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Educating Alex: one draft prospect's year of learning

Alex Neal-Bullen of South Australia poses during the 2014 Under 18 portrait session at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne on July 01, 2014. (Photo: Justine Walker/AFL Media)
South Australian draft prospect Alex Neal-Bullen
ALEX Neal-Bullen didn't know anything about education and disability courses when he was listing his university preferences about 18 months ago.

He had always been the sporty type at school, was interested in physical education, and believed it would be something he would pursue in the future. He played footy, and was good at it, and was keen to keep active.

But he had one more spot to fill in his handful of possible courses, and he thought he might as well add the double degree to his group of options.

"It caught my eye so I put it as my last preference," said Neal-Bullen, a South Australian likely to be picked at this month's NAB AFL Draft.

"Then I started reading into it more and really thought I'd enjoy the education disability course. It struck me as being something that's personally rewarding, but also a challenge."

By the time he had finished school at the end of last year, he knew it was what he wanted to do, particularly having drawn on his own personal experience.

For as long as the 18-year-old has known his grandma, she has been in a wheelchair.

Cheryl Neal was a jockey, but at the peak of her career had a fall, crashing into the rails and then being stomped on the head by a horse in 1980. She was in a coma for eight months, and was left a paraplegic from the waist down.

Neal-Bullen has heard stories about Cheryl: how she was the second woman in Australia to get her licence to ride against men, and how, in 1979, she became the first woman to win a race in Melbourne.

As a hard, physical and competitive midfielder aiming to be a professional athlete, Neal-Bullen has wondered how difficult it would have been for her to be so fit and successful, and to have that taken away aged 32.

She lives in Queensland, meaning Neal-Bullen only gets to see her once a twice or a year. When they do catch up, he helps her with the gardening, or pushes her chair in the shopping centre, small tasks that made him believe working in the education and disability field would suit him well.

"I thought if I could make her happy by doing little things around the house whenever she's over, that's what I could also get out of being in that type of workplace," Neal-Bullen said. "It's made me realise how lucky I am to have two legs and two arms that work."

Alex Neal-Bullen recovers after the three-kilometre run at the NAB AFL Draft Combine. Picture: AFL Media

Neal-Bullen has learned more than he thought he would in his first year of study. For a start, there was the adjustment to coming out of school, "where you feel like you've conquered everything, but then getting chucked into an environment where you don't know anyone".

There were the different teaching methods, and the day he spent at a school with deaf children and was surprised at how they weren't the shyest members of the class, but the most exuberant. There has also been a lesson in the language his teachers and lecturers are trying to spread.  

"They describe them as people living with a disability. It's about putting the person before the disability, instead of the disability ahead of the person," he said.

"I've also realised how people and groups can be perceived in certain ways. It's probably opened a blind eye for me to what happens outside of my own life."

Neal-Bullen is one of only three boys in the 100-strong course at Adelaide's Flinders University, and at first his friends wondered why he would get involved in that area. They've come around to it.  

"They always question why I did it. They definitely respect it, but they're surprised," he said. "One of my good mates has actually said he'd like to do it after he finishes his TAFE work, so hopefully I can help educate them some way. It's so rewarding."

Next year, he hopes to spend more time working with schools and students, and ultimately wants to work at a school with children living with disabilities, liking the idea of being a one-on-one assistant. But Neal-Bullen also has another goal for next year: to be on an AFL list.

He enjoyed a consistent campaign for South Australia at the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, and averaged 20 disposals in nine games in Glenelg's senior SANFL team. When the draft rolls around on November 27, he appears likely to fit in somewhere in the second round.

Combining his footy and study this year has kept him fresh. He's liked everything about putting forward his draft case to recruiters, but has also enjoyed the new and fulfilling sense he gets out of his other interests at university.

"It's not a getaway from footy because I love footy, but it's something completely different," he said. "If I did that sports course I was thinking about, it would have just been sport, sport, sport, sport.

"But I've been able to play my footy with my mates, have a laugh, get a workout, and then gone to uni where I've learned about something new. It's a lot of listening and taking in a new perspective. It's been a really good balance and I really couldn't have picked a better topic."