Wow! Was I excited to be able to travel to the Essendon footy team’s club rooms and catch up with player Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti or Walla as he’s popularly known, to talk about his incredible journey from the Tiwi Islands to AFL fan favourite.
WALLA—a nickname given to Anthony when he was a boy and short for Wallaby—was 17 years old when his life changed.
He met a lady named Jane McDonald who was visiting her daughter in the Tiwi Islands and the two formed an amazing bond. Walla went to Jane’s home for Christmas and returned to the Tiwi Islands but never gave up asking Jane to help him return to go to school. Walla says, “I wasn’t learning much on the island and thought it was the right time to leave and search for a new life”—and that’s exactly what happened. Jane became his mum and her family became his family.
Walla loved footy and had been playing the game “his whole life”. He played junior footy and trained really hard and was hoping to one day make it as a senior player in an AFL team. He was disappointed when he missed out on being drafted in 2012 and 2013. He said, “I was at the stage where it was getting close to being my last year before I was going to have to give up on footy and choose another career. But it was good having Mum pushing me and telling me to just keep going and work on my goals.” Walla asked Jane if she would coach him and she said yes. “She would say, ‘If I’m your coach I’m going to be your coach not your mum’. That was the hardest bit but I knew she was good to train me and encourage me. She was pretty hard sometimes, probably harder than any other coach.”
All this hard work paid off. The opportunity came to play with Essendon in their VFL team. Walla continued to do all he could to improve and have the right people notice him. “I was working in Essendon club’s multicultural department, and during my lunch break I would jump on the treadmill‘ or go for a swim.
I would train instead of working full-time. That was really hard but I had to just keep showing my face around the club so the players and staff would know that I was really committed. I was even doing extra training so that recruiters could see me working hard—keep them looking!” And look they did! In 2015 Walla made it into the Essendon pre-season team. “I was so keen and Essendon gave me the chance to show them what I could do,” he said. It was around the same time that Walla became a Christian. “I went to church one Sunday and I knew I had to change and have
God in my life—it was the right time to give my life to him, let him take care of things and guide me the right way. Everything changed from then, everything fell into place and I just did what I felt God had planned for me to do.”
In round one of the 2016 season Walla played his first game of footy in Essendon’s senior team. And now, at the end of his second year, I asked him what it’s been like. “It’s been hard and intense but good!” he said. “This season’s been different to last year—the club has a few of us younger players who have played just a couple of years as well as some of the more experienced players back on the team. I’ve really enjoyed the journey with the boys and playing finals was a good experience.”
Walla’s years of hard work and determination have been rewarded with success in the competition and his speed, excellent ball skills, explosive energy and never-say-never attitude have made him a fan favourite on and off the field!
He says he “enjoys every game and the crowd is what makes it good. It’s an amazing feeling going out and playing. It’s good to have the fans want to watch you play. It’s what I want to do—make the fans happy. I try and enjoy their cheers but at the same time try and remain focused. ” Walla credits a number of people with helping him but it’s his mum who he says is his “biggest support—the one who keeps me going. She always encourages me and gets me to learn stuff outside of footy.”
And he doesn’t forget God in his incredible journey. “Me and my mum pray before I leave for the game and then I pray with Alan Dunne, the chaplain of the club—it gives me the strength to go out knowing that God is there for me and can help me when I need it. It’s my biggest encouragement when I know that God is with me helping me strengthen my game and helping me be who I am.”
And his advice to Kidzone readers is this: train hard—you can achieve your goals if you put your mind to it. Education is important—work hard, study and you never know what may happen.