Sport

Port Adelaide’s Justin Westhoff on the machine that is AFL football, the evolution of the game and finding his social conscience. By Paul Connolly.
Credit: Michael Dodge / Getty Images

Kicking goals: Justin Westhoff, 31, Australian rules footballer

I grew up in the Barossa in a little town called Tanunda, where my parents and two brothers still live. To roam around the hills and vineyards and be a kid with not too many restrictions was a good thing. As it was to have two brothers to cause a little trouble with. We definitely didn’t miss out on too many things growing up down there.

That freedom definitely helped shape my relaxed personality and my ability to be able to roll with the punches. Obviously that helps in the high-strung game of AFL. It added insight into what I wanted my life to be going forward, and that work–life balance is important.

You always have doubts on your ability to play at such an elite level. It’s probably only once you finish and look back do you realise what you’ve achieved and smile a little bit. At the moment you can still get caught up in the professional sport bubble.

At times playing AFL can be all-absorbing; riding the roller-coaster of winning and losing each week. Obviously trying to be a role model to the community, all that that brings. And the social and media aspects can grind away as well. In the early days it can catch up with you, the big machine of what AFL is, the business that it is.

At times I definitely do envy amateur footballers. To be able to play a game of footy and have a beer after the game and spin a few stories with the guys. You can get jealous at times and think why do you put yourself through [professional football], but in the end it’s a really rewarding career. To create memories with friends who you’ve stood beside for years is so important to me and I wouldn’t give it up for anything else.

I think AFL is a better game today than when I started 12 seasons ago. It’s more entertaining than ever. You’ll never go back to the days of guys kicking 10, 12 goals every week and where it’s all one on one. It would be mad to stay in that space. The game is always going to evolve. Each club is trying to be innovative with different styles. The end goal is that you want to win and that you’ll adapt your game to accomplish that.

The shift from the old-school to modern game has probably suited the way I play footy, playing a variety of roles. This means you can play a lot longer in the game than the centre half-forward, full-forward might have in the past.

Obviously footy doesn’t last forever and you need something you feel passionate about. That’s something I’ve been exploring with a friend of mine [Scott Rogasch]. His parents own a 10-acre vineyard up the Barossa and a few years ago we started making a little bit of wine for us and our friends. Then we got a food truck that we take to markets and festivals. That has transpired into something bigger.

Our business has become a social enterprise. Because of the food truck we wanted to grow our own food, to source it sustainably. We set up a school-based community garden at a Barossa school. Our van buys produce from there and excess food goes to a great organisation called the Hutt St Centre, which is a homeless centre [in Adelaide].

The opportunity to help the less fortunate is a pretty high priority for me. We’re now looking to hire some of those guys in our van to give them work, give them a pay packet to help them through. And from doing a little to help feed the homeless we’re looking into affordable housing ventures. [My social conscience] is definitely something that’s evolved. I never would have expected to be running a business like this and it’s not easy but we’re in a space now where we can make some good progress.

Life is busy but it’s fun. I’ve got three kids under seven. My son, the oldest, is just starting footy and I’m enjoying going out to watch him.

As far as footy goes I’m hoping to play finals. We’ve made a big step forward this year and as a group you want to be playing finals. That’s why I’m still around.

This week’s highlights…

• Horseracing: Winx Stakes Day

Saturday, 1st race 12.05pm (AEST), Royal Randwick, Sydney

• AFL: Collingwood v Port Adelaide

Saturday, 1.45pm (AEST), Melbourne Cricket Ground

Rugby: Bledisloe Cup – Wallabies v All Blacks

Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), ANZ Stadium, Sydney

• Netball: Preliminary final – Giants Netball v Sunshine Coast Lightning

Sunday, 1pm (AEST), Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney

• NRL: Canberra Raiders v Sydney Roosters

Sunday, 4.10pm (AEST), GIO Stadium Canberra

• Tennis: Western & Southern Open (Cincinnati Masters), singles finals

Monday, from 4am (AEST), Cincinnati, Ohio

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Kicking goals". Subscribe here.

Paul Connolly
is a freelance journalist and the editor of the anthology Father Figures.