Lewis calls for indigenous reality check
Former Eagles Chris Lewis, left, Phil Narkle and David Wirrpanda at Patersons Stadium. Picture: Michael Wilson/WA News

West Coast great Chris Lewis has urged AFL clubs to confront indigenous draftees with more of a brutally honest picture of the pressures which will face them at the game's elite level.

Lewis' call comes as statistics show the number of indigenous recruits has stagnated in recent years.

After 22 Aboriginal players were selected through the national, rookie and pre-season drafts in 2009, only 10 were taken in 2012 and 13 last year.

There were five indigenous players picked up in the 2014 rookie draft.

No AFL clubs were prepared to draft highly-rated WA talents such as Waylen Manson and Shannon Taylor in recent years, while the exciting Dayle Garlett, who was initially overlooked in the 2012 draft despite his undeniable ability, gave up on his Hawthorn lifeline in March.

On Wednesday, Fremantle sent 20-year-old Josh Simpson, who has been struggling with the demands of AFL, on an indefinite leave of absence.

Lewis, who joined 11 of West Coast's 35 Aboriginal recruits since the club's 1987 inception as special guests at the AFL Indigenous Round match against North Melbourne at Patersons Stadium last Sunday, said both clubs and players had to build a better understanding of what was required to turn AFL dreams into reality.

"There are two parts to it. The club and the teammates need to be more aware of the issues and I also think the individual needs to understand what's going on. I just think clubs need to be more aware of the hazards they might face and have a few more things in place for what may happen, so they can go about rectifying the problems," Lewis said.

"You need to be up-front with people and I think that's the way Aboriginal people like it. People who are honest and don't beat around the bush and don't lie, mate. Then with the player, it's more of a learning process that might take a bit longer.

"It's not every Aboriginal player who comes through, but it's a hard one and there's no book you can just give and read about. It's always a bit of chuck it in the air and see. It becomes a real tragedy when the kid involved in that situation probably doesn't realise his potential.

"That's the disappointing part about it.

"You need to get your priorities right.

"Footy can be everything, but it's not everything … and you should never forget where you come from. As long as they've come out of footy with something, made friends, enjoyed what they've done and done the best they can."

Lewis said modern indigenous players had been "breaking the mould" by no longer simply being stereotyped as flashy half-forwards and were starring in all positions on the ground. But he also revealed that despite his remarkable career, which featured a West Coast club champion award, two AFL premierships and induction last year into the WA Football Hall of Fame, he had regretted not putting his all into his football life.

"Maybe I didn't apply myself a bit better at certain times," a candid Lewis said, also revealing he loved watching Hawthorn's Cyril Rioli play.

"To be at the top of your game in any area, you obviously need to have the talent, but you also need to work hard. We were in a good team, so I think sometimes you could have got away with not working as hard as you should have. But I'm quite happy with the way things turned out in my life, in terms of footy."

Lewis, who coached Swan Districts in 2007, also pleaded with WAFL clubs to consider more opportunities for indigenous players as part of the grooming required to make it to the next level. He said it could also give WAFL clubs a deeper understanding of the WA communities which were breeding grounds for their players.

Now living in Port Hedland with an eight-year-old daughter, Lewis has been working as a rail operator with FMG and is close to securing a train driving position in the coming months.

Friends say they have never seen him happier.

"A few of the stars have aligned, mate, and things sort of came along when I needed them," Lewis said.

"Even the most prepared blokes for that sort of stuff find it hard. The problem for me was, and it probably held me back, was always worrying about the past and not thinking about the future. But I'm sure I wasn't alone in that and the key is just finding something you enjoy and love doing.

"Like a lot of footballers, you take time to adjust when you've finished footy, but it's turned out real good."

Lewis said catching up last week with some of his former Claremont colts teammates and Christ Church school mates had been satisfying, but it is the reconnected friendship with a fellow ex-Eagle which was best for putting his post-career life in perspective. He said he and Troy Ugle were now forming a stronger bond than they ever had as friends during their football days.

"We've sort of reinforced our relationship in a different way and are enjoying each other's family," he said.

"He's got three kids and I've got a daughter who is always screaming out to go over there and play. I think we've got a better relationship than when we were playing footy.

"What it does is force you to understand what life is like away from footy."

Lewis said he looked back on West Coast's inauguration as a "breath of fresh air" for the national game. He said he found it humbling in retirement when fans approached him with photographs they had taken with him when they were children. He has also recently found a new place in football as a reserves umpire in the North Pilbara Football League.

"It's nice and slow … my pace," he laughed.

"It's a mid-afternoon game and I can't see at dark, mate, so that keeps me out of the league games. Just putting something back into footy and nobody wants to umpire so I put my hand up. It gives me a little bit of fitness each week.

"Footy's given me a lot, there's no drama in giving a bit back."

The West Australian

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