Outside of the Hawthorn Football Club, most people wouldn’t have heard of Peter Ogunyemi.
He isn’t a household name, like so many connected with the Hawks.
Yet in the halls of Waverley Park, it appears few are better received.
Midway through a conversation in the club gym, AFL defender Jarman Impey stops to greet Peter with a hug.
The skipper of Hawthorn’s Wheelchair Football Team, Peter has a story that transcends sport.
He was born in Nigeria.
Unable to walk from a young age.
In an environment where to have a disability was damning.
“I grew up with no crutches and no wheelchair so everywhere I went, I just had to crawl,” Peter says.
“If you have a disability, nobody remembers you.”
It was hard.
“When I was at school, I used to use a walking stick and some of the kids would take my stick and put it in the ceiling. Then they would sit on chairs and laugh.”
“So I used to climb the windows, like a monkey, get in there, get my stick and come down and be like, what else do you want to do?”
“I wanted to prove to them that whatever they did to me, I was ready for it.”
Peter was selected to represent Nigeria in powerlifting at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000.
He travelled the world, playing and coaching wheelchair basketball.
This is hardly surprising. Peter is positive by nature.
There is warmth in his voice. He doesn’t smile, he beams. He laughs with his body.
But this hasn’t always been the case.
Peter is candid about his mental health issues in the past.
“I broke my elbow the day before my event at the Paralympics. I didn’t want to talk about it. I kept it all in. I thought nobody needs to know my problem, no one needs to know what I’m going through.”
“For six months, I just believed it was all over. I’m done, I’m finished with this world, everything is all gone.”
“Now I know, if I’d spoken about it, I probably wouldn’t have gone down that route.”
“If you keep it bottled up, it becomes like a timebomb and it can take you to a place you never want to be.”
“Disability or no disability, everyone has issues, everyone has problems, and I believe the best way to be free from them is just to speak out.”
Peter is in a good place now. Family is a big part of that. So is sport.
When he moved to Australia, Peter was invited to try wheelchair football. He accepted.
He picked it up quickly. So quickly that he was chosen to represent Victoria.
“I was selected to play for Team B – we had two teams, Team A and Team B. Luckily for our Team B, we beat Team A and that year I was named the best forward in Australia. And ever since then, I’ve never stopped.”
Only six months ago, he was selected in the All-Australian side (ironically enough, in defence).
While he is the Hawks’ inaugural captain-coach and the 2018 best and fairest, Peter is nothing if not humble.
“I won’t lie to you, the first time I got the call that I was being picked as the captain, I was crying. Coming from my background, it’s something that I thought was never going to happen in life."
"Looking back to where I was born, how I grew up, I was nobody, I was fighting through life and just to be part of this organisation is something that I will never, never forget in my life.”
“I remember the first game I played, putting on that Hawks jersey, it’s like I’m in heaven and it just made us feel like we were part of this community.”
“No matter where I go and where I tell my story, it will always be there for life.”
Peter works for Disability Sport and Recreation (DSR), driving all over Victoria to present at schools.
It’s important to Peter to share his message.
“Back in Africa where I was born, there’s a lot of people who need help. The challenge I set for myself was if I couldn’t better my life, I couldn’t change anyone else’s."
“I go back to Africa almost every year to run wheelchair basketball programs.”
“The only way I knew how to change lives was through sport. I thought if I challenge myself to get to the top, that way I can come back down and help others.”
Since becoming a father, setting an example has become even more important.
“Being a father as someone who has a disability is very challenging, just like it is for all people.”
“It’s very enjoyable. It keeps me on my toes – even though I can’t walk!”
“The first time my wife told me she was pregnant, I was like okay, how am I going to cope with all this? Because you want your kids to have the best life, you want them to be happy.”
“Being a father helps me relate with other kids when I go out to schools and I tell you, I think it really makes me a better person.”
Despite all the challenges he has endured, Peter’s approach remains unchanged.
“No matter how strong you are in life, there’s always something that you didn’t prepare for. And the question is, how do you deal with it?”
“The best way to do that is to seek help. Once you do that, there’s going to be peace in your mind and when that peace comes in, you can say okay.”
“Whatever comes, here I am.”
Hawthorn Football Club is a Community Partner of Beyond Blue.