While the word football can mean many different things to many different people, for Mark Smith it means one thing – fun.
With a list of teams from home and abroad that he follows religiously, 13 year-old Mark can’t get enough football no matter the code.
“When it comes to anything with a football he’s always been interested in it,” Heather, Mark’s mum, said.
“He’s a huge Newcastle fan in the NRL and he loves the Swans in the AFL. Then there’s [English Premier League side] Everton and [English Super League side] St Helens that he follows as well,” she said.
While Mark is unlikely to be the only 13 year-old that has a slight obsession with football codes, there is something that sets him apart from most other fans.
Since the age of nine, Mark has been legally blind due to a form of cancer called medulloblastoma. A form of brain cancer, Mark’s medulloblastoma resulted in a tumour on his optic nerve which caused his vision loss.
Though he can no longer see his favourite players in action, that hasn’t dampened Mark’s enthusiasm for sport and his support of his favourite teams.
“I try to go to as many games as possible and be involved in football as much as I can,” Mark said.
“Going to a game still feels the same. Even though I can't see what’s happening on the field when I’m sitting in the crowd I still get that same feeling of excitement and just being in that atmosphere is one of my favourite things,” he said.
Mark does have a small amount of vision remaining and depending on where he sits at a game he can sometimes follow the action on the big screen. He also takes a radio to every game and listens to the commentary to help him follow along.
At one Swans game this year Mark’s radio gave out on him, but his friend Jared was on hand to provide live commentary. Mark and Jared were observed by another spectator who bought them to the Swans’ attention and the two boys were then invited to a tour of the sides’ facilities and to meet the players.
“Being able to meet all of the players and see them training was amazing. It was definitely one of the best days of my life,” Mark said.
“Luke Parker in particular was great and when it came to his 150th game he asked me to run out on the field with him which was pretty special.”
While none of his teams across the NRL or AFL are set to feature in this weekend’s deciders, Mark is still looking forward to the Grand Final of each code.
“It would have been good if one of the teams I go for had made it, but I’ll still be watching both games.
“I’m hoping the [Richmond] Tigers win the AFL and in the NRL I’m going for the [North Queensland] Cowboy. I don’t really have a particular reason why, but I just hope they win.”
Along with getting to know the Swans, Mark was also given the opportunity to meet this year’s NSW State of Origin side. Heather their family are extremely grateful for those experiences, especially as Mark continues to come to terms with not being able to play sport any more.
“I don’t know how he does it, but he’s just finds himself invited to these things and he’s had some great opportunities. Being able to meet the Swans was absolutely mind blowing, they were so kind and really made him feel welcome,” she said
“It [losing his sight] hasn’t impacted how Mark feels about footy, but not being able to play anymore is something that still upsets him at sometimes.
“He played a little bit of soccer and did a year of AFL before he lost his vision. He really enjoyed that and his mates have gone on to keep playing and that can get him a bit down.”
Though he can’t play footy the same as he once did, Mark has pursued any option he can to be involved.
“We’re still looking for what’s the best fit for him in terms of what’s available. There’s a blind soccer program and he’s played a bit of goalball as well, so hopefully we can find something for him,” Heather said.
“He went along to the tryouts for his school rugby and soccer teams and he’s been given the role of team manager for both of those and he really enjoys that he gets to be around the teams and still be involved.”
While Mark gets a huge amount of enjoyment out of being at a game, Heather said his attendance has also resulted in people asking questions about how somebody who is blind or has low vision takes in a game.
“There’s been a few times when people have seen Mark with his radio or we’ve been describing something to him and people have asked us about how he experiences it.
“It’s never been a negative thing, people are just curious. We explain that he just loves being there and being in the crowd and just wants to be a part of it like anyone else.”