Do yourself a favour and get along to one of the games of the 2017 NSW Physical Disability Rugby League games. You won’t be disappointed, you’ll be inspired and you might even make a few new friends.
In Australia, over 34 thousand people live with cerebral palsy.
It's the most common physical disability in childhood.
There is no known cure. But this game has undoubtedly changed these men’s lives.