He’s called time on his stellar 16-season playing career, and now Nigel Boogaard will swap football boots for hiking boots to play his part in a five-month walk across Australia for a cause close to his heart.
The retired A-League legend is an ambassador for #talk2mebro, a charity founded in 2018.
Luke Conners and Jack Brown, two mates with a shared passion for promoting men's mental health, work through the #talk2mebro charity to encourage men to open up to each other, their families and friends to foster positive conversations around mental health with the goal of helping reduce the rate of suicide in Australia.
After spending the last three years raising awareness and instigating conversations about suicide prevention in communities around New South Wales, Conners and Brown have decided to extend the reach of their message on the journey of a lifetime, walking from Perth to Newcastle between July and December, 2021.
Coined "#walkwithmebro", the journey will take Conners and Brown through 148 towns in four states as they travel from Perth, across the Nullarbor toward Adelaide, before travelling through Victoria, into Canberra and up through Wollongong and Sydney to wrap up in Newcastle in mid-December.
Along the way, the pair will run the #talk2mebro program in the towns they pass through.
Boogaard met Conners by chance whilst helping out at a local football club in Newcastle. After hearing Conners' story, the meaning and motivation behind #talk2mebro and the statistics of suicide - the leading cause of death for men aged between 15-44 in Australia - Boogaard decided to jump on board to help Conners and Brown in whatever capacity he could.
"Straight away it just resonated with me," Boogaard said.
"Being in the game now for about 16 years, you see a lot of what Luke spoke about on that night on a daily basis.
"For me, it was something I saw very prevalently in my day-to-day but also I have personal reasons to want to get involved with something like this away from football in my own personal life.
"For me it was a no-brainer, the ability to be able to jump in with these guys and help where I could.
"I think those guys are very genuine in terms of where they come from and how they approach this mental health sector and suicide. You can see there’s a genuine passion there to try and change people’s lives.
“As soon as I spent a bit of time with the guys I realised it’s coming from an amazingly great place in their hearts.
They want to make change... even if it’s only changing one person’s life along this walk, they feel like that’s justification for walking across the country.
That for me is pretty special, and yeah I’d love to help them out where I can."
Conners and Brown embark on their walk from Perth, Western Australia on July 17.
The #talk2mebro program focusses on breaking down the stigma surrounding suicide to show men seeking help and opening up is not a weakness, empowering them to take control of their own mental health and to support each other on an emotional level.
"The aim is about 45km’s a day walking, we’ll stop roughly on average every week for a day’s rest," Conners said.
"We’re actually going to leave ourselves about two weeks in Adelaide to have events in that area. From Adelaide onwards there’s a few more block periods where we’ve got days up our sleeves to go and run events and our sessions in the bigger towns.
"This is our passion, I guess - we don’t do this for a living - we just thought ‘what more could we do?’ and the idea of a walk came up.
"That was the question - would we stay in Newcastle and Wollongong and still help people, or could we go and do it around the country?”
Boogaard plans to link up with Conners and Brown for portions of the walk in Adelaide and Newcastle, two cities in which the recently retired defender played significant stints at both Newcastle Jets and Adelaide United.
The #talk2mebro ambassador says there’s no better way to tap into the strength of community in the towns he visits along his part of the walk than to visit the sporting clubs which often act as an integral part of towns outside of the bigger cities in Australia.
"The message is to allow these people to understand that it’s okay to speak about your feelings, and be able to open up,” Boogaard said.
"When you do open up you find there’s a lot of people that are in the same boat, that feel the same anxieties, have the same thoughts and maybe have the same problems going on at home.
"To open these conversations and understand you’re not alone, and understand it’s not a shameful thing to admit you’re feeling things and let your emotions out.
"I think as men over the years we’ve been taught that you bottle things up, and the sign of a strong man is to never show weakness and show vulnerability.
"In the sporting world there’s a fine line there, where players feel they don’t want to show their vulnerability too much.
"They feel as though showing a sign of weakness and maybe in their mind it’s perceived to be a leg up for a teammate or an opposition or whoever to take advantage of, or they feel the coaching staff may look at them differently because of that.
At the end of the day, I think there’s more problems that come out of hiding those feelings and emotions, and what’s going on than expressing them and trying to deal with them."
Since 2018 #talk2mebro has visited more than 3,200 workplaces, 1,400 sporting clubs and 1,945 high schools as Conners and Brown have helped to share the vital messages of the program around NSW. By the end of the year, those numbers will continue to tick over as the #talk2mebro program reaches communities spread far and wide throughout four states as the #walkwithmebro journey unfolds.
LifeLine Australia reports that 3,318 Australians took their own life in 2019. Over 65,000 Australians make a suicide attempt each year, and nine Australians die every day by suicide - more than double the road toll.
75% of those who take their own life are male.
"For me, that was kind of the initial shock moment," Boogaard said.
"When Luke first spoke to me… when he spoke (about) those numbers, that resonated more than anything.
"I think the fact that it is so prevalent, it made me want to join these boys even more in what they’re doing and what they want to achieve. Those numbers are just astronomical, if we can reduce that in any way, shape or form then the boys have done amazingly well.
"I’m only jumping on board as an ambassador," Boogaard continued. "The real heroes are Jack and Luke and what they’ve done to get it to here.
"The reach the boys are going to get from walking across the country, and the conversations they’ll start, whether it’s at sporting clubs, businesses, events throughout al these towns, hopefully it starts a bit of change, and can change the mindset or allow people to understand that they’re not alone and it’s okay to talk about it.
"That’s the underlying thing over the last half a century, is that men aren’t allowed to be emotional, open up and have feelings, and to block that.
I think if that (stigma) around opening up, speaking as a man and being emotional, if they can shift that thought process then that’s amazing."
If you or someone you know needs help, call the numbers below:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
- Headspace: 1800 650 890
- Suicide call-back service: 1300 65 94 67
- Kids helpline: 1800 55 1800