The West

Footy delivers serious lesson
New drive: Heath Black and Chris Connolly. Picture: Pia van Straalen/West Regional

Chris Connolly is shouting out drills to young footballers as the smell of frying sausages wafts across Narrogin oval.

It is a warm, still evening and a half moon is emerging in the purple sky as the players form a huddle after training.

Connolly calls over former charge Heath Black, lines him up 30m from goal and challenges him to hit the post. To their surprise, Black nails it and celebrates with his former coach.

More than six years on from their Fremantle Dockers days, Connolly and Black have teamed again, this time to tackle the drinking culture in country football and encourage men to open up about mental health.

They have just finished their 100 per cent Team Roadshow, part of the One Life suicide prevention program that AFL veteran Black has been part of for two years.

As they toured the Wheatbelt, Connolly ran clinics and told anecdotes from coaching Melbourne, Hawthorn and the Dockers, while Black shared the brutal, honest account of how his life spiralled out of control as he battled mental illness and alcohol dependence.

After overcoming recent challenges, the Melbourne-based duo now relish the chance to give back to grassroots footy.

Black hit rock bottom as his football career ended. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but says he is now in a good place.

He is raising his two sons and is expecting a baby with wife Asha and says his family and One Life are keeping him well.

Last year was Connolly's first away from the AFL in 32 years after being suspended following a tanking probe into Melbourne Football Club.

His role as Demons general manager of club development was made redundant and he now runs a sports management and coaching business.

Connolly said hearing about Black's battles for the first time and the death last week of his friend and former Melbourne colleague Dean Bailey put footy into perspective.

"It's an emotional situation," he said. "You can't help but reflect on their families and your family and how lucky you are."

Though labelled the scapegoat of the tanking inquiry, which cleared Melbourne, Connolly said he felt no bitterness.

"In the words of Alex Ferguson, 'I never look back'," he said. "We made a collective decision as a club to make the thing go away.

"There's no evidence to support the allegations at all, but you can't take on city hall."

Watching on at Narrogin this week was One Life Wheatbelt co-ordinator Jane Mouritz, who with Black and One Life ambassador Glenn Mitchell has worked tirelessly to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and tackle suicide rates in rural and regional communities.

With the four-year $13 million State Government funding for One Life running out, the roadshow was partly funded by CBH, with the WA Country Football League arranging the clinics.

Mrs Mouritz, who lost a family member to suicide, fears their hard work will unravel if State funding is not continued.

"Most towns have been touched by suicide and it doesn't just happen once," she said.

"You think no one will ever do this again but then it happens again.

"What I'm so pleased about is that people now talk about it and it's taken people like Glenn Mitchell, Heath Black and a few others to bring that about.

"There's been an increasing community maturity around mental health because of what we've done. It's working."

The roadshow has given Black, 35 this year, a chance to educate his friend and former coach, who admits he was oblivious to Black's struggles when they were at Fremantle.

"When I coached Heath, he was playing his very best football, so I'm thinking everything else is OK, but things weren't OK," Connolly said.

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14

The West Australian

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