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Faith in Football – An Interview with the Essendon Football Club Chaplain
With few exceptions – such as jockey Darren Beadman or golfer Aaron Baddeley - Australia’s elite sports people are pretty taciturn about their religious beliefs. Like Australians generally. Which is not to say that many sports people are not deeply religious.
I talked about this and other matters with Baptist pastor Allan Dunn, chaplain to the Essendon Football Club, one of Australia’s most popular football clubs.
“There are players in football who have a really strong faith,” he told me. “It means a lot to them. But they are not flamboyant about it. It’s not like America. In Australia our culture is different.”
The concept of sports chaplaincy is relatively new in Australia. When Allan was appointed in 1991 there were few others. How did it come about?
He grew up in Essendon, in Melbourne’s west. Some of his classmates became famous players. He followed the club passionately. Even while serving as a missionary in Ethiopia in the 1960s he used to listen to match reports on Radio Australia.
Then, back home in Melbourne, a promising teenager named Gavin Wanganeen – soon to become one of Australia’s footballing greats - arrived from Adelaide to play for Essendon. For several years he stayed with Allan and his family, via an introduction by Allan’s brother, an Adelaide pastor.
“I used to take him back and forwards to matches. They were looking for a chaplain at that time. They said to me they had trainers and dieticians and doctors and physios and so on, and they wanted to cover the spiritual side as well. I was asked if I would be interested.”
What does a football chaplain do?
“I’m there up to 15 hours a week during the season. I go to training two afternoons a week, and I’m in the dressing room before and after the games. I try to do the same with the reserves as well. I’m there as a counsellor and also to encourage and help in any way I can.
“There are unique stresses that affect elite athletes. There are personal crises from injury and recuperation, and stresses from the high expectations that the public can place on players. Depression levels can be high. There’s a lot of marriage counselling. And I’m there when tragedies hit a family. In a sense I’m like their pastor. I marry them and christen their children. So far I haven’t had to bury anyone.”
He said that one of the times of greatest stress was when a player is delisted from the club. “Their whole life changes. I spend a lot of time with them. I keep in touch.”
He described his work as a privilege. “I take it seriously. A lot of those guys wouldn’t see Christian values but for my presence. I’m God’s representative. But you know something – it’s been better for me than for the players. It’s helped me see life as it really is. I understand the world and world views better. I’m a better person as a pastor.”