ON THE FIELD, he’s a classy midfielder admired by players and fans around Australia. Off the field, he’s a devoted family man, whose love for his family is matched only by his love for his Catholic faith.
Daniel Wells is arguably North Melbourne’s most important player, having established himself as one of the league’s elite ball users over the past decade.
But there’s more to the talented 28-year-old then just football prowess. He’s a Catholic, and not just in name only, but one who practises his faith and regards it as an integral part of his life.
Born in Port Lincoln, South Australia, Wells was not raised a Catholic, and had limited experience of religion in his early years.
“We used to go to Sunday school, but I think that was just more for mum and dad to have the day off,” he explains.
Wells’ family moved to WA during his youth, living in Kalgoorlie and then Mandurah, where Wells later played for Peel Thunder in the WAFL.
In 2002, aged just 17, Wells won the football world’s attention with a stellar season in the WAFL, finishing second in the Sandover Medal after playing just 14 games.
In the November 2002 AFL draft, Wells was selected by the Kangaroos with pick number two.
While he never expected to be moving to the other side of the country to play football at the highest level, Wells says he couldn’t be happier with the way his life has panned out since being drafted by North Melbourne.
In his first season at the club, he met school teacher Mariangela Laudato, who arrived at a club function to collect her mother, a keen Kangaroos supporter.
Mariangela would later become Wells’ wife and, at the same time, bring him to the Catholic faith.
Before the pair were married in 2006, Wells completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) course in Melbourne, attending sessions on weeknights during the football season.
“I was doing it so I could actually marry her in a Catholic church and be a part of it,” Wells says honestly. “But then it all made a lot of sense to me, it really made me think a lot about things.
“When you’ve just started the faith you become really passionate and you’re on fire and you’re always wanting to learn so much about it, so that was good.”
But completing the RCIA course was not only beneficial to his faith, but also to Mariangela’s, who was raised Catholic but admits her formation wasn’t strong.
“I attended RCIA with Daniel as though I was this good Catholic bringing someone to the faith when actually I was bringing myself back,” she explains.
“I was so amazed at how open Daniel was and how he would simplify areas that I couldn’t grasp. He would explain in the most simplest terms and it made sense.”
After Wells became Catholic, he and Mariangela were married and, in 2009, the couple welcomed the birth of their daughter, Laudate Angelus.
Having recently turned five, Laudate is still the apple of her dad’s eye, and Wells believes it’s important for him as a father to lead his family in practising and living out their faith.
“The family Rosary is very important for us,” he says. “We go through stages when we’re very consistent with it and then we sort of drop off.
“We’re still a young family, we’re still learning those things, and trying to be really consistent in our prayer life.”
Mariangela says the family has a special devotion to Our Lady and to the Divine Mercy, always praying the novena together before Divine Mercy Sunday.
For Wells, two heroes of the faith whose courage and physical strength wouldn’t go astray on a football field attract his greatest admiration.
“I really like St Paul,” he says. “He’s got a really good, powerful story. We went to Italy last year and… his basilica was outside the walls and I found that very fitting because he did a lot of groundwork and is quite a phenomenal saint.
“St Padre Pio is another beautiful saint, his gifts of confession and discernment were quite powerful. The fact that he just told people straight out, he didn’t beat around the bush and he was there to save souls and help out and if you were doing the wrong thing he made that point very clear.”
As a family, Mariangela says the Wells, including little Laudate, pay particular attention to remembering the souls in Purgatory.
“Every time we drive past a cemetery, our little daughter calls it Purgatory and makes sure we say the prayer over and over until we can’t see the cemetery anymore,” she says. “It’s very sweet.”
Each year the family attend Melbourne’s ‘March for the Babies’, as well as the annual Life Coalition dinners.
With the number of Catholics attending Mass on the weekend at an all-time low in Australia, Wells’ efforts to practise his faith are as inspirational as a match-winning goal.
Despite playing on weekends throughout the season in all parts of Australia, Wells always gets to Mass.
“You’ve just got to plan ahead,” he says. “It’s a really important part of my life. I feel if I don’t go to Mass, which is extremely rare since becoming a Catholic, I feel very vulnerable, so I always find a way, no matter where we go, to get to Mass.
“There’s never been a time where, during the season, I’ve missed Mass. Sometimes I have to let the coaches know that I can’t go to the midfield meeting because I’m going to Mass and they’re very respectful of that.”
In December, the Kangaroos travelled to Utah in the United States to complete an intense three-week training camp, but even that didn’t stop Wells from attending Mass every Sunday.
The 212-game veteran, who is contracted to the Kangaroos until the end of 2016, says he prays before his matches, but not for team or individual success.
“You’re not actually praying to go out and play a good game, you’re just making sure everyone’s safe and yourself as well, and to enjoy the game, that’s all,” he says.
While the midfielder has always been an outstanding footballer, he’s taken his game to a new level in the past three seasons, winning two club Best and Fairest awards.
In 2013, he played all 22 games, averaging 21.3 disposals a match, in what was perhaps a career-best season. In October, Wells was chosen to captain the Australian Indigenous team during the International Rules series in Ireland, an experience he describes as a “great honour”.
The modest Wells rates his past few seasons as “okay”, and says he’s confident the Kangaroos can have a successful 2014.
“I’ll need to improve on a couple of areas to maintain what I want to do,” he says.
“I’m looking forward to the young kids coming up, Ryan Bastinac, Benny Cunnington, Shaun Atley, these kids, I’ll be jumping on their backs soon and riding their waves, so that’s really exciting for me.”
With 11 seasons of football under his belt, Wells is experienced enough to be able to reflect wisely on the challenges the AFL environment throws at his Catholic faith.
“Whether it’s the top level or down playing in the suburbs, it’s very similar,” he says. “Blokes are blokes I suppose and it’s a blokey sort of environment.”
Wells says having more females in the AFL has not only added a different dimension to the football environment, but also helped to keep the males “on their toes”.
“We can get a little bit loose with what we say and how we say things,” he says.
“It can be challenging at times [for me] but if you stick to what you believe, you can really just get on with what you are doing and people will respect that.”
On the field, Wells says he’s never come across any players who target those who belong to a religious denomination.
“There’s obviously rules but also unwritten codes where no one says anything that’s offensive to any kind of religion, and the boys know that and the boys respect that, so there’s not too many challenges,” he says. “Maybe back in the day there could have been, I’m not too sure, but right now everyone knows not to overstep any kind of mark.”
As for the rough stuff on the field that often occurs in the heat of battle, Wells tends to keep out of it.
“I’ve always just gone out and played footy for what it is,” he says. “I’m not one of the biggest blokes going around so these blokes, they’re huge, and they’d just throw me around like a rag doll.
“There’s a fair bit of friendly banter going on out there, sometimes it gets really heated up, but once the game’s done everyone shakes hands and moves on, most of the time.”
His own measured conduct is respected by both opponents and teammates and Wells says that’s how he likes to live his faith – by his actions rather than his words.
“When the time’s right, if [my teammates] have any questions I’ll try to answer them as best as I can, if I don’t know the answer I’ll try to find out for them,” he says.
“I don’t say too much, I try to just lead by example, if they want to ask some questions I’ll be more than happy to try to help out.”
Although Wells might doubt his knowledge of the Catholic faith, his wife says he has nothing to worry about.
“He is very good at discerning many aspects of the faith and always has a good faith perspective when it comes to difficulties and struggles that arise in our lives,” Mariangela says.
“He has always said that for him to make an impact on people that he needs to lead by example, by living a good Christian life and being a good role model. This is how he connects with people best.”
Away from football, Wells says he enjoys playing the odd round of golf, but simply spending time with his family brings him the most happiness.
“We’re a really close-knit family, there’s only three of us so we’re sort of in each other’s pockets most of the time,” he says.
“Days off are something I treasure, just to be with the family as much as I can because you’re away from them for so long throughout the week, sometimes you see them in the morning and sometimes you see them just before bed time.”
Unlike the stereotypical highly-paid football star who might spend his off-season travelling the world and staying at luxurious hotels, Wells just loves being home with his family, and with God.
“We are loving having Daniel home with us as we get to spend time together as a family,” Mariangela says.
“We have been doing little day trips here and there and have been able to go to Adoration and Mass during the week together.”
Perhaps therein lies the secret to Wells’ success, as a footballer, father and husband – a balanced life where his faith and his family mean the most to him.