The Noongar people, from who Northern Bullants midfield coach Jason Williams draws his Indigenous heritage from, have held their traditional land, located in what is also known as South Western Australia, dear for around 50,000 years.
Having, like all Aboriginal people, a close association with nature, the Noongar believe there are six seasons each year which marks when the weather turns and a new phase begins, bringing with it changes in the landscape, flora and fauna.
The Noongar knew when a new season was approaching by seeing change in certain plants which always heralded the next season before it was upon them.
The six seasons – conception (Djilba), birth (Kambarang), the young (Birak), adolescence (Bunuru), adulthood (Djeran), and finally fertility (Makuru) – could easily be attributed to the story of Williams and the evolution of his life.
Djilba (conception) and Kambarang (birth)
Before Jason, now 28, those who went before him suffered unfathomable cruelty in an Australia which openly repressed Indigenous cultures.
“My grandmother – her mother had to give her up to a non-Aboriginal family who raised her,” Williams said. “My grandmother was very lucky that this non-Aboriginal family loved her and cared for her as if she was their own.”
“But for her to move away from her family and off country, from where she was born, and to go to a non-Aboriginal family was pretty tough.”
“My grandfather told me stories of how, every day, someone would come, and he would have to run off into the bush so that the police couldn’t come and take him away from his family.”
“He did that until he was old enough to go and work,” Williams continues. “He tells me stories of when he was walking home from work the police would stop him and go through his pockets to see if he had no money – and if he did have money – they would lock him up because they would think he had stolen it.”
Williams’ introduction to the world was thankfully – even only if relatively – easier compared to what his older generation went through.
He grew up in Narrogin, a small, predominantly Aboriginal, town around 2 hours’ drive south east of Perth, and he felt a close affinity with his heritage.
Whilst his father was Aboriginal, Williams’s mother was not, however she was key in ensuring Jason understood his history.
“I am so grateful that she made it clear to me who I am, where I am from, who my family are,” Williams said.
After his parents separated, Williams and his mother moved to Sunbury, in Melbourne, at the age of eight and he instantly noticed a change in not only the landscape but also the tangible disconnection from his culture.
“Going from a place where I could just walk across the road and be in the bush with my family to a place where I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike to school,” he said. “I didn’t understand that – I couldn’t comprehend it.”
“I remember going to school…being in year 2 and walking around the school looking for the Aboriginal people.”
“It really messed with me inside, and I struggled with my identity for a large part of my younger life.”
In a land which was new, and a people he did not understand, Williams struggled to find his place in the world, and he lost a sense of belonging. Football would eventually be his way to create connection and be part of the society around him.
“I felt like I did belong, I felt like I didn’t have to justify myself to people anymore, I felt like I could just go out, play footy, have a kick on the weekend and enjoy my time with my friends,” he said.
Whilst Williams felt part of the predominantly white world around him through being a talented footballer, he still knew a piece of him had been left behind in Narrogin.
“I really did struggle with my cultural identity from the age of eight up until 16 or 17,” he said.
“It was very, very confronting for me to walk around being a pale skinned Aboriginal person, tell people that I am Aboriginal, and have them not believe me. It was a very tough thing to do and I must say, it was not a conversation I walked away from being very comfortable.”
Williams thrived as a footballer and was selected to represent the Calder Cannons in the elite Under-18 TAC Cup competition, whom he would later help win a premiership. He knew he could think about playing AFL as a career when he was chosen to play for the Vic Metro team against the best talent in the land.
More importantly though, the talent pathways connected him with AFL Indigenous program leaders such as Aaron Clark, Leon Egan and Chris Johnson, who helped him rediscover the importance of his culture.
Despite high hopes to be drafted, a below expectation final season in the Under-18 competition meant he would go un-drafted into the AFL.
Williams would sign with Port Melbourne in the VFL and go on to play in the 2012 Grand Final loss to Geelong.
It would prove to be a life changing week for Williams as his father would pass away a few days before the Grand Final. The logistical and physical toll to fly to Perth and back again in the days before a premiership match was the least of the impacts.
Whilst he had had limited contact with his dad since his parents had separated, Williams’s pain was acute at an even deeper than normal level given his constant wrestle to stay connected with his Indigenous heritage.
“When I lost my father I kind of felt like I went through an identity crisis,” Williams said. “I felt like I lost a part of my Aboriginality because of that – which really challenged me.”
“And I guess when that happened, it made me realise that I had mental health issues, which I probably didn’t address early on.”
Williams stepped away from Port Melbourne and elite football in 2013 to gain better perspective and balance in his life. He returned to local football but admits he was not a good teammate or clubman, but with hindsight knows that it was his poor mental health which drove many of his actions.
In 2014, Shaun Sims convinced Williams to join Diggers Rest and the Noongar man took large steps to finding his love for life, and football, again taking out their best and fairest, and leading them to three Grand Finals including a premiership win in 2016.
The Foxtel program The Recruit, which aired in 2016, contracted Williams as one of its contestants, offering the winner a 12-month contract at an AFL club. Williams saw this as his last chance to make the premier competition but, after making a promising start, a hand injury would force his exit from the program.
Injuries would be a common occurrence over the following years, with the physical pain compounding into mental anguish.
“The further I got with footy, “ Williams said, “and the older you get, the more injuries you have – (and you perceive) the worse your luck is. Those mental health issues became more of a bigger deal for me.”
Whilst listed with the Northern Blues, the Northern Bullants most recent incarnation, in 2018 Williams seriously injured his knee playing for Deer Park in the Western Region Football League, and realised his playing days were over.
Instead of grief, he was overwhelmed with relief.
“I remember laying on the bench at half time thinking to myself that the weight of expectation had lifted off my chest,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry about fronting up and playing footy for other people or a club.”
“I went home and had that realisation of how lucky I had been. How other people made sacrifices for me so that I could play footy.”
“So, I decided from that point that I was going to give back to other people and start coaching footy.”
Williams would volunteer with the Riddell District Football League interleague squads in an assistant coach capacity.
In 2019, he would also return to his elite playing days and coach with the Calder Cannons in the Under-18 program under the leadership of former North Melbourne player Ross Smith and Matt Burton.
“Ross gave me licence to be who I am – I didn’t have to struggle for personal or cultural identity – they just let me be me,” Williams said.
“From that I really learned that my purpose in life is to help other people achieve their goals. And that is the kind of thing that really drives me now – to go to environments and help people achieve their goals.”
A connection with former Bullants President Steven Papal brought Williams back to the Bullants in 2022 as part of new coach Ben Hart’s coaching team, with Williams focussing on the midfield.
In addition to sharing his tactical prowess and his wisdom with the Bullants midfield, Williams has recently been appointed to the position of Head Coach of Indigenous Talent Programs with the AFL where he hopes the seeds of his involvement can take root and grow.
“My aspiration in life in general is that if I go to a space,” he said, “I want to make sure that that place and space is better for my existence. That’s my aspiration and that’s my goal.”
Williams oversees two sets of under-18 programs for boys and girls from an Indigenous and multi-cultural background.
Additionally, Williams was the Head Coach of the Fitzroy Cubs in their inaugural outing versus the Carlton VFL team.
The Cubs, who secured a 14-point win, were made up of Under-23 Indigenous and multi-cultural players from across Australia, including the Bullants own Kobe Brown and Kuiy Jiath.
In the lead up to the match, Williams saw some younger versions of himself in the young men trying to navigate their identity, football, and the world.
“That was probably one of my highlights as a coach and probably as a player as well,” he said. “We bring these people in to hear their stories about what their families had sacrificed to give them the opportunity to even sit in that room to hear other people’s stories, let alone go out the next day and play a game of footy.”
“It was just one of those things that has a profound impact on your life and puts things into perspective. It is something that I am truly grateful for.”
Williams knows that he has benefitted from the pain of his ancestors, but he is optimistic that even better days are ahead, and he continues to play his role in that through football, and his role at the SEDA Group, focussing on their Indigenous strategy.
“When I think about Australian history,” he said. “I feel very fortunate that progression has happened really fast. I understand that it hurt a lot of people to get there, but I just feel really grateful for the life I have been lucky to live in a way that has been relatively free.”
Williams believes that progress will continue as long as we allow space for dialogue and understanding.
“Whether you’re Aboriginal, multi-cultural or you don’t identify with any one culture,” he said, “allowing people to share their stories, share their life, share what they are going through really will open up so many more conversations.”
Throughout the six seasons of his life so far, Jason Williams is creating the natural eco-system, just like the land, wind, rain and sun of his people, so that those within his space can thrive.