Like most blokes, Josh Winslow just lives and breathes footy and is not prepared to let anything stop him from enjoying the game he loves.
However, for many people, a permanent physical or mental impairment is a major barrier to involvement sport. But can’t is a word that does not appear in the iron-willed Winslow’s vocabulary.
Winslow, 26, was born with Down Syndrome, but that has not prevented him from giving footy a fair dinkum crack and becoming an integral member of the Caulfield Bears Football Club.
With the Bears enduring a rigorous preseason at Carnegie’s Lord’s Reserve, Winslow, who lives across the road from the park, popped down some five weeks ago and asked to have a kick with the team. It was an opportunity that club football operations boss Matt Casey said the Bears were not going to knock back.
“An opportunity presented that he wanted to have a kick of the footy, and that’s what footy clubs provide. It doesn’t matter if you are able-bodied or not, it’s an opportunity to kick the footy and enjoy yourself,” Casey said.
“Footy draws people together, it’s a common thread that we can all enjoy and chat about and also be part of our community.
“The guys around the club love him and it’s great community spirit to be able to open up and allow people with special needs to be a part of a community club and just kick the footy around and have some fun.”
Despite being an unabashed footy tragic, this is Winslow’s first foray into Aussie Rules. As a child, Winslow was a strong swimmer and also participated in gymnastics, which has greatly assisted in the development of his motor skills and coordination.
Winslow graduated from high school in Sydney some 10 years ago and has maintained a strong passion for the Sydney Swans, despite living in Hong Kong for eight years before his move to Carnegie a year ago.
“My favourite player is Buddy Franklin because he kicked lots of goals (in a season) and I want to be like him,” Winslow beamed.
“We understand there’s a bigger picture here, and it’s not premierships, it’s not trophies, it’s not grand final appearances, its actually being community-spirited and opening up doors for people to be able to participate.” – Matt Casey
The Bears have been fantastic in welcoming Winslow to the fold with open arms. They immediately kitted him out in a Bears top with number 44 on the back, which the new recruit has worn at every training session since, and first-year Bears coach Sein Clearihan has even given him a brand new pair of Adidas boots.
Since joined the club, Winslow has not missed a session, and is often one of the first to arrive and the last to leave. And watching the interaction between Winslow and his new teammates on the track, it’s clear that he is completely besotted with his adopted club.
“I feel so happy when I (am) at the Bears,” Winslow said.
“Sein is so funny… (and) the players are really nice. They help me with (hand)passing and kicking.
“I do a lot of handpassing, a lot of kicking, I love marking because I get to jump high, (I love) passing and running.”
Such is Winslow’s love for his new club, Casey quipped that his allegiances have shifted.
“He’s now changed, from Sydney Swans he’s now a Caulfield Bears supporter… he really loves the Bears and the boys love him,” Casey said.
Winslow’s father, Peter, is delighted to see his son enjoying his new sport and is incredibly grateful for the club’s welcoming attitude and attempts to including Josh, despite the physical challenges he faces.
“(Josh) loves to socialise and since we moved back from Hong Kong, this is probably the first time he’s been able to socialise with guys his own age, in a sport that he absolutely loves. (He’s) at a different level, of course, but he is having a blast and he’s getting fit at the same time so it’s really good for him,” Peter Winslow said.
“What (the Bears) are doing is really amazing and Joshie is an amazing boy as well. For him to be able to get out there and do it physically is a big thing, but for them to accept him for what he is, and for someone wanting to play the sport, I can’t commend them enough.”
Coach Clearihan has also been impressed by Josh’s commitment and rapid improvement over the last few weeks.
“He’s been fantastic. He has improved with his skills, his handballing, his kicking, his marking and that, he’s going really well. It’s fantastic (for him), and it’s good for footy too,” Clearihan said.
“Out there he is just one of the boys… (and) at the end of the day, I suppose that’s what local footy’s all about.”
After three consecutive top-three finishes in the SFNL’s Division 2 competition, including a Grand Final appearance in 2016, the Bears could be forgiven for focussing on their intensive preseason program at Winslow’s expense, in the hope of delivering the club a long-awaited senior flag at the end of the year. But instead, the players and coaches have included Winslow as much as they can to ensure that he enjoys his football and the club environment.
However, the club is cognisant of Winslow’s physical limitations, and as such the coaching staff will occasionally remove him from some the higher-intensity drills for his own safety. In those instances, a player from the rehab group usually will take Winslow aside to work on his kicking and handballing skills and ensure he remains included.
And the club’s remarkable balancing act between inclusion and performance is not lost on Peter Winslow.
“It’s quite amazing that, you know, you have a disabled kid out on the field and it doesn’t disrupt anything. It just takes a couple of players to say ‘come on, mate, go over there and grab this ball and (have a kick with us)’,” Winslow Snr said.
Casey said the club were leaving no stone unturned in the quest for the ultimate success but were also mindful of their responsibilities as a community sporting organisation to facilitate participation through inclusion.
“Once Joshie gets to the front of the drill and it’s his turn, the drill slows down for him so he can get his touch and have a bit of the play,” Casey said.
“At the same time, we don’t want it to affect our training, but we understand there’s a bigger picture here, and it’s not premierships, it’s not trophies, it’s not grand final appearances, its actually being community-spirited and opening up doors for people to be able to participate.
“And it’s growing the sport, so we are never going to knock somebody back from having a run.”
For the moment, Winslow is relishing the opportunity to have a kick with his new mates, and while we are unlikely to see him pull on a Bears jumper for a match anytime soon, the club is looking for ways to keep their new recruit involved in an official capacity come the season proper.
As Clearihan says, it characters like Winslow that make footy clubs what they are.
“Blokes like Joshie are the heartbeat of the club, and you don’t know how lucky you are to have them,” he said.