Melissa Kuys is an inaugural AFLW player.
Playing 15 games for Collingwood in the midfield and on the wing before being delisted in 2019, Kuys has been one of the on-field pioneers of women’s footy.
She has since been picked up and delisted by St Kilda, and was the Box Hill Hawks inaugural VFLW captain in 2017.
The 2021 season will see her pull on the red and blue stripes for Port Melbourne’s inaugural VFLW side.
This is part one of a four-part series.
Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Kuys’ journey to the top level began in 1995.
Kuys was just eight years old when she found her way to a little local club by the name of Rowville.
“I was playing at the Rowville Hawks for three years, from when I was playing under 9s to under 12s,” she said.
“I was playing with the boys. There was only me and one other girl playing in the team at the time.
“Some boys didn’t want to tackle you, some did.
“It didn’t really matter back then, I was just playing footy.”
Opportunities and pathways for women’s footy, particularly at the junior level, were extremely limited.
“There was no youth girls or a league or anything like that back then,” Kuys said.
“There was literally nothing at all. I did Auskick for one year and then went straight into mixed teams. Nothing that separated girls from boys.”
Kuys didn’t have the approval of her family during her junior days, an unfortunately common attitude in women’s footy.
“My dad didn’t like it. He tried to push me towards playing netball, or basketball,” she said.
“Anything that wasn’t so high contact. He was always concerned that I was going to hurt myself.
“My brother, who’s two years older, he was playing footy at the time.
“Back then, girls didn’t play football. That was just the way it was looked at. I was an outsider, and there weren’t many girls playing footy then.
“Maybe [my dad] thought I would get teased, so he pushed me towards something that was more ‘normal’ for girls, whereas he pushed my brother towards playing footy.
“When you think about it, it’s pretty wrong, but that’s just how it was.”
Kuys’ junior footy career would end only after three years, though that didn’t stop her from taking her next step at the Ferntree Gully Roo Girls.
“After 12 you weren’t allowed to play with the boys anymore, so I went and played senior women’s footy at 13,” she said.
“It was a big step going from under 12s to playing against women.
“It was daunting, it was more scary than playing against the boys. At least before I had boys that were my age.
“They might have been slightly stronger than me, but playing against 20-year-old girls at 13 and the bigger bodies… I was playing in the midfield.
“It taught me to defend myself, and run faster so they couldn’t catch me.
“I won the league best and fairest in my first year there. I was 13.”
Kuys’ career was already star-studded, awards and accomplishments following her everywhere she went.
“I won the best and fairest playing with the boys as well,” she said.
“It was a weird feeling. The guys were a little bit jealous, from memory.
“I had to give a speech, it was so bad. The tape’s not coming out.”
Becoming a VWFL player before graduating high school
At 15, Kuys had already nearly reached the highest level there was.
Established in 1981, the Victorian Women’s Football League was home to many powerhouse sides and even more future AFLW players.
The Eastern Lions were formed in strange circumstances, but became Kuys’ new home.
“I played for two years [at Ferntree Gully], then there was a merge because they were struggling to get players,” she said.
“I went and played at the Lions [as a result of the merge] for five years, it was a fair while.
“The experience, the game style was a lot quicker, bodies were stronger again. It was a lot more physical.
“At the Eastern Lions, I was the youngest for a very long time. There were a couple of girls who were just a year or two older.”
Kuys’ time at the Lions was highlighted by an intense rivalry with another future AFLW player.
“I remember playing Berwick a lot, against Katie Loynes (current AFLW player at Carlton).
“It was a huge rivalry every time we were playing each other, me versus her.
“Some fond memories there, multiple games of us lining up against each other.”
“Fun memories against Katie, and Romy Timmins, who played for the Bulldogs. We beat them in a grand final, we won a couple there. 2008 and 2010, we won, from memory.
“There was a few flags when I was young, and not many since!”