Local News

Meet the Locals: Wheelchair Footy Star Chris ‘Hendo’ Henderson

Torquay local Chris Henderson, better known to his mates and fans as Hendo, has loved footy all his life.

When he was diagnosed with MS, it looked as though he might never play again, but a switch to wheelchair AFL was the start of a whole new chapter. Hendo tells us the best part of playing wheelchair footy for the Richmond Tigers, and what he loves about living on the Surf Coast.

Hi Chris, I believe you grew up in Ballarat. How did you end up in Torquay?

Back in the day, we would traipse down from Ballarat to Torquay for family holidays, so I always had an affinity with Torquay. When my wife Hollie and I got married, we bought a block and built out at Armstrong Creek. The strategy was to ‘rentvest’, so we were going to live in Melbourne and have a property portfolio down this way. But our life changed with my diagnosis of MS in October 2017. Then COVID hit, and all these things were transpiring to make us think that maybe we should move down the coast. Our son Ronny was born during one of the first lockdowns, so that was another motivation to get out of Melbourne and have a bit of a sea change.

You’ve been captain of the Richmond Tigers and Victorian state wheelchair football teams, as well as part of the All Australian team. Where did your wheelchair football journey begin?

I was diagnosed with MS in 2017, and then it took 2018 for me to get my treatment under control. The AFL encouraged me to get involved in 2018, but I hadn’t told anybody about my diagnosis. It was still pretty raw for me, so that first year I said, “I’m not interested.”

When they rang me again in 2019 and said, “Why don’t you come and try out again?” I was like, “Okay.” I felt my treatment was better. I was walking again, so I was in a better place. I went along to a draft combine day, and they whacked me in a chair, and I was terrible. I was really, really bad, but knowing you might end up in a chair one day means I was like, “I might as well embrace this.”

I really didn’t think I was going to get drafted. But I got drafted to Richmond. I started off in the reserves. We were playing Collingwood in round four or five, and at half time I was sitting on the bench. We were about 57 points down, and I said to the coach, “You might as well put me on.” He goes, “Yeah, off you go.” I scored seven goals in the second half, and we lost by four points. I jokingly said to the coach, “If you had put me on at quarter time, we might have won.” He laughed, but I never missed another game, and we never lost another game that season. We won the grand final in 2019 and I was really fortunate that I won the Richmond Best and Fairest, I won the League Best and Fairest and I won the medal for Best on Ground in the Grand Final against Collingwood.

Congratulations! How did last year’s season go?

I had a really good year in 2019. We were impacted in 2020 and 2021 by COVID. Then last year I played okay, but as a team we did really well. I captained last year and we won the Premiership. I think I finished fourth or fifth in the League Best and Fairest last year, but I got to captain the Victorian team.

What an honour.

The Wheelchair AFL National Championships have been around for about eight years, and Victoria had never won it. We won last year for the first time. We went through as Premiership Champs – we were undefeated in 14 games.

I’ve been really fortunate from the footy perspective. I missed playing footy when I got diagnosed and was told I would never play football again. That was pretty devastating. So to have this opportunity to play wheelchair footy has been profound, not just for me, but for a lot of other people as well.

While I first started playing purely for selfish reasons, I’ve seen firsthand the profound impact we can have on kids and on young adults. People play wheelchair sport because they’re born a certain way, or something catastrophic happens that impacts their life forever, or there’s an accident that causes them to become quadriplegics or have spinal injuries or whatever it may be. Since getting to wear the Richmond jumper, I’ve been able to visit schools and rehab centres and give some light to people that don’t see a lot of light when that stuff happens.

Would you say that’s been the best thing about playing wheelchair footy?

Yeah, it’s seeing the kids who come along and watch the games feel a sense of belonging that they’ve never felt before. A lot of kids with disabilities never get to feel like they’re a part of a tribe or a gang or a team.

The awards and the Premiership are amazing, but when I see kids that otherwise never get to be a part of something, and we make them feel like they can belong, nothing tops that.

I’m so proud of the fact that I had a small part to play in the launch of Wheelchair AFL Auskick this year. I’ve been along to a few of the days and I’ve got to know the kids. I get to coach those boys and girls, and their parents say, “From a health perspective they’re deteriorating, but their mental health has never been better.” I reckon it’s really powerful.

Without a doubt. How’s the 2023 season going so far?

Thinking of selling?
Just researching the market?

We’ve had some challenges. We lost a few players last year. One of our superstars, Teisha Shadwell, is in the US playing college wheelchair basketball on a scholarship. I think there’s only two of us left from our 2019 premiership, so we’ve had a bit of a changing of the guard.

We’re going okay, sitting on top of the ladder. We’ve had some wins, some losses, so it’s pretty competitive, and we’re really excited that in a couple of weeks’ time we’re bringing the show to Torquay.

We’re excited about that too! Tell us about it.

The AFL rang me in January, and they said, “Where can we play down your way?” I said, “In Torquay there’s the Wurdi Baierr Stadium, that’s an amazing venue.” It’s a great venue, it’s all abilities, it’s accessible, it’s a great spot. I left it at that and the next thing, the fixture was released and unbeknownst to me they’re now hosting a game. We’re playing the Saints, the Pies are taking on the Hawks, the Community League is playing before the senior game, so there’ll be four games of footy on Sunday 9 July.

I’m pretty thrilled to have it in my backyard. We’re a part of the Torquay community, which we love, and now we’re getting to host the sport of wheelchair footy down here. I hope that Torquay people come along. It’s free to come along and watch. I appreciate there is a big Geelong crowd down this way but hopefully, just for the Sunday, until Geelong has a team in the wheelchair footy league, maybe the locals can be pseudo Tiger fans for the day. Hopefully there’ll be a few yellow and black Torquay Tigers jumpers getting around.

I’m sure there will be. You play other sports, too, don’t you?

So many things that have happened in my life since my diagnosis have been ‘pinch me’ moments. One of those was when the Australian Paralympic Committee reached out to me two years ago about getting involved in the Paralympic movement.

I tried a few different sports, badminton and a few others, and I wasn’t very good at them. Before I was diagnosed, I used to play a lot of beach volleyball, so I had some beach volleyball background. Long story short, last year I got to fly over to America and represent Australia in World Beach ParaVolley, which was amazing.

And you play wheelchair basketball for Team Geelong?

An amazing lady, Kay from Parallel Sports, approached me late last year about doing more in the local Surf Coast/Geelong community. Parallel Sports do some amazing things with wheelchair basketball in schools and Kay has been instrumental in creating a local wheelchair basketball league. I went along to help out, and we’ve seen it grow. We play on Tuesday nights at Try Boys Stadium in Geelong.

I think as much sport as possible for kids is so beneficial for them, and so I encourage kids that play wheelchair AFL to come down to Geelong and play basketball with me. This year we drafted one of the guys from Geelong wheelchair basketball, Gary Overliese, into the Richmond side. He’s been a great contributor. And Mitch Bond has been drafted to Hawthorn, so there’s a few kids from the Geelong Surf Coast area that are now playing wheelchair AFL. I’d love to see more of it.

What do you love about living on the Surf Coast?

The sea air, the sea breeze. I love it in winter when there’s no crowds. A couple of weeks ago we bought a bike with a big cargo box on the front, so every weekend Hollie, Ronny, and I, and our little dog Bowie, cruise around the streets of Torquay. We love just the laid-back feel of the place.

I think Hollie and I were both sea babies in some past life. Even in the winter we’ll walk through the edges of the water in our bare feet, even though it’s bloody cold, just because we love the salt water.

We love it when people go, “Oh yeah, I’m coming to Torquay for a holiday.” We’re so blessed that we consider this our home and where we live. We are really fortunate in that regard.

We definitely are. Thanks for the chat, Hendo, and good luck for your match in Torquay!

You can see Hendo and the Richmond Tigers wheelchair AFL team take on St Kilda at Wurdi Baierr Stadium, Torquay, on Sunday 9 July 2023.