Special Report by Matt Cleary
There were a lights, cables and television cameras. There were journalists, politicians and police. Famous former footballers rubbed shoulders with CEOs. Chefs and cellarmen were interviewed like celebrities. The curator’s words were received as if from a sermon on a mount.
And there was ‘Matty’ – and he was grinning his head off.
The lifelong Parramatta fan stole the show at a press conference at Accor Stadium on Friday to promote Sunday’s NRL Grand Final. Shy at first but growing into his work he fronted the many microphones and told assembled media that Mitchell Moses would win the Clive Churchill Medal, that each team’s kicking game would be vitally important and that he hoped the best team would win and that that team would be Parramatta.
And on he went for a good hot minute, our Matty, channelling Paul Vautin and regaling the high-powered audience with his views on Sunday’s big game, on the tactics required to win, on the relative merits of the game’s two halfbacks.
And the more he spoke the more fun he had. When the hook finally came his eyes were glistening like a pixie’s.
Matty was at Accor Stadium as part of What Ability, a support service for folks of various abilities created by former Parramatta Eels player Steve Dresler. The idea is that current and former athletes take people out to have fun. They swim, they surf, the go ten-pin bowling. They hang out.
Dresler’s former team-mate Keegan Hipgrave is an account manager with What Ability. He says a typical day is a six-hour shift in which the athlete picks up the ‘participant’ and just heads off to have fun.
“We just get out into the community. We go swimming, surfing, ten pin bowling. There’s Flip Out, Time Zone. We have fun. It’s as simple as that: we just have fun,” Hipgrave says.
Two of those playing on Sunday night work with What Ability: Parramatta’s Dylan Walker and Reed Mahoney. Brooke Walker, a former Carlton AFLW and Australian rugby sevens player, turns out for the Eels’ NRLW team.
“Those guys have been amazing for us,” Hipgrave says. “Athletes are the most influential people in the community so when people see them out, a recognisable face, it’s just so good for the participant.”
A year ago, aged 24, Hipgrave was forced into early retirement from rugby league following a series of concussions. It was a similar story for Dresler at 21 – one ACL injury to many.
After going through the tough realisation that they couldn’t play footy anymore, both men threw themselves into their work. They’ll tell you they get more out than they put in.
“It’s been huge for me,” Hipgrave says. “It’s been the best transition out of rugby league. I see so many guys retire and they’re not sure what to do.
“I got to step into this role and have fun every day. People talk about needing a purpose behind their work, for me this is a huge tick. To see the smiles on people’s faces … it’s the best.”
Along with Brown, Mahoney and Walker, athletes on What Ability’s books include Manly’s Karl Lawton, Sean Keppie and Tom, Jake and Ben Trbojevic, and Wests Tigers Luke Garner who took a participant who wanted to lose weight to the gym.
“That’s what the athlete gets to do,” Hipgrave says. “Just spending time with the participant, it means the world to them.
“It’s truly amazing.”
The What Ability Foundation was launched at CommBank Stadium in Parramatta on December 2, 2021. Today What Ability has offices throughout NSW, as well as in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Perth and Melbourne. To get in touch, check out the website.