Rugby club takes young autistic man under its wing

Barbara Miller

The young man who runs onto the rugby field today bears little resemblance to the shy, awkward teenager who first approached the University of Queensland Rugby Club several years ago with an unusual request.

Connor Whelan, 22, appears happy and confident as he shakes hands with the opposing team, Souths.

Head coach Paul Farmer still remembers well the nervous autistic boy who first came to see him with his father, asking for something largely missing from his life, inclusion.

"He brought with him a need to be part of a team, part of a family, part of a culture and that's something this club I don't think had experienced," Mr Farmer said.

The club had never tried to integrate someone with a disability, but decided to give it a try.

"Four years on we can't get rid of him, he's at everything!" Mr Farmer said.

"He's running on the touchline, he's supporting the women's teams, the men's teams, the Colts teams. He's one of the first here and he's one of the last to leave."

Connor stands facing the camera holding a rugby ball. Photo: Connor Whelan on the field in Brisbane where he's found a community at UQ Rugby. (Supplied: Lachlan Whelan)


Connor's integration "didn't happen overnight", according to his father Michael Whelan.

The family initially wished their vulnerable son had found a different passion in life.

At school, Connor was bullied and excluded from rugby games.

"No-one really passed me the ball. People were being rude … people thought I wasn't good enough I guess," he said.

His mother Helen Whelan said never in her "wildest dreams" would she have thought a rugby club would be the place for Connor.

"I would have thought a nice little chess club or a nice little board games club might be a nice starting point," she said.

But Connor wanted nothing but rugby, so they made an approach to UQ Rugby.

In initial training sessions Connor's parents always sat nervously on the sidelines.

"We were probably too interventionist," Mr Whelan said.

"We were translating really," Ms Whelan said.

"Yes, translating what his needs were, what his level of participation might be," Mr Whelan said.

"We had such profound anxiety every time we'd take Connor to the field, just because of the track record of school, because of all the bullying, all of the absence of inclusion."

Teammates also learning from Connor

Connor Whelan is pictured with his team. Photo: Connor Whelan wears a red jersey to signal he should be tackled with less force than other players. (Supplied: Lachlan Whelan)


A system was developed to accommodate Connor. He wears a red jersey to signal he should be tackled with less force than other players.

If that sounds like a hinderance, the club says it has actually been a bonus.

"I think there's a lot of people here who are better footballers and better men for having played football with Connor," coach James Shand said.

"They've got to think more than just about themselves, they have to think about just that 10 per cent of something else that's going on.

"And that's life in general … and Connor's taught them that."

These days Connor's family couldn't be happier, overwhelmed that he has been welcomed as "one of the blokes".

An action shot of Connor running on the rugby field. Photo: Connor Whelan plays rugby with the University of Queensland team based in Brisbane. (Supplied: Lachlan Whelan)


"We were amazed at how much the boys stepped up to think, 'Oh, this is an opportunity for me to lead, this is an opportunity for me to be the best I can be'," Mr Whelan said.

"Even though boys will be boys and they're out there having fun and having a few beers, Connor's very much a participant and not a mascot."

"Before Connor joined the club he didn't have a social life almost," Connor's younger brother Lachie Whelan said.

"Being at home with family was really the only relationship he had with anyone."

He says Connor is now "one of the busiest members of family".

Connor knows he is lucky to have had a family who helped make his dreams come true, and to have found a "second family" in UQ Rugby.

"I'm just very grateful for the opportunities I've got today," he said.

That includes an offer to coach a new team being set up for kids with disabilities.

Even when UQ takes a beating there are beers and laughter in the clubhouse afterwards, for this is a team that has learned there is more to winning than just the final score.

The team didn't make the finals this year, but Connor said he had "learned some other valuable lessons".

"I have some great teammates. I'm always enjoying my mates, every second of the way."