My cousin Luke was born in 1982, a few days before the second round of the VFL season. His dad was, and still is, a passionate Carlton supporter. So much was he known for his patronage of the club that he was given the nickname “Jezza.” This may also have been due to his Italian heritage and his surname, De Piazza, which set his family apart from the mostly Anglo and Irish inhabitants of his hometown of Chiltern.
Even though his family had lived in Chiltern for generations, one suspects that in the 50s and 60s such an Italian name cast the De Piazzas in something of an “Other” role. So when Alex Jesaulenko was making his name at Carlton it seemed only logical to give his nickname to the local Italian kid. Forget the fact that the Jezza wearing the number 25 for Carlton was born in Austria.
The weekend after Luke’s birth Footscray played Collingwood at the Western Oval in a game that essentially decided the wooden spoon. The Pies won by two goals and finished the year with four wins. The Dogs finished the year on the bottom of the ladder with three wins.
Luke’s mum was a Collingwood supporter. By the Autumn of 1982, she was used to her team disappointing her. Being born to a Carlton supporting father and a Collingwood supporting mother is not the ideal start in life as far as footy goes. One has to decide in that situation whether to betray one of your parents with your choice of team, or play it safe and choose a neutral team. Luke chose Collingwood.
This is how I remember him as a boy – a Collingwood supporter. Another of my aunties considered it a victory. My family is not one of those that all support the one team. Among our ranks is at least one supporter of almost every team in the AFL, so if a new addition chooses your team it strengthens your position. It is a victory.
So there we were, my extended family, all living either in Chiltern or Wagga and surrounds, all with our different footy teams, all keeping in regular contact. That was until the mid to late 90s when I was a teenager, as was Luke. It was decided that his family were moving all the way over to Western Australia. It was the first time anyone in our family had moved so far away. No longer would we all be together every Christmas and school holidays.
I’d grown up admiring him. Although he was seen as a “naughty” kid, I liked that about him. He was a free spirit. He’d get a thought and act upon it, often with negative consequences, but always with a joyous intent. I wasn’t like that. I hated getting in trouble, but his adventurous nature was enough to feed that part in me.
That spirit hadn’t left him the first time I saw him after him moving to WA. While we had kept in touch to an extent, and I had seen the other members of his family occasionally, I think it had been seven or eight years since I’d seen him. When we greeted each other at a family Christmas gathering, he was wearing a Western Bulldogs t-shirt, and I was confused.
“I thought you went for Collingwood,” I said.
“Nah, I’ve gone for the Dogs for years,” was his reply.
No mention of ever having gone for the Pies, like it never happened. Somewhere between our teen years and twenties he had switched allegiances for whatever reason, and it was almost as though he’d erased the Collingwood supporting boy who had come before. Now he was as passionate a supporter of the 1982 wooden spooners as anyone before or since.
In some ways it made sense. Footscray is a club for the battlers, and Luke had his battles. The free spirit he showed as a boy was in fact a case of Attention Deficit Disorder. Later on he was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. Mental illness is somewhat prevalent in my family, but he seemed to be dealt with a much harder hand than the rest of us. I’d like to think that it was while dealing with his demons that he had an epiphany and sought the more righteous path of Footscray over Collingwood.
Since that meeting we kept in much more regular contact and, in a sense, reconnected. We both got married and started families. We talked mostly about music, occasionally discussed our respective struggles and the world at large. And we talked about footy. I remember a time that he spoke scathingly about Jason Akermanis, whom he felt had a disastrous impact on his beloved Dogs.
“He pissed off Brad Johnson! How do you piss off Brad Johnson? I’ve never even seen him not smiling.”
In 2016 Luke moved back over this side of the country and seemed to me to have a new lease on life. It made me happy that he appeared happy. Living in the eastern states meant he could see his team more often. In Round 6 my team and his met in a top of the ladder clash and he travelled down to watch the game with our North Melbourne supporting aunty and uncle. I was sure to wish him luck and we both expressed how nervous we were.
North won a tight match and it was tempting to dream of great things for the season but, as history will show, it was the Dogs’ year and Luke enjoyed every moment of it. When we caught up towards the end of the season we spoke of our teams’ chances for 2017. I’d given up on 2016 by that point. I think he was looking forward to finals, but not having any genuine expectation of a flag.
When he asked me what I thought Brent Harvey should do following his legendary career with the Roos I suggested he would be an ideal addition to the young Dogs list. Luke liked the idea, but wasn’t as keen on the rumour of Travis Cloke making his way west.
He rode the wave of the finals series with glee. The Dogs’ win in Perth over West Coast would’ve been especially pleasing. He told me on Grand Final day that, from his experience watching Dogs games at Subiaco, the West Coast home crowds were not very friendly. Freo crowds, on the other hand, were lovely.
He managed to get to the game when his Dogs took on the Swans for the flag. My brother and I spoke to him on the phone as the teams went through their warm ups. The joy in his voice was palpable. He spoke mostly in familiar platitudes about the Dogs’ chances, but I could sense that he was preparing himself for what would be one of the greatest days of his life.
Nothing was going to stop Footscray that day. After so much battling, so much heartbreak, being so close yet so far, there was no way they would squander this chance. Footy is often a game of numbers but every now and then all the numbers need be thrown out the window. Sometimes it has a sense of being predestined.
I didn’t hear that much from Luke after the Grand Final. We kept in touch here and there on social media, but after a while I didn’t see many posts from him on Facebook. This was nothing new. The nature of many mental illnesses is to have periods of withdrawal from people. I wasn’t worried.
After a while I just sort of stopped keeping track of what he was up to. To my surprise, other members of my family had been hearing from him fairly regularly and it was obvious that he wasn’t well.
Luke would’ve turned 35 this week, the day before the Dogs unfurl their premiership flag ahead of their first home game of the year, against the Swans. He won’t see that. He won’t see what Travis Cloke will do at the club. He won’t see The Bont take the step from young star with limitless potential to genuine champion of the game.
A few weeks ago Luke’s battles became too much for him and he passed away. The price paid for all his childlike spirit was to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. It was a weight that he was unable to lift without making the ultimate sacrifice. He lived just long enough to see his beloved Bulldogs, the ultimate battlers, win the ultimate prize.
Footy is taken too seriously sometimes, but occasionally not seriously enough. It’s not life and death, that’s certain, but for some it’s enough to get them through to the next weekend. For all the pain and anguish some of us go through at times, the feeling of a really good win is incomparable.
Luke was laid to rest with his Bulldogs scarf across his casket. His brothers wore Bulldogs t-shirts, as did his daughter, nieces and nephews. In death, as in life, he held his passion for the Doggies close.
Our final farewell to our cousin, nephew, grandson, brother, son and friend was at the Chiltern Football Ground. That setting has known a massive amount of joy. Chiltern teams have played their way to more than 20 senior premierships on that ground. It’s where Nigel and Matthew Lappin, and countless Lappins before them, learnt the game.
That ground has never known the emotion that was present on this day though. As the unmistakable refrain of Sons Of The West sounded, each one of us made our way on to the ground carrying balloons of red, white and blue. After what seemed like forever, but can’t have been since the song only lasts a couple of minutes, we all began to release our balloons. It’s hard to describe the scene of the red, white and blue dots floating away against a brilliant blue sky, peppered with bright white clouds. Remarkably, given the occasion, it was one of the most joyous moments I think most of us has experienced.
It was a simple gesture on the face of it, but a fitting tribute to a man who loved life, even if it didn’t love him back.
No, footy’s not life or death, but it brings people together. It creates communities, it makes friendships and bonds families and it sure helped our family celebrate Luke’s life in a way that he would’ve loved.
*Luke worked for a time in the construction industry in WA, an industry that reports rates of male suicide much higher than the rest of the population. He was passionate about MATES In Construction, a charity dedicated to raising awareness and seeking to prevent suicide. Please consider making a donation to this cause at matesinconstruction.org.au
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact these services for help.
Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au
SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.sane.org
beyond blue support service line 1300 22 46 36
Black Dog Institute www.blackdoginstitute.com.au