FEATURE: Glen Quartermain
An acquired brain injury has not stopped eight-year-old Taj Deluca from realising his footy dream, thanks to an all-abilities football program for kids.
Story: Glen Quartermain, Sunday Times Magazine,
Taj Deluca dreams of taking speccies so high above the ground he can see the sets in the nearby ocean. Of breaking the lines and weaving between opponents. Of crowd-lifting goals on the run.
Of running out on to Optus Stadium or the MCG with Mum and Dad Danica and Matt, siblings Vinnie and Daisy and nanna Mimsy teary eyed in the stands as he makes his AFL debut.
Taj, like most eight-year-olds, is footy obsessed. He can reel off stats rapid fire. Kicks. Marks. Handballs. Hard ball gets. He digests the lot.
And he’s not one-eyed either. Taj counts Geelong, Melbourne and North Melbourne — courtesy of No. 1 draft pick Jason Horne-Francis — as his favourite teams. And that may change again soon.
Taj is living out his dreams thanks to the Starkick program provided through Auskick. Credit: Photo supplied
It was hardly a surprise then when younger brother Vinnie signed up for Auskick, Taj turned to his mum and asked: “When do I start, Mummy?”
It was a question Danica Deluca had been dreading for eight years. Since a cardiac arrest at six months deprived her eldest son of oxygen and left him with an acquired brain injury, quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
But magic does happen. Taj is playing footy. After a pre-season work-out, he makes his debut this month for Coolbinia Bombers Junior Football Club, through the vision and hard work of a footy dad who brought Starkick to life, an all-abilities program that is backed by the West Australian Football Commission and is one of the AFL’s big growth areas.
It has sent positive ripples through Taj’s family and no doubt, countless others.
Therapy, so important but often monotonous and tiresome, has become pre-season training.
And match day? “We have never seen him that happy,” Danica said.
“The great thing for Taj is Starkick is physio, occupational therapy, speech, all in one. And he is doing what he wants to do.”
Dad Matt adds: “It was so good to meet kids like him, outside of therapy,” he said.
Taj makes his debut this month for Coolbinia Bombers Junior Football Club. Credit: Photo supplied
There is still a road ahead, but the bumps will be tempered by the reality Taj can rock up on a Sunday, just like all the other Auskickers, and look forward to a game of footy — and a hot dog afterwards.
“When Taj was born, many of the first gifts were footies. We thought, here we go, we’ve got an AFL star,” Danica recalled.
“We hoped that he would share his family’s love of the game. After his brain injury, amongst a million other feelings, I felt so sad that he wouldn’t have the chance to play footy.
“Back then, we had to put those hopes and dreams to the side. There were other things we needed to do. Instead of signing up for Auskick, it was choosing therapists to work on his rehab.
“But as he got older . . . I realised he can and will do what his heart desires and I will support that no matter what it is.
“Success does not have to mean becoming an athlete, it’s becoming whatever the hell you want to be.
“Then about a year ago, Taj started getting into footy — and when Taj gets into something, it becomes an obsession.
“He started watching footy highlights and then listening to the songs on YouTube, to watching the draft over and over and over again and telling us all sorts of facts. We noticed that he was pretty knowledgeable.
“It got to the point where we actually started saying ‘Taj, let’s listen to something else now’ or “How many times can you watch the grand final replay?’
Matt said: “We asked him, for example, what number is Jason Horne-Francis at North Melbourne and he said six — and he’d just been drafted.”
So when Taj asked about joining Auskick, Danica dived into Google.
“I was heartbroken. So I started googling and found the Starkick website,” she said.
The program has sent positive ripples throughout the Deluca family. Credit: Photo supplied
“We went along to a session and I haven’t seen him so happy in years. He gets to play footy! Not just commentate or sing the songs. He is going to play, and so he should. And he doesn’t need Mum and Dad to push his chair either, there’s plenty of helping hands at the club so that we can sit on the sidelines and cheer him on.
“Starkick is something I wish I knew about years ago. It was so cool to see other kids using walkers, wheelchairs and other mobility aids playing the sport they love. “
After his pre-season hit-out, Taj will play every Sunday after the school holidays in Starkick, which runs alongside Auskick, for 16 weeks.
Rob Geersen, WAFC’s Starkick co-ordinator and founder, said the program had a simple mantra: “If you want to play, we will find a way’.”
“It doesn’t matter what your situation is, we will find a way,” he said.
Founded in 2015, the program is open to boys and girls aged five to 17, and caters for those who are unable to join the club’s existing football programs, offering extra support with sessions based around the new Auskick program.
“It’s about having a go. We run some activities, some kicking, handball and at the end, we play a game, just like everyone else,” Geersen said.
Starkick ambassador Taj Deluca with mother Danica and father Matt. Also pictured are brother and sister Vinnie and Daisy along with grandmother Jen Wyss. Credit: Michael Wilson/The West Australian
“The reality is for children with a disability, some may need that extra bit of support, so they can join in, too.
“Some with a physical disability may need help getting around, and other children may have disabilities that require different levels of support, it doesn’t matter.
“It’s about being a part of your local community and the sport is a byproduct.”
Geersen is speaking from experience. His son, Bradley, 14, contracted meningitis at 13 months and has since lived with cerebral palsy. Like Taj, he has been able to get his footy fix through the Starkick program.
Starkick has operated under the WAFC’s umbrella since June last year and now caters for about 200 children at 14 clubs in metropolitan Perth — in the north, south and central districts — and at Carey Park and Manjimup in the South West.
“Everyone deserves a chance to have a go,” he said.
Geersen added it was just as important for the Deluca family to feel a part of the club and that might include being rostered to cook the barbecue.
“That’s what community is all about, isn’t it? Just belonging and supporting each other,” he said.
Go to starkick.com.au
Story credit: Glen Quartermain, Sunday Times Magazine, 3 April 2022
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