Marc's exclusion from footy team a victory for cold-hearted pedantry

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Respected: Marc Reichler-Stillhard is a beloved figure in the community of Clarence Valley. Photo: Enid Reichler-Stillhard

Respected: Marc Reichler-Stillhard is a beloved figure in the community of Clarence Valley. Photo: Enid Reichler-Stillhard

Bring it in tight.

This is the story of Marc Reichler-Stillhard, a fine young fellow, born with Down syndrome up Yamba way, and immediately embraced by the local community of the mighty Clarence Valley, where the river flows fast, the fields grow green and the local folk are strong. Integrated with mainstream classes at the local schools and signed up with local sporting clubs, Marc has been a beloved figure who has learnt as much from the kids around him, as they have learnt from him.

I recounted one story of Marc a couple of years ago, in The Fitz Files. On a sunny day in March 2015, see, the young lads of Yamba are playing the game of their lives against the boys of nearby Lawrence in the local under-12 cricket grand final. No quarter asked for or given, Lawrence has set a good total, but the Yamba young'uns are a confident breed and they go out hard after it. And they get there, too. The scores are level with two balls to go! Yamba's last man on strike is Marc, and as he walks to the crease, the crowd holds its breath.

The second last ball is bowled, Marc swings valiantly and ... misses. One ball to go. The Lawrence bowler, a good sport with a fine instinct that some things are more important than mere trophies, a credit to his town, sends down an easier ball. This time young Marc connects, and starts to run like a scalded hare, but the ball is in the air. The Lawrence fieldsman runs in to take the catch ... but drops it. Yamba wins. Marc is carried off the field on the shoulders of both teams, as the crowd roars.

What's not to like? What's not to weep about?

Marc's parents, and the Yamba community take a similar approach to soccer, a sport that Marc loves. For the past couple of years, Marc has been running around with the Yamba soccer club, as an extra – that is, at the suggestion of his coach, he's been taking the field as a 12th man, running out with the others and doing the best he can. Though he's now 16, he's been playing with the under-14s, as it is his best chance of making some contribution, given that he is a lot smaller than his peers and has issues of co-ordination. Every match, Yamba has asked the opposing team if its OK and the opposing teams have – bless their cotton socks – never had a problem. The people of the Clarence Valley are just like that.

"Marc does his absolute best and the kids are phenomenal," Marc's mother Enid Reichler-Stillhard told ABC North Coast Radio this week. "When you watch how they interact with Marc, they help him on the field and off the field and make him feel good about himself. He is valued and they want him to play. It gives you goosebumps. The team once gave Marc the ball and said 'go with it Marc' and he ran the length of the field with it, and the kids fell over their own feet not to take the ball off him."

What's not to like?

It has been wonderful for Marc and his family, great for the Yamba team who love to play with him, and make sure he gets to kick the ball, and the opposing teams in the Clarence Valley have respected the situation, and Marc, not taking advantage of his position in the team.

So it's all fun in the sun, yes, in a manner that would bring a tear to a glass eye, as the true spirit of community sport for kids is embraced? Yes, for nearly everyone.

Somewhere out there, however, last week, a complaint was made by just one of the opposing clubs that this was – wait for it – against the rules, asking North Coast Football to stop Marc playing as a 12th man.

NCF have upheld the complaint. Though they are OK to provide an exemption to him on grounds of age, they now insist that Yamba field only 11 players.

And so allow me please, a few words, NCF, and the club making the complaint.

I respectfully submit that you are making the wrong decision and should reconsider. This is kids' sport. This is about fun, about inclusion, about humanity. It may or may not be that Marc's inclusion affects the outcome of the game one way or another, but, who gives a flying frock?

Take as your inspiration that bowler and fielder of the Lawrence cricket team back in 2015. They get it. Can't you?

Think on it, and get back to us. We all want to know, and crow, that the community of the Clarence Valley can continue to cover themselves in glory, as they have to this point.

And reflect on the words of Marc's mother in a Facebook post: "I just want every single person involved with Clarence Valley soccer to know we are so grateful and appreciative of all the support they have given to Marc over the last few years. To all the parents who are raising amazing compassionate children, thank you! I don't think anyone realises how much it means to Marc who gets to feel the achievement of playing and being part of a team and to us as a family getting to watch him have so much fun."

Let Marc play! Please!

Rethink, please, on Marc

The Fitz Files received an enormous response to my piece on Thursday about young Marc Reichler-Stillhard. I have been besieged by emails wondering if, in response to the article, NCF might, in the spirit of junior sport, relent, and allow him to play. Sadly, it seems unlikely.

Nevertheless I respectfully submit to NCF, again, that is the wrong decision, and they should reconsider. I say again: this is kids' sport. This is about fun, about inclusion, about humanity. It may or may not be that Marc's inclusion affects the outcome of the game one way or another, but, who gives a flying frock? His inclusion has been heart-warming, and a great credit to soccer. His exclusion, on the mere grounds of "the rules" – when at this age the whole point of the exercise is fun in the sun on the run – is a victory for cold-hearted pedantry. And good on you, Kevin Hogan, local member for speaking about it in Federal Parliament.

Hopefully, David Gallop, CEO of Football Federation of Australia can fix it. If he can't fix it maybe the Tucabia Football Club can. The origins of the complaint, I am informed, came from two of their parents, against the wishes of their president. Can the board of the mighty Tucabia club not meet, and pass a resolution saying Tucabia, like Yamba, stands for inclusiveness and, as a club, we want Marc to play. All those in favour, say aye! #LetMarcPlay.

Read the rest of Peter FitzSimons’s column here.