It’s midday on a Tuesday and Matt Nitschke is holding court in the lunchroom of The Barossa Council, enthusiastically dissecting the weekend’s local sports results with his colleagues.
It’s a much-loved weekly ritual for this one-eyed, unfailingly loyal grassroots sports supporter from Marananga.
In winter, it’s the Nuriootpa Tiger’s football team who dominate the conversation, while the hot topic in summer is the fortunes of the Greenock ‘Schlungers’ or the Nuriootpa Bowling Club.
The discussion gets particularly heated if it involves Light Pass.
Matt’s love for sport has been part of his life for as long as he can remember, following in the footsteps of his dad David, mum Ann, Uncle Peter (Wooley) and brother Sam.
“Dad was a premiership player for Nuri in A grade, B grade and colts.
“Sam played footy for Nuri and cricket for Greenock, and mum played netball for That Other Team,” quips Matt.
“Mum’s side is pretty much all Tanunda…I live with it!”
Not just an avid spectator and clubman, Matt has made valuable contributions to the respective clubs in various roles, including interchange steward, entering the day’s results from every grade, scorer and regular match reporter in his dad’s coaching days.
“Life is interesting…challenging,” says Matt. “But I’ve learned ways to get around the barriers.
“I don’t see me as having a disability, I suppose I see it as ability. Instead of looking at what I can’t do, I look at what I can do.”
It’s this attitude that has helped Matt meet the many challenges of living with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid on the brain that is managed through a semi-permanent shunt.
Matt has seen the inside of more hospital rooms than he cares to remember, and has the ongoing challenge of 30 per cent lung capacity due to repeated bouts of pneumonia.
But he’s grateful for every day, with good reason.
“I wasn’t expected to live beyond the first three months of my life,” explains Matt.
“Mum and dad were travelling up and down every day from the Barossa to the Women’s and Children’s, not knowing what to expect, if I was alive or not. They were quite worried, the doctors and mum and dad.”
If that’s an understatement, it’s also characteristic of Matt’s ‘dialled-down’ approach to life.
“I do take life seriously, but I can see the funny side of most things,” he says. “My funniest saying is half man, half car.”
He’s referring, of course, to the set of wheels that is crucial to his mobility, equipped with a Smart Drive motor to give him a boost when he needs it.
“I control the speed through my smart watch,” Matt explains.
“The top speed is 10 kilometres – I haven’t got it up there yet,” he says with a grin that suggests he’d certainly like to.
Having this independence is vitally important to Matt, who politely declines offers of help whenever possible.
“A lot of people come up and say do you want to be pushed? I don’t take offence, but that’s a last resort, because I like to get around myself,” he says.
“Education and disability awareness is better than it used to be, but you do get people who don’t really understand.”
High-profile advocates like world lawn bowls champion, Liam Buckley and Australian tennis star, Dylan Alcott are helping bring visibility to the lived experience of people with disability.
“I think that’s inspirational,” says Matt of Alcott’s Australian of the Year Award. “It’s big for disability.”
Matt too is an advocate for the disability sector, as a member of the Barossa Disability Access and Inclusion Committee, alongside his part-time work at Nuriootpa Library and Barossa Enterprises.
But his biggest achievements have taken place in the inclusive sports arena, as a fledgling lawn bowler with Nuriootpa Bowling Club and as an SANFL wheelchair footballer.
His debut with Central Districts in the 2021 inaugural season was a highlight of his 33 years.
“I put my name down for the draft and thought nothing of it – I never really knew there was such a thing,” Matt recalls.
“A couple weeks later I got this email on a letterhead saying congratulations Matthew, you have been drafted by the Central Districts Football Club in the inaugural wheelchair football league season!”
Played on a basketball court, the modified rules include a handball for a kick, an underarm throw for a handball and a touch on an opposition player for a tackle.
Matt describes his first goal of his career as a memorable one: “I came off the bench and I was so hyped up, I went BANG and it got through!”
His newfound sporting status is not lost on Matt, who never misses an opportunity for a jibe.
“I say to my parents, I’m the only league footballer in the family! Dad just says ‘tickets’ and laughs,” grins Matt.