James Bell grew up in Adam Goodes’ shadow. Like the Sydney Swans legend, Bell is proudly Indigenous. And like Goodes, he also played soccer as a kid before eventually choosing to pursue a career in the AFL.
When Bell was 15, he spent three days in a talent camp run by Goodes and it proved utterly life-changing. Not only was it a rare chance to catch up with his cousins, who lived elsewhere in rural NSW, it also brought him into the orbit of the man who would become his idol.
“It gave me a bit of hope. I was only just starting to get into AFL as well,” Bell told the Herald. “To have one of the greats come watch you train, it had a massive impact on me. And then I was just like glued to him.”
Bell, 20, has one more thing in common with Goodes – a lifetime of experience as a victim of racism. Originally from Shellharbour, Bell remembers the first time he was called a monkey. He was in first grade at school.
“My mum used to cut my hair – she used to shave my head because it was the easiest thing to do,” he said.
“I’d always cry and I never told her (why) … I didn’t want to make her think I was crying because she was doing a bad haircut, it’s just because I know I’d go to school and get called a monkey.
“I’ve never encountered it on the footy field or anything, which is good, but in the Christmas break I went to the shops with my little cousin and just had one of the workers following me around the whole joint.
“They were deadset just watching us buy food and stuff. I always get anxious going shopping because I feel like they think I’m going to steal something all the time.”
Now on Sydney’s rookie list and slowly closing in on his AFL opportunity, Bell’s journey has come full circle. Goodes has decided to pass the reins of the talent program that bears his name onto the game’s next generation of Indigenous leaders in NSW.
Bell, GWS Giants star Zac Williams and Delma Gisu – the first AFLW player to come from the Torres Strait Islands – will take charge of the camp for the next three years thanks to a new partnership deal with Transport for NSW.
“We know our role as Indigenous players goes beyond the football field and it gives me immense pride that the next generation of Indigenous players are willing to use their voice and platform to mentor and support the next generation, just as I have,” Goodes told the Herald.
“This program was always bigger than success on the field as athletes. For me success is watching young Indigenous people that have come through this program and have been imbued with a sense of leadership that they can take back to their communities.”
The transition comes at a time when the AFL industry is reliving the shameful saga that prompted Goodes to hang up his boots.
It all started when the dual Brownlow medallist pointed out a 13-year-old girl who called him an “ape” during a match against Collingwood in 2013.
Two documentaries to be released this year will revisit the events that followed which saw Goodes effectively booed into retirement. The first, The Final Quarter, will premiere at the Sydney Film Festival next month, and the lessons from it have been heeded by Bell, Williams and Gisu.
“Oh man, it took me back,” Bell said. “The people high up in the AFL saying the things they were saying … he’s someone I looked up to and he’s getting treated like this. I can relate so much to it.”
Bell was a fan in the crowd at the 2015 Indigenous round match at the SCG, sitting right next to the Carlton supporters who Goodes threw an imaginary spear at. “My eyes just lit up,” he said.
“I was so happy, so proud of that moment. And then seeing later on, people’s opinions on it, it made me feel sick … I saw one fellow pulled out of the crowd and walked off by the police. It was just a shock to me that it triggered that type of reaction.”
Bell has always had enormous pride in his Indigenous heritage, growing up around uncles, aunties and grandparents who made an effort to keep alive their traditional customs. He also understands the importance of taking a stand like Goodes did.
“It’s the best thing in the world, going home and learning stories, different corroborees and dancing,” Bell said. “I have no shame in doing that kind of stuff. I’m more confident in doing all that than public speaking.”
Now Bell, Williams and Gisu can use their experiences to help shape the future of young boys and girls who are treading the same path they once did. Goodes and fellow Swans great Michael O’Loughlin will be available to them all as mentors, but the torch has been officially passed.
“I just feel so good about it,” Bell said. “I get to teach these young kids a thing or two about this culture or how to deal with certain situations.
“They can play footy – I don’t have to tell them how to play – it’s just the other off-field stuff … being a good role model.
“It’s the biggest thing for me, I reckon, knowing there’s other Aboriginal people who’ve gone through that journey as well.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.