The handbag boys: a footy tragic is redeemed.
I’m not going to deny it, I’m a footy tragic. To be honest, it’s even worse than that. I am an expatriate footy tragic, now long in exile in the United States of America. America: the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s stop and examine that statement for a moment. When it comes to American football nothing is free, and judging from all the padding and helmets, it must not be easy to be brave.
All jokes aside, I have never connected with our American cousin “gridiron” in any meaningful way. It’s too corporate. Seats to even the most meager of offerings, say the Jacksonville Jaguars V the Houston Texans are stratospherically beyond the reach of your average working class hero. And the Super Duper Bowl? As Tony Soprano would say: “Fegedabouit” Those seats are reserved, much like congressional pews, or the Presidency, for Millionaires, Captains of Industry and made men who know where the bodies are buried.
Joni Mitchell once sang. “They paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.” In the process of the money grubbing paving the dickhead developers mostly forgot about things like green belts and community parks. So, in my experience it is rare to see a couple of kids playing with abandon after school. Shooting pin point Joe Montana (A Geelong supporter if the truth be told) like passes at each other’s chests, or running into space too receive said pass and then haul ass to the goal line for a mythical, magical, disco dancing touchdown. Nope, most American football is conducted on school campuses, and in the case of College football, it is a multimillion dollar enterprise, where hopefully for a 300 lb. Offensive lineman, the road will lead to the gilded grass of the NFL.
A place where the game of football has become a corporate Goliath, where players are traded like stocks and bonds on Wall Street. Neck injuries are common and can cruel the careers of the most gifted in the blink of an eye. In my time I have seen Joe Montana and Peyton Manning, Super Bowl winning MVP’s, shunted off like potato peelings, after serious injury dimmed their worth in their owner’s eyes. And to be sure, they are owned, their contracts the property of Billionaires and syndicates of Millionaires. Bloodless “Mr. Burn’s” who will slash and burn in the pursuit of glory and profitable operations, kicking a leviathan like Joe through the uprights and into retirement, or leveraging his old bones as trade bait for a younger stud at the drop of a hat.
Sadly, it seems the suits at AFL house are determined to follow this wretched corporate example. Reducing the great game of Australian Rules football to a mere business proposition. A blunt equation of bums on seats, merchandise sold ratings points and broadcast rights banked. The fish rotting from the head and left baking in the sun. That makes me sad, because since 1857 we have raised, cajoled and encouraged a unique spectacle that has resonated across generations. Barely dimmed by the calamity of the world wars, in fact, even bringing solace and the comforting normal of the home front to our lads seized up as POW’s at the fall of Singapore. The resourcefulness and camaraderie of the diggers conjuring the great game amid the adversity of internment. Playing a full season of home and away games, replete with selection committees, clearances, tribunal sanctions and even a “Changi” Brownlow. The 1942 medal being awarded to Fitzroy’s Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn, playing in the company of St Kilda’s Peter Chitty, and other elite Australian sportsmen: and it’s still Victoria versus the rest of Australia.
How great is this game? We are born into it, indoctrinated: the tribalism and ritual hammered into us at birth. Only a brave or ornery few straying from the rigid foundations of family barracking. I am a Geelong man: a catter, and so it shall be till I draw my last breath on this mortal plain. I wasn’t born or raised in Geelong, far from it. Strangely my Frankston bred father had begun life as, of all things, a Collingwood supporter. There, I’ve shared the shameful family secret. Spun inside and out, and hung out to dry on the hills hoist by his experience in WW2, my Dad fell hard. Alcoholism and incarceration dogged him: the black dog a nefarious companion, always growling and close, teeth gnashing at his thigh.
In the Heidelberg repatriation hospital he conspired a plan. He might be able to forsake the drink if he rode as far away as he could to a football match. Kardinia Park, long before the endless corporate rebranding, became his sober pilgrimage. A four hour journey each way on the red rattler to South Geelong and the shores of the Barwon River. There, and only there, for one hundred minutes and the vagaries of time on was he was safe from his obsession. Captivated by the grace and dash of the Geelong flyer Bob Davis, scorching the wing and the proud bullocking of john Hyde defending for his life. Captain Fred Flanagan commanding and exhorting the team forward. Reg Hickey coaching them to a perfect victory in 1952, on that last delirious Saturday in September, over the now detestable Collingwood football club.
And so a family tradition was raised. The old man got better but he was never over the obsession. Saddled with two little boys too raise football became everything: and we embraced it as a family. It was the manly hug of a Father to a son. All the while Mother creasing her brow as the puffy impacts of under 13’s gave way to teenage backhands and flat out Murrumbeena under 16’s mayhem in the goal square. The boot studder oppressed teenage umpires and a few Dads’s wading weekly into the mayhem, with all the authority of a GTV 9 big time wrestling referee. Those suburban stoushes taught me so much. How to stand your ground and not show weakness, carry a hurt, and most importantly; be part of something bigger than yourself with your mates. Something you all worked for: small parts of a bigger whole.
It is hard to conceive a time in the 21 st century when a couple of brothers could slip away from their Dad in the grog and fog of 30,000 people, jump the fence and run to the man who had just kicked 100 goals before their young wide eyes: and the cops were as happy as the kids. Mobbing the man with glee, already planning Monday’s Shakespearian reenactment on the school turf. A simple pat on the back, a grin, a tousled head, the gratification of being part of the history. Doug Wade. Peter Hudson: that Collingwood bastard Peter McKenna: all kicking whopping tons whispering towards Bob Pratt’s mythical 150 goals. Running a victory lap with Bobby Skilton (I always had a soft spot for poor downtrodden South Melbourne.) and his fairest and very best Brownlow medal. Going into the rooms with your Dad and feeling Gareth Andrews great paw on your shoulder. Feeling the heft of the knowledge as he warmed a few soft hand balls to you. Age 9, and already part of the team.
I have always thought it was better, during the fallow years, to be a Geelong supporter as opposed to a “pie” man. Too be accused of having hand bags by Lou Richards was one thing but to be shellacked year after years in Grand Finals would have raised blisters. 1967 was a tearful hunkering down at a flat in Sorrento. 1989 flush, and married, visiting like King Farouk with a Cadillac was a bitter jagged pill to swallow. Even with Gary Snr running amok we couldn’t get the job done. Listening on a shortwave radio from a bar in Timbuktu in 1992 was sobering. 1994 finishes beaten to within an inch of your faith by the upstart West Coast Eagles. Going back to back in 1995 and lying, cheating, tanking Carlton owns you. Bugger!! Surely there is no God and I have lost my faith.
My, Dad, Charlie, died in 1999, on a cold Saturday in July. He had the Geelong game on the wireless when he slipped away. I was in California out around the Farralon Island’s fishing. My ex-wife called me on the new fandangled cell phone and squared me up with the sad news. What she said sobered me up pretty quick. “Charlie’s dead. Your Mum said Geelong beat Collingwood by three points and he just closed his eyes and went, with a smile on his face, sitting in the “comfy” chair.” In the mad scramble too transit the miles this pasted a broad smile too my sad face. He had at the death defeated Collingwood one last time. (Catters 19.14. 128. D Pies 19.11. 125.) this was the last time the suits at AFL house required Collingwood too travel to the shores of the Barwon river. The current mob would need to crack out the Melways to find their way back. This was a wooden spoon year for the club and obviously the suits at AFL house would have to find away too ease the stresses of the premiership cakewalk for their marquee team.
Work and family have led me to stray far from the muddy winter bogs of VFL & VFA suburban grounds. Far from a time when a kid could be just a kid and Kick the footy with his mates, scoff a meat pie and sneak a can of VB from an unsuspecting Esky. Singing the club song in victory and bearing the despair of defeat as a man must learn to do. Mum knitting a beanie and darning footy sock hand me downs, as Harry Beitzel umpired the panel in a ghostly black and white world. And, Mr. Demetriou, we didn’t need a clash Guernsey too distinguish between the Tigers and Bombers or the emaciated Kangaroos battling the detestable magpie mob. Much less warmed over meatloaf.
In 2007 my drought broke and a victorious rain soaked me to the bone. My team, The Geelong Football Club, second oldest in the world, were premiers. I was a wee lad of three the last time they had saluted, and now here I was, a middle aged man with flecks of grey hair and a child of my own. I wasn’t barking instructions at the players from the great southern stand, nor was I marking goals, behinds and other statistics into the footy record as father had all those years ago. I was in a bar in San Diego, California when the wave soaked the shore. A dingy little joint with a quasi Aussie theme, surrounded by the mighty San Diego Lions footy club: our hosts for live grand final coverage on that glorious last Friday night in September.
It had been a hard year. I had just separated from my wife and was staring down the barrel of starting over, a daunting prospect for a man in his late forties with no family and few friends in the region. As was my routine in exile, I had dutifully followed along, charting the home and away season as it unfolded, often rising at 3 AM to listen to the absurdly comical Rex Hunt as he narrated the action in real time. As was my way I didn’t get too revved up when the boys dispatched the hated Magpies for the right to confront the Power. I’d been there, done that. But I was confident, as I explained a few of the complexities of the game to the locals, that today would be the day we were relieved of the burden we had carried as a club and a family for forty four years.
It was a romp from start to finish. Port Adelaide were never in it. My money was on John Scarlett’s boy for the Norm Smith, maybe freshly minted Brownlow Bartel, or one of seniors’ sons. Seeing that reformed scallywag Stevie J take the medal was icing on the cake. The beer flowed and the song was sung with gusto and then sung again and again. Once more, there could be no doubt, we were truly the greatest team of all. I wove my way to the Pacific Ocean and stared long and hard into the night looking to the west, bridging the 12,460 kilometer gulf in my mind. Remembering all the bitter hurts and disappointments that had just been so joyously lifted from my shoulders by 22 men, now bonded as one in the record books and I felt the gleaming twilight of the MCG as surely as if I were truly there. Thunder cracked ominously overhead as I said my thankful half pissed prayers and had a good chit chat with dear departed Dad about the game that had just unfolded.
2008 was dawning and it would prove to be the year that we ran out of money. America was broke and everywhere you looked people were hurting, losing homes and jobs hand over fist and I, a son of two shores, was caught in the bitter grip of that harsh American winter. Increasingly, as resume after resume was sent to the oval file and hope was waning, footy sustained me. My brand spanking new girlfriend would sit and listen with me as we endured the cold together. She shared my pain when the Hawks humbled us and popped the champagne when we came from behind to deny the Saints. That moment is burned into my psyche. Saint Nick skews it off the boot and Harry Taylor marks un opposed on the half back flank, chips it to Enright, to Stevie J stabbing a centering pass to Ablett, swatted away by a desperate Saint, a mercurial toe poke from a running Mathew Scarlett to a now recovered Junior making a last mad dash forward. A booming kick to the edge of the square, a crumbing hand pass from Varcoe to Chapman. Chapman swings onto his left foot and delivers a win at the death. You could almost feel sorry, for the Saints, almost
Many of their tribe are close friends and I spent many a Saturday at Moorabin watching Robbie Muir go berko, I was on the fence up close and personal when a decaying fabulous Phil Carmen decked out in Essendon togs head butted the boundary umpire. Even premiership hero and Coach Alex “Jezza” Jesaulenko, now out of favor with Carlton’s suits, couldn’t help the poor hapless bastards. They were clearly the team to beat in 2009 but we had denied them, and the sting lingers a lifetime. Having endured five drubbings, I know the feeling well. Surely it would be too much to ask for a blessed third premiership in five years. The nattering nabobs of negativity had drawn a line through my club. The corrupting lure of money had hooked the biggest fish in the game and the coach had decamped for his heartfelt home. The general consensus was that the premiership window was well and truly closed. It would take more than Viagra to stiffen my cats for another crack at the cup.
When Rookie coach Chris Scott made his way to the bench in the dying minutes of the 2011 decider, embracing the players and supporters, as the clock soaked up the last hopes of the magpie mob, it washed over me. I could die a happy man, we had crushed Collingwood in a grand final and I had seen it with my own eyes as had my Dad before me, as he struggled with his sobriety in 1952. Sitting on my couch in San Diego summer was waning and autumn was in the air. It finally felt like there was some momentum, things were improving. I didn’t feel smug as I added the hardships of the last five years and rounded off the sum to a nice even number. It would have been so easy to just quit and walk away, but the love of a good woman and the Geelong footy club had sustained me, as they had my father before me. This great and spectacular indigenous Australian game brought hope, passion and light into dark spaces: much as it did for our boys incarcerated by imperial Japan in the bleakest days of the Second World War.
Sadly for me that generational chain is probably broken. My life delivered me to America and in a way I have become her son too. There was no grand plan, just a Darwinian evolution. I hoe my little musical row with my band in San Diego and raise my daughter as a divorced Dad with my partner Michelle. Grace is a funny kid, a very pink and girly, girl. She doesn’t have much interest in sport. Although she recently announced she may try out as a cheerleader, for her school-The Hawthorn Trojans. Too quote Dr Smith. “Oh, William, the pain, the pain” She’s a tall girl and more than one person has suggested I push her towards basketball. Sport often being the key to a good scholarship and tertiary education in America. But I’m of the mindset that I’ll encourage whatever she chooses to do, for ultimately she will have to be responsible for her life decisions.
Its round 19, 2012. My Catters had been giving Hawthorn a toweling, but the worthy old foe has fought their way back into contention. The match is hanging by a thread. It’s nearly 5 AM in Southern California, and I can hear the hum of traffic as the grinding commute revs up. I shut it out and concentrate on the call. It appears the Kennett curse will be broken. Suddenly a fast leading Tom Hawkins marks 50 meters from home. 12,460 kilometers and 50 meters from goal my heart is pounding. The siren sounds as the ball kisses Tom’s boot and sails majestically through the goal posts far above the dejected backmen’s reach. The Hawk is mobbed, Lazarus has risen.