Giving thanks for the GFC

 

by John Mirisch

 

Nov. 28, 2011: This is Thanksgiving time in the US.  It’s one of our best holidays.  Any holiday that centers around a meal can’t be all bad, I guess.

 

In the best American tradition, we take stock of life’s blessings, among the pains and irritations, and we give thanks for all the thankworthy things in our lives.  Leaving out the obvious, health and family, I had opportunity this Thanksgiving to reflect how I am truly thankful for having somewhat serendipitously discovered the Geelong Cats and footy.  To be a part of this year’s journey as a full member was not only a thrilling experience, but also a very personal one.  It might seem overblown to use the adjective “transformative,” so I’ll let it be.  Suffice it to say that though I’ve never been to the Cattery or Geelong, I feel thankful to be able to embrace the values the club stands for, along with its rich history and traditions as a part of the Geelong Cats Community.

 

It all brings me back to a cold autumn (OK, spring in Geelong) day almost two months ago.  It was Oct. 1 in Australia, but still Friday, Sept. 30 here in southern California.  And, as I described in my previous post, I had taken my son to Disneyland on the day.  I wrote about the bad omens, which, I feared, portended a smashing at the hands of the Pies, including having lost my Geelong Cats cap dropping down into the briar patch at Splash Mountain.

 

With a combination of trepidation, quiet but scratchy confidence, hope and fear, I arrived home from Diz at about 7 PST, and helped put Vin to bed, asking him to “think good thoughts about the impending Grand Final” and asking him to “dream about a Geelong victory.”  With his bright but tired eyes he enthusiastically promised me he would dream about a Cat win, and I kissed him after which he, almost immediately, it seemed, got to work.  Maybe his sweet dreams would counteract some of the seemingly bad karma from Disneyland – karma, which, let it be expressly said, I brought upon myself by tempting fate and the footy gods by celebrating, as it were, in advance.  (As I explained in the last post, normally, I would have only taken Vin to Diz after the GF, but because we had friends in from Sweden who could only go on the Friday, we headed out to the “happiest place on Earth” as an act of sociability.)

 

As it turns out, the “happiest place on Earth” that day was destined to be the MCG, Kardinia Park, Geelong, and wherever a soul with Geelong in his or her heart happened to be.  But I didn’t know it at the time.

 

At around 8:30 pm with visions of Cat speccies and goals already dancing in Vin’s head, I walked over to my friend Brian’s house.  Brian was kind enough to accompany me to the sports bar where we were going to watch the Grand Final.  This was a tradition, of sorts.  Brian, along with my friend Ralph, had come with me to the same sports bar the previous year, where we had watched the drawn Grand Final together.  Both Brian, who is a big American college football fan and Ralph, who isn’t a big sports buff at all, agreed that the drawn granny was one of the single most exciting sporting matches they had ever seen.  They couldn’t fathom that there was no overtime or tie-breaker, but that a draw meant both teams would come out the following week to do it all over again.

 

That, I explained, was one of the things I loved about Australian football.

 

Ralph was planning on coming again this year, but he felt a bit under the weather.  My brother, who has spent time in Oz and is married to a lovely Aussie lass (though not from Victoria and not a footy fan) and who had said he would try to join us, wasn’t going to be able to make it either.  He’s a big sports fan (the two of us had a successful fantasy baseball team together for four years) and surely would have gotten into the spirit of things, though he had never quite understood the allure of Aussie rules for me and perhaps even thought my passion for the Cats a bit bizarre and humorous.

 

So it was going to be Brian and me, and whoever else showed up at the sports bar.  There were certain to be a number of expat Aussies there, as well as local footy players, as had been the case last year.  Last year a motley majority of the fans gathered at the sports bar seemed to be barracking for St. Kilda, as was I, and, by extension, Brian and Ralph.  I was hopeful we would not be alone this year.

 

Decked out in my Geelong garb – shirt, fleece and cap – I rang Brian’s door and threw a Geelong cap in his direction.  I didn’t want him to feel neutral; I wanted to make sure he knew which side he was going to be supporting.  Carn the Cats!

 

Of course, there wasn’t any chance that Brian would barrack for the Pies.  He had already gotten a sense of how they represented the Dark Side last year.  He also may have felt a slight sense of gratitude to the GFC, which I had done my best to instill.  Brian is a huge fan of the USC Trojans college football team.  So am I, but not nearly at Brian’s level.  Brian had attended USC grad school and he now attended all of the Trojans’ home games and some of the away games, as well.  If I bled blue and white, both for the Cats and my baseball Dodgers, Brian bled cardinal and gold, the USC colors.  Brian innately hates the Sydney Swans (for whom I admittedly have a soft spot), not because he knows anything about their history, not for any old grudges against South Melbourne and not because he can’t stand their colors.  No, the Swans have expropriated the Notre Dame fight song, and Notre Dame – along with crosstown UCLA – are USC’s despised arch-rivals.

 

Aside from our friendship and my passion for the Cats, I was able to establish a USC-GFC connection which I hoped would up the ante for tonight’s Grand Final.  I had explained to Brian how Geelong legend Edward “Carji” Greeves had been recruited by another legend, USC coach Howard Jones, in the late ‘20’s to teach the errant Trojan field goal team and punters the art of kicking.  Evidently the waywardness of the Trojan kickers had cost the team dearly.  Geelong had only recently won their first VFL title in 1925.  The Trojans had never won the college football national championship.  Yet in the year after Carji’s kicking clinic, 1928, the Trojans went on to win their first of a number of national championships.  The kicking skills learned from Carji evidently played a role in USC’s success.

 

With the Cat-Trojan connection firmly established we drove down to Santa Monica, where the sports bar, aptly named “South,” because they specialize in Southern-style food, is located.  Last year’s Grand Final party was organized by some local footy clubs.  This year it was the newly-formed Los Angeles Dragons footy club which hosted the event.

 

We walked into the bar a few minutes after 9 pm.  The match was scheduled to start at 9:30 pm, Friday night, Santa Monica time, which, of course, translates to 2:30 pm, Saturday afternoon, Melbourne time.  There were already a number of fans drinking and milling about, but having gotten there a bit early, tables were available.  Last year, by the time we had arrived, it was essentially standing room only.  As we walked towards a well-situated table in front of a bank of TV’s, some people yelled at us “Carn the Catters!” when they noticed our Geelong clothing.  We were not going to be alone.  Thank goodness.

 

We staked out our table as the pre-game show came on.  Mercifully, they had cut Meatloaf from the international broadcast.  A boy, maybe 9 or 10, wore his #45 guernsey, and before we sat down I asked him how the score would turn out or, rather, what he thought the Cats’ margin of victory would be.  “They’re going to win by 100,” he said.  “I hope you’re right,” I replied.  “But I’ll be happy if they win by even one.”  I wasn’t particularly hungry, or at least I shouldn’t have been after Disneyland, but I ordered some Southern fried chicken, the ultimate comfort food at a time, depending on the score, I might need comfort by the bucket.  The sweet potato fries arrived as did the pitcher of beer and I started my nervous eating and drinking.

 

There were a number of Collingwood fans scattered about, but the Cat fans seemed to be in a solid majority, particularly if you included the anti-Collingwood crowd.  I did not see the number two from the Australian consulate, Graham, who had outed himself as a Collingwood fan at the previous year’s Grand Final party.  The place would not become as packed as last year, but it would get loud and raucous and at one point contentious, when a Collingwood fan thought a Cat fan was flicking beer at him.

 

The match, of course, began brilliantly with the center clearance and Travis Varcoe’s quick goal.  What a way to start the game.  More, please.  Let’s pour it on and not look back.  Yes, I’d be happy if we won by a single point, but I’d feel a lot better if we annihilated the Pies.  After Trav’s second goal, it seemed we might be on our way.

 

But footy is a game of ebb and flow, of momentum, and things can turn on a dime.  While I was disappointed that the tide had turned, I was still hopeful.  Actually, I was on pins and needles, but I hadn’t given up hope.  I wasn’t “quietly confident” now, as the Aussie expression goes, but loudly hopeful.  At the quarter we were up by a point, though it seemed we should have been up by a lot more.  Some wasteful footy in there.  Wasteful footy against the good teams has a way of coming back to bite you in the butt.  Stop the waste, damn it.  Carn the Catters!  Dig deep!  More beer.

 

The beginning of the second quarter is anything but auspicious for the Cats.  I can just hear the late, great American football announcer Howard Cosell, whose favorite word was “auspicious” say in his inimitable manner: “The beginning of the second quarter is anything but auspicious for the Cats.”  When the Cats go down by 18, it’s verging on panic time.  I remember all-too-well the drubbing in last year’s Qualifying Final.  Could it be that the 2011 Pies really are the invincible superteam many have made them out to be from the beginning of the season?  Were the two Cat victories during the regular season really meaningless?  Could these guys really turn it on and off at will?  More beer, please.  C’mon guys!

 

It’s clear our boys are fighting back.  They have their chances.  But both Hawkins and Stevie J. miss opportunities – more wasteful footy, not a good sign.  And then the unthinkable happens: Pods goes down.  Please, please just pop the shoulder back in the socket and let him be OK.  We need J-Pod.  He hasn’t even begun to show what he can do against the Pies.  Please, let him be OK.  By my way of thinking, he’s supposed to win the Norm Smith.  I had even included his Normie in the lyrics to a song I had written.  This can’t be happening.

 

Pods happens to be one of my favorite Cats.  I just love his passion, his story, his Polishness.  I happen to be married to a Polish girl and little Vin speaks Polish (in addition to Swedish and, yes, English, says his proud father).  Vin pronounces Pods’s name in the proper Polish way: Poad-she-AD-wih and his Polish half takes pride in J-Pods’s success, not to mention Wojcinski.  (Unfortunately, for him and much to my own dismay as his Swedish father, his Swedish half is still waiting for a Geelong hero).

 

But it is clear Pods is not coming back, and there is a cloud over the Geelong faithful at South on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California, after 10 pm on September 30th, 2011.

 

As Pods lies waiting for a stretcher, the match continues.  The Pies go coast-to-coast and Krakouer goals after another speccie, while Pods still lies on the grass, writhing in pain.  Not Krakouer again.  It was Krakouer who started off this ill-boding quarter with his quick goal, accompanied by the call: “Krakouer, Krakouer, Krakouer, KRAKOUER!”  I don’t even know the names of the broadcasters, but it was a brilliant call, I have to admit.  A classic.  Wish it were for one of ours.  I love footy, but I hate what’s happening.  For all the brilliant descriptive simplicity of the Krakouer call, it’s close to panic time.  Time to have ice in my stomach, as the Swedish expression goes.  And beer.  More beer and fried chicken.

 

Pods is gone and we somehow steady things.  We trade goals, but we need another one to start closing the gap.  We get a free after Pie ruckman Jolly taps the ball out on the full and Jimmy Bartel nails the goal.  Jimmy Bartel has ice in his stomach.  I only have beer and fried chicken.  I love Jimmy Bartel, what a pro.  We’re only down by three at the half.  As Ingemar says in “My Life as a Dog,” “It could have been worse.”  A lot worse.

 

Halftime.  Breathe in, breath out.  Still a lot of footy to be played.  Coming out of the loo, I run into Brenton, an Aussie journalist who writes for our local paper.  Or, who did.  He’s just been recruited to be editor of one of the Santa Monica weeklies and is about to jump ship.  Brenton hails from Queensland and is not a big footy fan, as I know from some of our prior discussions on the subject.  (Yes, I’ll try to strike up a conversation on the subject with anyone I think could be remotely interested.)  But much like the Super Bowl in the US, the AFL Grand Final is evidently an iconic event for Aussies, especially those abroad, and I suspect Brenton is here to celebrate his Aussieness, as if the name “Brenton” isn’t enough (I’ve never met an American “Brenton”).  He also has an Aussie mate who plays with the Los Angeles Dragons.  Brenton, who’s already had a few and gotten into the spirit of things, comes over to our table to drink some more with with us, or rather me, as Brian is driving and drinking the soft stuff.  I don’t think Brenton is supporting either of the teams, but is just enjoying the atmosphere and the beer.

 

Brenton seems less surprised to see me, knowing about my exotic – for Americans and perhaps for Queenslanders – taste in sports, but he seems to be a bit curious that Brian, who is one of our local school board members, has accompanied me.  While Brian fesses up that he’s not exactly a hardcore footy fan, he does mention he had been to the sports bar version of the previous year’s Grand Final and had actually enjoyed it.  In fact, Brian seems to be following the ebb and flow of this year’s Grand Final more than Brenton.  On more than one occasion, I have to try to explain some of the on-field calls, particularly when a seemingly inexplicable free kick is awarded.  I still have much to learn myself, but I do my best to try to explain about prior opportunity and high hits.  Some of the calls I can’t explain.  Brian sees how I’ve been deflated after the Pies go up by three goals in the second quarter and senses my revival of hope by the half.  And he cheers with me.  I’m lucky to have such a good friend.

 

The second half siren sounds and the rollercoaster begins.  We get the first goal of the second half.  We’re back in front, but not by much.  The Pies come back – “You knew they would!” as the announcer says – and the lead bounces back and forth several times.  Wellingham kicks and the ball shaves the post, but a goal is awarded and the score stands.  This is bogus.  Is it maybe karma for Tomahawk’s poster in ’09 which went unnoticed and was scored a goal?  No time to philosophize.  After another stomach-ice goal by Bartel, Duncan kicks a beautiful running goal and we’re up.  Maybe we can do it.  How sweet would this be after last year’s defeat in the Qualifying Final and after all the “experts” had counted us out at the beginning of the season?  What was it they said?  No Bomber.  No Gaz.  No hope.

 

No way.  But after Duncan’s goal, Sidebottom strikes back to cut the lead.  Tommy Hawkins scores his third goal of the quarter and the quarter siren sounds.  We’re up by eight, after having trailed by three at the half.  Surely, we can hang on for one more quarter.  Surely we can tough it out and surely justice can triumph over evil for once.  But what is a measly eight points against a side that has the reputation for coming back when it counts, that has been described by some experts as among the toughest of all time?  Surely, we’re better.  We have to be better.  Why can’t this be easier?  I take a swig and the coaster car slowly begins its climb up the 100 foot, rickety wood hill, ready for the last run of the day.  Where will we end up?

 

Here goes nothing.

 

We see images of the Collingwood side huddling up.  It’s one of those “Let’s do it for Mick” moments.  I want to tell our boys, “Stuff Mick Malthouse.  You hang in there and do it for each other.  Do it for Chris Scott, who’s doing it for you.  Do it for the fans, the members and the entire Cats Community with a capital ‘C.’  Do it for Geelong.”

 

Within the first minute of play Hawkins grabs a screamer.  He can’t convert.  Another speccie.  Another miss.  More wasteful footy.  Please, please, don’t waste any more chances.  By the third mark, it’s nervous-time again.  And then comes one of the most understated, endorphin-inducing plays of the game: without great ado, Hawkins simply passes to Stevie J, who’s standing next to him, and Dog kicks the goal.  Bliss.  Breathtakingly simple.  Absolutely beautiful.  We’re up by 15, but there’s still a lot of footy to be played.

 

Some over eager Geelong supporters behind us (the ones who had been accused of flicking beer towards the Collingwood fans), get up on the table benches and start loudly singing “We Are Geelong.”  I plead with them to keep the lid on, at least for a few more minutes.  As it turns out, it was just a good time as any to start the celebration, but as a firm subscriber of the Yogi Berra philosophy of life, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” I wasn’t ready to chase the beer with bubbly.  In contrast to the beginning of the third quarter, we’re able to stop the Pies from trading goals.  Then Varcoe goes coast-to-coast for a smooth-as-silk, spectacular major score.  You beauty.  Not yet, not yet.  The lid is still on.  Barely.  But these are the Pies and anything can happen.  There’s still enough time on the clock.  The words of the announcer are still with me: “You sense the Magpies are going to respond; they’re too good a team to toss it in.”  The Pies fight back and Cloke gets the ball, well within his range.  His first-half goals had all the potential to have been the beginning of the end for the Cats.  Majestic boomers, which fired up the Pie fans and momentarily deflated the Cat fanatics.  Cloke misses and I heave a sigh of relief.  It’s a good sign, a good omen.  Of course, omens mean nothing.  It’s all up to our boys.

 

When Jimmy Bartel splits the goalposts from his set shot with about ten minutes left — perhaps a little late — I know.  We’re going to win the Grand Final.  We’re going to be the premiers!  After Cameron Ling hits the final goal of the Grand Final – and, as it turns out, of his storied career – the camera cuts to Chris Scott who pumps his fist into the air and lets out a roar.  It is a moment and an image which will long be etched into my memory.  The new coach, always focused on the team, ever humble, always passionate, throughout the season constantly aware that there’s room to do things better, that there’s a need for improvement, that his Cats still haven’t fulfilled their full potential.  And now this.  Yeah, I’d definitely love to grab a beer with Chris Scott.  After the match, he says he thinks today is about the best day of his life.  Weird, but I think I know exactly how he feels.

 

It’s after midnight.  We’re at South, on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Stanford Street in Santa Monica, California.  We’ve just watched a sports matchup of a game that very few Americans have ever heard of, let alone know much about.  The place is going nuts.  We scream, we sing, we almost levitate.  Two Geelong fans lift little Lingy up and while his prediction of a hundred point victory fell short by two-thirds, it sure doesn’t feel that way.  My voice is gone.  I will be hoarse for over a week. But, still, we sing the song a few more times and I sip some more beer, as if I had just gotten over a serious case of the bends and am coming out of a hyperbaric chamber.  I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been happier or more satisfied as the result of a sporting event.  It’s insane.

 

When I get home it’s close to one in the morning.  I can’t sleep.  I go on-line to find as many articles as possible which recount what I’ve just seen and look for the video highlights before – no idea what time — I fall into a happy, blessed slumber.

 

Yesterday, Nov. 27, three days after Thanksgiving and less than two months after the 2011 Grand Final, I take my son Vin to Disneyland again.  It’s a visit which had been postponed a couple of times due to conflicting schedules and seasonal illnesses.  It is a warm, Southern California day, in the mid 20’s, Celsius and the low 80’s Fahrenheit.  Disneyland is all decked out in its holiday trimmings and it feels the way I imagine Christmas in Oz to be.  The only thing missing is the barbie.  Vincent is dressed in a USC jersey, Geelong cap and lathered up in sunblock.  The USC jersey is in honor of the Trojans’ victory on Saturday, the day before, when they humiliated crosstown rival UCLA, 50-0. The Geelong cap is for our belated celebration of the Grand Final victory and the efficacy of Vin’s dreamtime.   It’s a good day.

 

Despite the tryptophan which is still in my system, I’m not the least bit tired.  But I am thankful.  Looking at my son, I’m most thankful for him.  How did I ever deserve such a sweet kid?  How amazing to be able to share Disneyland, USC and the Geelong Cats with my boy.  And I’m thankful for myself that I discovered the GFC late in life, that lateness being through no fault of my own.  This time at Disneyland I wore my new GFC cap; it says “2011 Premiers” on it.  I didn’t go on Splash Mountain this time, but, oh, what a ride.  I’m still smiling.  When I think about the 2011 AFL season, I will keep smiling, I suspect, well into the future.

 

Almost involuntarily, standing there in view of the Disneyland Christmas parade, with my son in his Geelong hat watching on in wonderment, I recall a quotation from American journalist Daniel Okrent.  It’s from a documentary on my other sporting passion, baseball, but if there are more appropriate words now to express my feeling for this year’s Grand Final, I can’t find them.  Said Okrent: “The fun of recalling something that you saw five days ago or five years ago or a lifetime ago – knowing that it’s there to be plucked back into your life in an instant – oh, God, that’s rare.”

 

The 2011 premiership is like that, also on a purely personal level.  It’s the first live Grand Final I’ve watched with my adopted Cats and the first year I’ve been a member of the Club.  It’s one of those moments which I know I’ll return to in the future.  In fact, I already have done so, having watched the replay or parts of it on numerous occasions.

 

What can I say?  Thank you, GFC, for the pleasure of having watched such a splendid match in real-time.  Thank you, GFC, in advance for the pleasure which I know will be plucked back into my life in an instant; and I know that with the ebb and flow of life, there are sure to be times in the future when I’ll need a dose of the this year’s Grand Final.  And thanks to the dvd, I’ll be able to watch it with various commentaries I never even knew existed.

 

Thank you Jimmy B, captain Lingy and future captain Joel Selwood.  Thank you Stevie J, J-Pod, Wojo, Chappy and Scarlo.  Thank you Mackie, Hunt, Taylor, Boris, Lonners, West, Stokesy, Smiffy, Kelly and Varcoe, Bundy, Duncan.  Thank you, Tomahawk.  Thank you Menzel, Moons, Dasher and the others who didn’t play in the Grand Final, but who contributed to this amazing season.  And Chris Scott and your coaching squad, as well as Colin Carter, Brian Cook and the entire management team: thank you all.

 

It is an incredible feeling, both gratifying and humbling, to be a member of a Club which stands for so many good things, but first and foremost, Community with a capital “C.”  Thank you, GFC and the Geelong Community for letting me belong and for letting me be a part of something special in a place I’ve never seen.

 

Of course, I hope to remedy that someday soon.  I still have the pleasure of my first visit to Kardinia Park, attending my first Geelong Cats match and — the good Lord willing — my first live-and-in-person Geelong Cats Grand Final victory ahead of me.

 

Until I discovered footy, never did I ever think I’d have cause to say: Next year in Geelong!

 

Comments

  1. Great story John. Let’s hope it is often repeated.

  2. It’s 4.30 on Sunday arvo and I am in lay back mode. I am sipping a good Tassy ale held through a stubby holder that has ‘Geelong Cats Premiers 2011’ on it and reading your account of the game John.

    All is fine with the world at the moment.

    Make sure that you get to Pussy Park and soak it in.

    Go Cats.

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    Nice one John. I enjoy the overseas GF stories.

  4. John Butler says:

    John, many sentiments we can all relate to there.

    In the continuing spirit of the tale, many thanks.

  5. Ian Pollock says:

    Well done John, for a guy who has picked up the game by watching it in the US your knowledge is fantastic. I really enjoyed your thoughts and feelings as you described them in your wonderful description of watching the GF live in that bar. Well done

  6. pamela sherpa says:

    Being overseas certainly highlights experiences like this John. I enjoyed reading your piece. Savour the memories. I recall whilst at primary school being allowed to sit up late into the night to listen to Margaret Court play at Wimbledon .There was a unique excitement about listening to an event an Australian was in happening so far away.

  7. Richard Naco says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m a Cat living a fair distance from The Pivot (although nothing compared to your degree of exile), and maybe it’s because I also love the fact that the C in GFC stands more for Community than Club. I also came late to The Faith, so it was no matter of genetics or geography that has drawn me inextricably into the GFC cult. Whatever the reason, this wonderful yarn resonates completely with me.

    I managed to be in Geelong on Grand Final day, and K-Rock went kinda silly distributing blow up Cat’s paws & flags (both adorned with GO CATS), so to say I have more than I need is an understatement. If you’d care to email me your address, I’m pretty sure I can get some to SoCal before Christmas, so that you and your lad can become even more deeply embedded in the culture of our beloved GFC.

    It is more than a mere game, and the Cats are more than a mere club. And you, mate, are far far more than an ordinary fan. Onya!

  8. Damian Harriss says:

    Hello John, what a marvellous article, well done! As a long-suffering Footscray (Doggies) member and supporter, and the son of of an ardent St Kilda fanatic who survived, relatively unscathed, from being in utero at the 1966 GF, I can only envy you for your good fortune in getting on board the Catters – as distinct from the bridesmaids of the ilk of the Dogs, Saints, et al – thereby being able to enjoy their current halcyon era. I, too, was in the US for Thanksgiving, and was also there a few weeks earlier for the pointy end of the World Series baseball play-offs between Texas Rangers and St Louis Cardinals. As it happened, my wife and I found ourselves in, of all places, Las Vegas for games 6 and 7 and, true to my allegiance to the underdog, we were barracking hard for Texas, hoping they’d break their World Series duck. Alas, in the true spirit of the Dogs and the Saints, Texas managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory, to be trumped by the hardened World Series specialists, St Louis. I look forward to the day when Texas, Footscray and St Kilda, like the Cats of 2007, can break their respective long-standing droughts. Keep up the good work John and may your evangelical efforts fill Southern California with many more Aussie Rules fans, and, hopefully, many more Cats supporters – the world needs more such loyal creatures who are being amply rewarded for many past September heartbreaks. If only we Bulldogs tragics get to enjoy the same rewards for our years of suffering. Go Well. DH

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