When AFLW player Ebony O’Dea left Collingwood for Port Adelaide, she took to Instagram to thank her teammates for “being patient with my antics”.
“Thanks for embracing the weird unit that I am,” she wrote.
As it turns out, O’Dea, or “Ebs” as she’s affectionately known, lives up to the “weird unit” tag.
Long-time AFLW fans may remember her from a viral social media post in season one in which O’Dea — then playing for the Giants — solved a Rubik’s cube while riding a unicycle.
The post, which boasts over 127,000 views, is no gimmick; O’Dea is a Rubik’s cube aficionado and a world champion unicyclist.
More specifically, she holds the world record for “platform long-jump”, a unicycling event in which competitors have to jump as far as they can between two wooden platforms, suspended above a concrete skate park.
“If you don’t make it, you eat shit,” O’Dea told the ABC.
“Everyone else was kinda doing a side hop, so if you miss, you don’t fall as hard. It’s the safer option but you don’t go as far.
“I just went kamikaze style: rode as fast as I could and jumped as far as I could … I’d never actually tried that before the comp.”
In the end, O’Dea blew the competition away, landing a 2.5m jump, while the nearest competitor managed 1.8m.
She also ate her fair share of shit.
“I missed half the jumps. You hit the side of the platform and go flying if you miss, but I knew how to fall and had a helmet on,” O’Dea shrugged.
“That’s what I love about unicycling. Obviously I like landing things, but decking it is fun. The rough stuff is great fun.”
‘I love it when your bones rattle’
A love of the rough stuff defines O’Dea on and off the field.
She doesn’t shy away from the contest, and is as hard at the footy as anyone in the league.
Within the opening minutes of Port Adelaide’s first home game at Alberton, she had laid a bone-crunching tackle on Bulldogs captain Ellie Blackburn that left her with a face full of bandages and O’Dea with a shiner.
“I love tackling,” O’Dea said excitedly. “Like, let’s just get rid of the footy, let’s just tackle each other.”
Secondly only to tackling, she says, is being tackled.
“I just love hitting and getting hit. I love contested footy. If you’re gonna dish it, you’ve got to take it.
“Hannah Ewings at training [last week] gave me a great shepherd; it floored me and I was grinning. Tackling just makes me smile, I love it when your bones rattle.”
This attitude might explain why O’Dea was able to take to the field in round one, despite having suffered a collapsed lung just weeks earlier.
In a practice match against the Crows, she had been running back with the flight of the ball and collided with two opponents, one accidentally kneeing her in the back.
O’Dea says she felt “winded”, but had no idea of the extent of her injury until she was sent for X-rays in the following few days.
Initially, she was told that she wouldn’t be able to run for the next month. But, after consulting with a specialist, she was given permission to try some light running so long as she wasn’t too out of breath.
“I was sort of fine,” she said. “Well, I couldn’t breathe in the whole way,” she laughed. “But how often do you really breathe in the whole way anyway?”
With the Power due to play West Coast in round one, O’Dea was facing an uphill battle for selection.
The collapse had to resolve before the flight, or she would not be allowed to board. Luckily, scans gave her the all-clear.
“I knew the Eagles players would be like, ‘how’s the lung’ and bump me and stuff,” she said. “But I was like, bring it. I’m good to go.”
Steve Symonds didn’t initially rate O’Dea
At Port Adelaide, O’Dea is in a good place. She feels embraced and supported.
But her footballing journey hasn’t necessarily been a straightforward one.
O’Dea grew up in Springton, South Australia, on a large property between farms.
Her family consists of identical twin sister Georgia — who she says makes “weird, cool, fancy” pastries for a living — brother Caleb, who works in marketing, Mum Cherie and Dad Ray.
Mum is an artist, while Dad is handy and has made a number of items of furniture around the home she now shares with a mate and old football coach, as well as her beloved greyhound Eggplant, or ‘Eggy’ for short (his head looks like an eggplant, apparently).
In high school, she took a chemistry class at the University of Adelaide — where she discovered footy — before joining Norwood and playing a grand final in just her third game.
Her coach at the time was Steve Symonds, now AFLW coach of Collingwood, where O’Dea played for three seasons.
According to O’Dea, Symonds didn’t really rate her at the time.
“I remember after the first season I played, Norwood could only lock in eight players, and he picked me as one of those eight players,” she said.
“I was like, why? And [Symonds] said, ‘well, some of our better players are either getting older and they’re going to retire, or they’ll get drafted to the AFLW in the next few years’, as in like, ‘you won’t get drafted, so we’ll keep you.'”
Here, O’Dea laughs, before adding: “I don’t think he’d remember saying that, he didn’t mean it in a bad way”.
In 2017 she trialled to play with GWS, but was not drafted, and didn’t receive any feedback on the trial.
In 2018 she nominated again, and when a GWS-listed player pulled out for personal reasons, O’Dea was told she’d be taken with the club’s last pick, a replacement selection.
For whatever reason, the TV broadcast hadn’t caught up, and what O’Dea thought was the last pick came and went without her name being read out.
To her great relief, the replacement selection was later added, and she was finally made an AFLW player with pick 71.
“I was so excited,” she said.
“I didn’t find it that daunting (going to Sydney), moving from Barossa to Adelaide was like a little step in between ,and I wasn’t living at home anyway.”
After one season at the Giants, however, O’Dea was delisted without having played a game.
“There probably wasn’t a whole lot of belief in me from the coaches over there,” she said.
In the last few games of the season, O’Dea says, players were told that the club would give games to those who deserved it, rather than those who were necessarily the best on the list.
“The players they were picking, some they knew were moving to other clubs,” she said.
“I was the only player in the whole squad who didn’t get a game. I thought, ‘there’s just nothing else I could have done’.
“If I had been offered a contract, I probably would’ve taken it, but I wanted more opportunities, so it was probably a blessing in disguise.”
‘I do a Rubik’s cube about 30 times on game day’
After being delisted, O’Dea returned home to South Australia to play briefly again with Norwood, before she was again taken late in the draft.
This time, she was taken by Collingwood with pick 89, and reunited with Symonds as head coach.
She speaks highly of her time at the Magpies.
“I had a bit more belief from the coaching staff,” O’Dea said. “Steve has done a lot of good things for my footy career.
“It was a more inclusive environment and I had a more enjoyable experience there… It made me realise I love playing footy and I want to stick with AFLW.”
She says she also made “a lot of good friends”, who, as she references in her goodbye post, embraced her quirks.
One she is infamous for is her obsession with Rubik’s cubing, a hobby and ritual she carries out before each game.
“I probably do my little three-by-three cube about 30 times on game day,” she said.
During lockdown, she even taught herself to solve a two-by-two cube blindfolded.
“[Cubing] is calming, and helps me keep my shit together, kinda. I don’t get too nervous, but there’s a lot of down time before a game. If I sit there without actively doing anything, I get a bit worked up.”
Her teammates, she said, eventually “get used to it”.
“After a couple of weeks everyone’s just like ‘OK, that’s what Ebs does, leave her alone.'”
Indeed, O’Dea values her cubing time so much, she chooses her jumper number according to the likely location of her locker.
“I can hold a conversation while I do it, but I prefer to be left alone,” she explained.
“That’s why I was number 50 at Collingwood and now number two at Port, I want to go the highest number or the lowest number, so I can get an end locker and a cool spot [for cubing].”
‘Every season of footy I’ve played, something’s got better’
Despite all going well off-field at Collingwood, O’Dea still faced limited opportunities in a stacked midfield.
She usually plays either as a defender or midfielder, with midfield being her preference.
Over three seasons with the Magpies, she played a total of 21 games and was often deployed in tagging roles. While she says she enjoys tagging, this generally meant limited time on ground, at around 40 per cent game time.
“When you’re tagging and you’re sitting in the corner just watching the ‘oppo’ (opposition) rack up it isn’t great,” she said.
“I think I knew pretty early on that I was probably on the way out if I wasn’t getting opportunities.
“If we had medi-subs in AFLW I reckon I would have been the permanent medi-sub. I’m such a bench rider.”
After crossing home to Port, and being back home in Adelaide, O’Dea feels she is finally where she belongs.
“Every season of footy I’ve played, something’s got better,” she said.
“And now I’m here, I love it, it’s just great. My teammates are awesome, Loz [Arnell] is awesome, and I get to play and train in roles that I thoroughly enjoy.”
One thing O’Dea singles out about Port’s culture is the effort the club has gone to to nurture women, not just as players, but in leadership roles within the program.
“I remember at the family night induction, they lined up all the department heads and it was seven women standing up there,” O’Dea says.
“That’s pretty cool. And there’s little things around the club that have really been thought out in terms of the difference between male and female players.
“Things like the change rooms are actually made for women. And we’ve got the whole site just for us, which is awesome.”
‘Bloody awesome’ to have a female coach
O’Dea is also relishing the opportunity to play under new coach Lauren Arnell, the first former AFLW player to take on a senior AFLW coaching role.
“Steve was a great coach, but having a female coach is bloody awesome,” O’Dea says.
“With Loz and our assistant coaches being ex-players as well, it’s great. As AFLW players we all have second jobs, so if you’re running late from work, they’re like, ‘it’s okay, we get it.'”
O’Dea reserves special praise for Arnell’s collaborative nature.
“She’s so approachable,” she says. “If you have any questions, you can just go to her.
She’s not defensive about things, she’s taking feedback on board all the time.
“You just feel like what you say is valued. It makes you feel so comfortable being around the club.”
For this self-identified weird unit, such a culture makes all the difference.
“I’m living the dream,” O’Dea grins.