There’s a moment in nearly every retirement speech I’ve heard where the player up the front gets a catch in their throat. Time and time again I’ve seen grown men hold back tears as they look out at their teammates. It’s something you don’t really understand until you leave the game yourself. 

When you ask players who’ve hung up the boots what they miss the most about playing footy, rarely will you find it’s the crowds, or the fame, or even money. The response you’ll get the more often than not is something like, “I miss being in the changerooms with my mates every day.”

Mateship, unitedness, comradery. Call it what you want. It pervades footy changerooms more strongly than the smell of Dencorub and deep heat. It’s that thing that turns a Michael into Mick, and a Lauren into a Loz. It’s very much a part of the reason why retiring players get that catch in their throat when they stand at the front of the room.

It’s a force which resides within all levels of footy. It’s why grown men and women take an extra bag to work with a change of clothes and footy boots inside. It’s why teammates slap each other on the back between drills. It’s why sport holds such a unique place in this country of ours, and it’s why I want to write about two young men that I know: Errol Gulden and Isaiah Olsen. 

Two years ago, I did some coaching with the Swans Academy. The group I was mainly concerned with was 15 at the time and what struck me was not just the talent of the boys— which I had been informed about being coming on board—but the sense of connection between them all. You see representative teams in junior footy can harbour an interesting dynamic which doesn’t allow the mateship I’ve described above to flourish. Before the Academy came in, we had trials for the NSW/ACT RAMs squad up at Coffs Harbour over the course of a week. We had a few weeks of training as a group before the carnival where we mainly focussed on learning each other’s names and refining our skills. At these sorts of carnivals it feels like your competing against each other for spots, and it can get selfish. The way the Academy works allows boys, and now girls, to grow and develop alongside each other for a number of years, meaning that they develop as teammates and also as mates.

During my brief stint as a coach, there was one friendship in particular which stuck out to me. I first noticed it while we were upstairs in the gym. In the furthest corner I saw two of the smaller boys joking around with each other between sets but then quickly switching on when it was their time to perform. When I went over, they were talking about plans to go fishing. Between the two I felt this incredibly sense of comfort and trust.  

These two boys were Errol and Isaiah.  

When you watch Isaiah play, you can tell he has a rugby background. He has that step on him that one hones on a rectangular field or in lunchtime games of touch footy in the schoolyard. He’s illusive and agile. He can break tackles and change games with his pace, and while quiet off the field, he has a confidence on it that is refreshing to see. As he approached the pointy end of his junior sports career, Isaiah was faced with the choice that many other talented junior sportsmen in New South Wales make: the choice between the codes. Isaiah tells me that the care shown by Chris Smith and the Swans Academy was a big part of the reason he has chosen the path he has, and he says he is glad to have pursued Australian rules football because he loves the “freedom” on the ground that the game brings.

Errol Gulden is a name that many people will know one day, if not already. I’m fairly certain of this. I’ve played alongside a host of talented players throughout the years, and he’s got that combination of talent and attitude that the very best have. He can play inside or outside, covering the ground as good as any, and he has a knack for kicking goals which is always handy for a midfield. Above all, he’s a competitive leader who just loves the game of footy. After the Sydney AFL grand final last year, you’d never seen a kid so happy to have a medal around his neck.

Isaiah says he remembers the first time they met. It was in one of the first sessions he did with the Academy and as he did the rounds introducing himself to everyone and he and Errol struck up a friendship straight away. For the rest of the session they got around each other in drills, and in the weeks that followed they would form a friendship first by kicking a footy, and then by becoming mates off the field.

Errol and Isaiah have come a long way since I first saw them in the gym two years ago. Upon seeing them again, what was most obvious was the fact that they’d both spend a bit more time in the weights room. They’ve both had unique footballing and off field journeys, but that friendship still exists and today, the two are not only teammates and best mates, but also house mates.

At the start of the year, Isaiah made the decision to move down to Sydney from Newcastle. Isaiah tells me the hardest thing has been being away from his family. He has three sisters Seiannah (20), Kyah (12) and Freya (3), and one brother Arlen (4). His family means a lot to him, he’s a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man and he says that he doesn’t find it easy to let people into his circle. The move down to Sydney was rather daunting, but thankfully the transition has been made much easier thanks to his mate Errol who has opened his family home.

They spend a lot of time together. Errol drops Isaiah to work every day before going off to do his uni work, and in the afternoon the two come to training together. I’m lead to believe that Errol controls the music in the car, Isaiah describes the musical choice as “alty indie rock”. Errol describes it as anything that would feature on the Inbetweeners soundtrack. Getting to the bottom of it, I can tell you that it’s the early Arctic Monkeys albums.

Both boys have dreams to play at the highest level, and no matter where their footballing journeys take them, they are adamant that they’ve made a mate for life. That’s the thing I love about sports. It brings people together who might not normally cross paths, like a rugby player from Newcastle, and an Eastern Suburbs Aussie rules player. Such is the bond between Errol and Isaiah that they describe each other as “brothers”. When they say it, you can tell they really mean it.  

After I finished talking to Errol and Isaiah—both naturals in front of the camera might I say—they went and joined in the warmup game of soccer with the rest of their teammates. I could hear them yelling with excitement in the background as I stood on the boundary line. While I was writing down notes from our conversations a group of girls started handballing in front of me in preparation for their session. One girl turned to the girl next to her and asked, “So what school do you go to?” while the footy flew between them.

Some things won’t ever change with football.

It’s beautiful isn’t it?