CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses domestic violence.

For First Nations peoples in Australia, AFL is so much more than a game. Many see it as part of their identity, and their ancestral history, and use it as a way to explore and validate their true and complete selves. For proud Noongar woman Courtney Ugle – the current vice captain of the Essendon Bombers women’s VFL team and Deadly & Proud advocate – it’s a personal form of spiritual healing and confidence building.

With NAIDOC Week’s theme being Heal Country! this year, Courtney sat down with PEDESTRIAN.TV to talk about her journey with football as part of the Ugle family, and how it’s helped her personally heal, bolster her hard working ethic, and strengthen her identity as a role model to other young First Nations women.

“I think AFL is so much more than just a game to me, there’s lots of different aspects that come into it, and why I fell in love with it,” Courtney said.

“If I ask myself why I started footy – it was because of my brother. He got drafted into the AFL playing at Collingwood, and I just remember that sense of wanting to be like my big brother.

“I had this direct role model in my life that I wanted to be like, and it was him.”

Courtney started playing at around 15 in Western Australia, and despite having an older in Collingwood’s Kirk Ugle, she admitted she was “terrible”.

“I didn’t know how to play footy, I didn’t really know the rules of the game,” she said.

“Because I was known as Kirk Ugle’s little sister, it was expected that I knew how to play. That’s the first and most real reason why I started playing, and then it became so much more to me. It became an outlook, it became an environment where I could be my complete self. It was different; it was a challenge.

“The game has taken me all over Australia and I’ve been able to meet so many different people who have welcomed me in with open arms, and allowed me to be my complete self from day one. And that’s still how it is today.”

That acceptance and freedom to be herself is something that Courtney found was vital for her when she made the move from her home in Bunbury to Melbourne three years ago, a move she made alone to chase her gut feeling with football.

Courtney’s mother died in a domestic violence incident in 2016 when she was 19 – two years before her big move, and nine years after her father’s death. Courtney recognised that part of her healing journey was to seize the opportunity playing at VFLW level that Essendon was giving her.

“It really was a bit of a challenge to come over to Melbourne by myself, because I really was on my own,” Courtney said.

“It was kind of tricky to navigate, you know, how am I going to do this by myself and still be myself. When I moved over here, I was at a very, very vulnerable time in my life. I needed change, and Essendon gave me the opportunity to change my life.

“The path I was going down, the journey I was going down, wasn’t a good one, and it wasn’t for me. I think Essendon gave me the option to change my life, and I took it. And they accepted me for me, and everything that I came with, and just… open arms from the start. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Outside of playing on the club’s VFLW side (who have turned around from the wooden spoon in 2018 to now playing in finals in 2021), Courtney looks after the newly-launched First Nations women’s development program at Essendon. It aims to support women and girls on their path towards playing footy at a VFLW or AFLW level, both on and off the field.

“I do a lot of work up in the Northern Territory and Tiwi Islands,” Courtney said.

“When I moved here I told people around me that I didn’t want to just be here to play footy, I wanted to do some much more than that.

“Again, I was really, really fortunate to be put forward to have an opportunity at Essendon to really be a part of that. I think being a staff member and a player gives me a really unique opportunity to really drive conversations, to really challenge people, to really ensure that us women are included in everything.”

Working in the development of other First Nations women in footy is something Courtney is deeply passionate about, and passing on the support and acceptance that she was so freely and fiercely given is something that drives her day in, day out.

“I feel that within my body and my soul that I’m so passionate and so drawn to this space,” she said.

“I see so much of myself in these young women coming through, and you know, we can be role models in so many different ways.

“I needed someone to help guide me, and I really pride myself in being that person for these young women I work with – they’re really just incredible. I feel really lucky to be in the position I’m in.”

When I finally asked Courtney if she’s got her sights set on playing at the top when Essendon gets its AFLW license, she confirmed in light speed.

“Bloody oath I am!” she laughed.

“It’s been a goal of mine since it was confirmed to me that I can play at that level if I worked really, really, really hard. I’m the biggest believer in trusting the timings of your life, and when the time comes it’s going to be the best feeling ever.

“I believe it’s coming. I’m not disheartened by you know, what’s happened previously. Because it’s coming.

“My time is coming.”

Essendon is locked in to play VFLW semi final against Collingwood at Victoria Park on Saturday, July 10 from 12pm.

Help is available.

If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.

If you’d like to speak to someone about domestic violence, please call the 1800RESPECT hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.

Image: Deadly & Proud