Former BSSC students and veteran footballer, Jake Donegan, has taken his fair share of bumps and bruises during a football career that has included stints at Golden Square, Mount Pleasant and Mallee Eagles.
But the 27-year old, known for his uncompromising style of play, relentless attack on the football and his trademark dreadlocks, says he’s never experienced anything as rough as the living conditions in India’s slums.
“It’s hard to explain it without actually seeing it with your own eyes – without being able to take it in with your own senses,” Jake said.
“You can’t quite convey what the place is really like. We got the opportunity to go down into a few of the slums.
“To see how they live, you come back with a very different perspective on life – you are really thankful for what you have got.”
Jake headed to India in late October as part of a nine-member delegation representing the Bendigo Football Netball League (BFNL).
It was no ordinary end-of-season trip.
The travelling party included Bendigo chaplain Bruce Claridge and his wife Jan, fitness adviser Mick Talbot, former Sandhurst player Geoff Scown, together with Alex Rooke, Toni and Ben West and photographer Boyd Roberston.
Their mission was two-fold – to help run the AFL India National Championships, as well as a humanitarian aspect.
This included the delivery of van, purchased partly with funds raised in Bendigo, which will be used to transport children from the Mominpore slum in Kolkata to sporting and cultural events.
Unlike the rigours of a gruelling pre-season readying footballers for a premiership tilt, nothing can prepare most visitors for the shock that awaits them in Mominpore.
The slum a is one of the many in the city where its young people grow up with no expectations of breaking free of the cycle of poverty they find themselves in.
But amid the proliferation of makeshift homes and rubble, Jake found the locals to be anything but unhappy.
He said the roughly three by three metre shanty style homes were a source of pride for families.
“There’s a bed – and by a bed I mean a wooden table with a few blankets on top,” Jake said.
“There’s six or seven people living there, but they are the happiest people you’ll ever meet.
“They are so proud of what they have got the whole place is immaculately clean.
“It’s a very humbling experience. I’ve come back feeling I won’t be doing as much sooking about the trivial shit anymore.”
The last thing Jake expected this off-season was to be taking part in an exhibition match against an eager group of locals and a handful of volunteers from Reclink Victoria, who were also in India to assist with the championships.
But there he was doing what he does best for Golden Square, feeding the ball to teammates, in 35-degree heat and stifling 80 per cent humidity.
The muggy conditions made a regular season BFNL game against Strathfieldsaye or Sandhurst seem like a walk in the park.
Jake, together with Geoff Scown and Mick Talbot, who is the franchisee of Bendigo Step into Life and fitness adviser at Strathfieldsaye Football Netball Club, were charged with leading a football workshop prior to the championships.
The trio, together with other Bendigo team members, then took on an assortment of roles from umpires to first aid experts as teams battled for the title of AFL India’s best.
Considered a relatively new sport – India first fielded a team in the AFL’s International Cup in 2008 – Jake could not help but be impressed with the tackling and, in particular, ball skills of the Indians.
“Some of them are remarkably good – they pick it up a lot quicker than a lot of Australian kids,” he said.
“They all have brilliant hand-eye coordination.
“You’ll walk onto an oval and there are six games of cricket happening – they can all bat real well bowl well and catch well.
“There’s a few kids who could play twos footy in Bendigo, I have no doubt.”
Many of the youngsters involved took to the field in shorts supplied by the BFNL.
Inter-league polo tops were akin to trophies, proudly worn by those rewarded for outstanding on-ground performances.
Back in the slums, children took to playing with their newly donated footballs with the fervour of a teenager given his first senior call-up.
The overseas jaunt tossed up no shortage of surreal moments for Jake.
Never had he imagined playing cricket on the type of Indian dust bowl that reduces even the most accomplished of Test batsmen to mere mortals.
But there he was on the morning before the championships facing up to a bevy of wrist spinners and aspiring young pace bowlers.
“A couple of them would have been 16, 17, 18 and they were urging me to have a bat,” he said.
“Next thing I know there was about four of them bowling off about 18 steps, flying the ball past my head.”
Bruce Claridge, who was part of a first BFNL led trip to India 12 months previously, said the Indian mission was an undoubted success.
“Jake Donegan did a great job as an ambassador for the BFNL – the Indian people loved him,” he said.
“He was interviewed a few times by Indian sports reporters.
“In fact the whole team was amazing. We have further developed a significant relationship with AFL India and Bendigo.”
A business development aspect to the tour was headed by Ben and Toni West and Alex Rooke, with the focus on developing the business skills of locals.
Mr Claridge praised the support given to the team by AFL Central Victoria general manager Paul Hamilton and BFNL manager Carol Cathcart.
He said it was hoped the Indians would make Bendigo their base for the 2017 International AFL Championships, to be played in Melbourne, and “that a couple of games might be played on the Queen Elizabeth Oval”.
More certain is that another Bendigo team will venture back to India in January 2017, the trip to again coincide with the national championships, with organisers already seeking expressions of interest.
They can begin by inking the name Jake Donegan, who said he was a certainty to be involved.
“I’m going back for five or six weeks though next time,” he said.
“Because the competition involves the different states of India, I’d like to travel to a few of them and see the sites.
“Some of the players come 30 hours in the train to Calcutta to play in the championships, so I’d like to stay in each (state) for a few days, maybe have a training run, but more see where they come from.”
Kieran Iles – Bendigo Advertiser