‘Five teams, one club’.

It’s a motto Essendon looks to live out in their approach to all their football programs, and this year their wheelchair footy squads are feeling as much a part of it as ever.

Since 2018, the VWFL has provided the opportunity for disabled people to play competitive football in an organised competition, with five AFL club affiliates (Richmond, Collingwood, St Kilda, Hawthorn and the Bombers) forming the league.

Essendon’s VWFL Senior and Community side Captains James Leonard and Ben Milton have been with the club since its inaugural season in the competition, becoming important leaders in the program.

For Leonard, who also serves on the club’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, he’s proud to continue his good work for the club he’s supported his whole life, with and without ball in hand.

James Leonard, Ben Milton and VWFL Senior Coach Louis Rowe. (Photo: Essendon FC)

“I’m a mad Essendon supporter and grew up in an Essendon family. If you don’t follow footy in my family, you don’t get fed,” Leonard said.

“I actually went to a ‘come-and-try’ in the early days (back in 2017) down near Bentleigh just to have a go really. That was when the league was first forming so to get drafted here was super pleasing.

“It’s been great seeing all the work we’re putting into making this place big on inclusion and it’s a real joy to be a part of.

“We have focus groups that span over different areas of inclusion and disability is one of them, so it’s really important for me to be a voice for our disabled community.”

Similar to Leonard, Milton also attended one of the early tryout days in the hope of fulfilling a long-time desire to play competitive footy.

With the Bombers, Milton’s found a culture that makes every training session and gameday enjoyable to be a part of.

“I’ve always just been really passionate about footy and always wanted to play, I was craving that opportunity so once wheelchair football came around, it made the dream a reality,” Milton said.

“I went to one of the very first sessions at the Boroondara Sports Complex and from there was lucky enough to get drafted to Essendon in their first year, which was an amazing feeling.

“It’s been really fun and it’s just something I can look forward to every week, playing with my mates is the main thing outside of loving to compete.

“I love being able to represent the club and I get a heap out of what we do every time we’re here.”

For the first time, Essendon have three AFL/AFLW players Ben Hobbs, Mia Busch and Steph Wales on board as player ambassadors for the VWFL program this year.

Helping out at training sessions, attending gamedays and offering support for the playing group, the trio’s involvement this year has helped embed the wheelchair programs into the club even more.

“This is the first time in my experience that something like this has happened,” Milton said.

“It’s good for the players to be able to give that knowledge from the level and see how we can apply it to our own teams. Building on that ‘one club’ culture has been really good for us and it makes us feel a part of Essendon.

“I couldn’t be happier with it and I’m sure the rest of the playing group are exactly the same.”

Sentiment is similar for Leonard and the senior side, who’ve been big on cultivating the homeliness of playing for the club.

“We’re very strong on family culture, we’ve all got each other’s backs,” Leonard said.

“Having two teams play in these competitions and the rest of the footy programs make us one big family here.

“I’m just keen to see that continuous growth, we’ve got a few new players in the squad and we just want them to keep gelling within the group and that’s the most exciting part.”

On Friday night, Essendon's VWFL side take on Richmond in the first ever Dreamtime game for the competition at the NEC Hangar.