Memoir: My Father, My Football

This piece was written in 2000, and has not been published before.

By Terry Chapman

My life’s first footy moment comes courtesy of a black-and-white image of me in Grandma’s backyard in Coburg. I’m about four. Mum would have been behind the old Kodak 126, freezing forever the opening entry on my life’s stats sheet. Hate the game as she does, innocent to its artistry and dismissive of the notion of skill, she still managed to capture me at the apex of my follow through. At four, Mum put me in the time-frozen company of Ted Whitten, Michael Roach and Tony Locket, all captured in my mind’s polaroid  with kicking leg long and straight, boot above head height. My first kick would have travelled just the length of Plugger’s right leg, and at the end of it, I have no doubt, would have stood my dad.

Only twenty years my senior, Dad was too young to be tied down to family life, but already too old to be tying up the laces of his footy boots. Teenage bone disease had rendered his knees dysfunctional, and thus did I never witness him pull in a screamer or boot that game-winning goal. I had to contend myself with his accounts of junior stardom down at Northcote seconds and settle with the assurance that, were it not for his dodgy pins, his slotting into the Collingwood seniors would have been a formality.

The notion of a career with the Magpies sat comfortably with all the other things I believed about my father. I thought he was super-human. All these years later, he has five boys. Three of those boys have played the game at senior level, and one was going to be a top umpire. His youngest is in the throes of “making it”, and with the pleasure Dad takes in watching Paul mix it with the country’s best footballers, there must come a nagging inkling of his legacy to us boys.

Dad’s second set of progeny is quite different to that of ours, but football has long provided a tangible link between the two. It has been common ground upon which we could perch at times when we weren’t so sure where we stood. Common, except for Daniel, my only full brother.

Daniel never played, nor took much interest, in footy. Of us five boys, he had the shortest life-time with our father. He was only four, the age of my induction to football, when our parents split. He has not been to visit Dad in nearly ten years. On the other hand, I had eight years with Dad, and, unlike my brother, am able to remember snippets of a home unbroken. And strong amongst these recollections is the day my father took me to my first VFL game. This powerful reminiscence encompasses the sights, the smells, the sounds and the incomparable sense of atmosphere of the occasion. In my mental library, the experience occupies more shelf space than even my first day at school or the last of my parents’ marriage.

That first game was Collingwood (who else?) and Essendon, and the venue was Windy Hill, a two-train odyssey from the weatherboards of lower Northcote. The final margin of 11 points is pretty much all I recall of the game itself; that, and a bloke by name of Terry Waters who manned the goal square in Collingwood’s defence. It turned out he was captain of the mighty black and whites – the number 1 on his back attesting so – but from behind he looked very much like the bloke who had brought me there that day.

I’ve tried since that day to sneak another peek at the game through the eyes of the uninitiated. I’ve watched the wide eyes of kids of my mates as they’re swamped by the cacophony and colour of the rabid crowd. I’ve taken my girlfriend to her first AFL game and seen her seduced. I took a bunch of Bosnian teens to a 90,000 strong night match and saw them bedazzled. The first taste of footy, for many it seems, can be sweet, sour and savage at once. It’s possible my own debut is kind of unique, but the habit that it started is certainly not.

Stood to the waist of the crowd on the terrace in front of the grandstand and behind the goals, my VFL initiation was all roar and bump. Black coats jammed shoulder to shoulder in the standing space afforded in front of those way up high, and I was dropped shoulder to bum thereunder. Submerged in duffel, I was left to find my own air-pocket, into which I would nestle until it collapsed with a roar from above. The shift in mass would create new bubbles elsewhere, and to them I would swim holding my breath. The crowd vibe was beery and aggressive, passionate and blokey, but the muffle of the fervent voices overhead was just background noise to the little game of survival going on at ground level.

My view of the game was no more than glimpses of green through the black-coat forest. Through shifting gaps in the dark, bright patches of grasses splashed loud, like regrowth after a bushfire. Each ground-moving roar would not just alter the air-space below but also give sight of more of the verdant playing surface, confirming that there was, indeed, a footy oval out there.

Empty beer tins periodically rolled underfoot or dropped from overhead. Dad took to assembling six or so of the steel discards to make something of a platform upon which I could stand to gain better access to the action. For a short time I balanced precariously on my CUB stage and enjoyed a better view of the backs of black coats, with an occasional glimpse of grey sky. The shorter men in the crowd were similarly perched upon their empties and, better practised than me, managed to stay on despite the sway of the body collective that followed every roar. After a couple of these tectonic shifts and subsequent topplings, I gave up and resumed my station on terrace firma. The day was giddy enough.

But even during my brief stint atop the tinnies did I not all game manage to catch sight of the far end goal posts. And it lent me the weirdest perspective of the ground. I came away convinced that the playing arena at Essendon was boomerang-shaped, as all action at the other end was so far removed from view that it may as well have been played around the corner. Long after the day I had footy dreams set on V-shaped ‘ovals’, and it took many more visits to VFL grounds, plus careful scrutiny of the replays on telly, to dispel the misconception that Windy Hill’s goal to goal line was anything but direct. (Perhaps it was the way they played it?).

Some time into my spectatorial debut came the inevitable. As sure as losing Mum at Myer’s, Dad and I became separated. I remember surfacing from an air pocket to find that my father was no longer behind me and being a little confused, which would eventually turn to worry. Scanning the giants around me, I pushed my way forward through jumping bums towards the splashes of green until I could see quite clearly the goal square. My fears were instantly allayed. For there he stood, bedecked in black and white with trademark bald spot shining like a halo above the pre-eminent number on his back. He was manning the goal square, keeping close quarters with the Essendon full forward, and had obviously forgotten to tell me he thought he might go out and have a kick.

Sensing the scurry beneath him, a man looked down and asked if I was lost. ‘No,’ I confidently pointed, ‘That’s my dad out there’. The man left me to my delusion and returned to the action afar, while I just focused on the No.1 in big white shorts, waiting for him to turn around and wave to me.

After the final siren, and the biggest roar of the day, the mass of bodies started to thin; some disappearing under the stands, others spilling over the fence. Dad, back in his civvies, retrieved me like he knew where I was the whole time. We stood ankle deep in the debris of cans and paper bags, and my eyes boggled in the fading light at the sight of the throng on the ground and the flight of a thousand footballs. I still could make out no far end goals, but I could see, way off in the grey, a scoreboard. Like the blackboard at school during sums, there were digits all over, and it took Dad’s interpretation to pass on the bottom line that Collingwood had vanquished the home team by 11 points. If I’d picked up anything that day, it was that winning was a good thing, and I was suddenly the happiest of children.

I remember the darkness wrapping around the train as we rattled back to our own, grateful to score a seat amidst the cram of singing Magpie supporters. The warmth and good cheer in our carriage was delicious. I must have figured out that the change from the anger and abuse that was the mood of the terrace to this commuter bonhomie was in no small way connected to the game’s result. I guess it was for this reason I nagged Dad stupid all the way home with my gladness as to the final score.

I half remember telling him how I had seen him out on the field, and gathering from his response that it would be something just he and I would share. So I didn’t talk about that. I just sat on the rocking train, swinging my legs happily beneath me, telling him endlessly how great it was that we had won. By eleven points.

Dad’s patience was of the type that was as likely to be sapped by unremittent joy as by complaint. Having to suffer my repetitive rapture from Windy Hill to Westgarth, he must have been wishing he’d left me back on the littered steps at Essendon, or outside the change-rooms so that Terry Bloody Waters could take me home. I wouldn’t blame him if he’d never taken me to another game.

But take me to other games he did, and my indoctrination into the Collingwood faithful was into its third stage. Stage one was simply being born to a Magpie father, a baptism in black and white; stage two, the immersion into Collingwood-speak that would invariably surround my father no matter where he went or with whom he communed. Toddling off to Victoria Park  became ritual (at least, on the Saturdays when Dad could not offload me onto Mum) and paved the way for my eventual confirmation. It was a fortnightly pilgrimage that would test my young legs, more than it did my early faith, and I much preferred the train. Thus did I develop a preference for away games, cos at least I’d be able to sit down after the match.

Besides journeying to Windy Hill, Dad and I ventured to other grounds far and wide within Melbourne’s suburbs to watch our team do battle. I remember a day at the Lake Oval when we thrashed South Melbourne and Peter McKenna kicked sixteen goals. Bob Skilton was one of the few non-Collingwood players I knew of, but Dad said he wasn’t playing that day. We wouldn’t have won so easily if he had been. I also vaguely recall going to the Junction Oval; I’m told we went west at least once to Footscray; and I must have made it to the MCG at some stage in those fuzzy days. (I wish I could remember my first touch of the G’s sacred turf, back in the days when it took only one siren to flood the ground with fans and footies.) But love as I did our adventures into these suburban wilds, it was within the black and white walls of the pit beside Yarra Falls that the bulk of my barracking teeth were cut.

I reckon I would have made visitations to Victoria Park throughout most of the phases that make up a forty year life, and find I can refer to particular games or occasions as bookmarks to a particular period, or hairstyle. That formative period with Dad, my early Catholic primary school crew cut years, carved into me an impression of the venue that lives longer and stronger than all subsequent visits. It’s a mood as much as a memory, a feeling from the depths of the soul that is stirred by even driving past the ground.

It’s a recollection more atmospheric than pictorial. The smells of spilt beer and ancient urinals; the mob’s guttural resonance under the Rush Stand; the emotions of a turgid crowd; the anger and exhortation; the exhilaration and ill manner. They all meld with ghostly images of giants in gladiatorial joust, set upon an apron of green, to stamp upon my impressionable being what I can now identify as a definite sense of the culture in which I was nurtured, a sense of my very being.

Perhaps, as far as some cultures go, football watching could be regarded as unsophisticated and rather inglorious. At Victoria Park, it was even more primitive and base. But one cannot help what one is born into. I know I was not the only kid philistine in the outer who would drink in the visceral vapours that filled the stadium every second Saturday in Winter; just as I suspect I was not alone in harbouring a fantasy of getting summoned by coach Bob Rose to go pull on the boots. And I didn’t mean when I grew up, I meant there and then.

See, I had this fanciful notion that if the Magpie forces were sufficiently weakened through injury, they’d eventually be forced to ask around the crowd for volunteers. Sure, I was still in primary school, but I figured that if enough players got hurt, including the ring-ins from the outer, my turn would come. And what’s more, I’d be ready. It was a privately kept daydream (how could any loyal fan wish injury upon his own?), one that I couldn’t share with even my brother or sister. Especially my brother and sister.

As mentioned earlier, neither of my two full siblings were big on footy. Despite them maintaining a distant allegiance to the Pies (they were subject to the first two stages of the indoctrination) the only football occasion I recall sharing with them was the day Dad took all three of us to watch Collingwood play Geelong. It was not long after the demise of our ‘family unit’, and so must have been an ‘access day’, though neither term had yet been coined.

Newly single, Dad was in the throes of  re-living his freedom, compensating for the early end to his youth, and stockpiling toys. A new car, a boat, a motorbike, a rifle, a caravan, even a country shack. He seemed to be making the most of his own wages in a way he’d been for eight years denied. (I would later, much later, realise the splurge to be as much coping mechanism as mere indulgence.) His demeanour was undoubtedly adolescent.

The day he took us all to Vic Park, the crowd was big, but not sardined. I was still battling to see much of the action, but if I was having trouble, what hope did Donna and Daniel have? Dad sought to fix the problem of his kids’ pending boredom by pulling from his pocket a couple of Penny Bungers. For a laugh, he lit one and threw it into the crowd in front of us. When the commotion it caused eventually settled he fired up another, and the space around us remained vacant for the rest of the game. Donna thought it hilarious and still laughs about it today, while Daniel was too young to realise exactly what was going on. Me, I was horrified. Mainly from embarrassment, I guess, and the shock of seeing the delinquent in my dad that I hadn’t before known.

The cracker incident was a mortifying realisation at the time, and it may have ever altered the way I looked at my father. But, in terms of real horror, nothing could’ve surpassed the revulsion I felt at the same venue some years prior. Back when I was a bit more innocent; back when I was still Dad’s regular football buddy.

I figure I’ve watched the Pies do battle from virtually every vantage point Vic Park offers (save for that behind the glass), yet I have never managed to locate that one particular spot from which my strongest and ugliest memory of the ground stems. It was on a high section of terrace, ensconced beneath the overhang of some stand, next to a stairwell, one of the many that are dug into the concrete embankment, a human drainage system. I can’t place it exactly, such was the blur of events, but I imagine the boy concerned would be able to tell us the very spot.

It was another battle against South Melbourne, and thanks to the stepped elevation of the terrace I was now able to get an unimpeded view of the shoulder blades of the black coated crowd, and a few backs of heads. There was considerably more green to be seen than was once apparent at Windy Hill, and I had a definite sense of there being two sets of goals (watching from the wing gave far better perspective). My view, nevertheless, still afforded me little idea as to the action unfolding, and Skilton’s heroics I could only follow by the begrudgingly respectful commentary happening over my head. That was why a kid, just a few years older than me, was perched on the balustrade of the nearby stairwell.

I sized up the kid’s posi with a few longing looks, and Dad was awake to my thinking. His look made it clear that I wasn’t allowed to do the same. I didn’t question my father, but still envied the kneeling boy his unobstructed view, and admired his apparent independence.

Next to the balustrade stood a bloke on beer cans, and from his condition you’d figure that he’d emptied them all himself. He possibly wasn’t any older than Dad, but in those days, all drunks looked like Grandpa. I’d been watching him for a while, wonky and witless in his dark grey coat, sucking an eternal cigarette. And I saw, in slow motion alarm, the tumble he took from his tinny platform and the bump that he laid on the unsuspecting boy on the barrier.

As I darted across in horror I selectively heard, above the crowd noises, the sickening thud of head on concrete. I leant over to see, some twelve feet below, the kid bounce up in shock and run instinctively into the dress of a large lady who swallowed him up with sympathy and big maternal arms. “Oh, you poor love,” I heard her wail as she dropped her pies and rushed him off. I didn’t see the wound, but was long haunted by an image of the blood that pooled deep on the stair, and the people stepping hurriedly around it.

Absorbed in the action out in the middle, no-one else seemed to see what had happened. I looked around in a shock my own, to see the idiot drunk gormlessly reassembling his beer cans, oblivious to the near fatality he had just caused, ignorant to the world. But Dad had seen it.

Whether it was because it could have been his own son knocked off, or because the poor kid had no-one else to take issue for him (Dad really liked kids) or both, Dad got stuck into the drunk. The fool had no idea why this guy was giving it to him at first, and I suspect, never did fully comprehend the damage he’d done. But he had enough wits about him to realise it was time to abandon his tin can stage and find somewhere else to watch the game. I’d never seen Dad so fired up at a stranger. And I never knew if the kid was all right; but I dreamt about him for a fair while after.

I doubt that either of us were in the mood for a kick after that game. Dad’s anger still consumed him, and I was feeling ill. We would have walked our silent return through Fairfield Park, and probably waited until Sunday for our ritualistic kick to kick.

I just loved kicking the footy with Dad. He didn’t seem to mind it either, his knees still strong enough to lay a torp that could float for half a mile and his hands still sure enough to swallow that overhead grab. How often did I see him let loose with a long bomb, and he would lean back, cock his head and follow its flight with a look that seemed to entertain all the ‘what ifs’ his osteo-myelitis had denied him. But he probably didn’t quite love it as I did. In fact, there would have been days when having a boot was the last thing he felt like, or had time for. I wasn’t to fully understand that, of course, and so it would be that upon returning from work every afternoon, the first thing Dad would see was a plastic footy sailing at him from the bottom of the backyard.

Poor guy. I was totally insensitive to his day-long labours down a man-hole, and, having chased the footy around the yard solo since getting home from school, I would take up set position next to the swings as soon as I heard the PMG truck pull up outside our corner block. At the first flash of blue overalls through the side gate I’d carefully fire my best drop punt at him, the theory being that if the pass was good, he’d have to mark it, and thus would he be drawn into a game before he had even got to the back door. He was always good about it, even on days when he clearly didn’t feel like playing. “No, not today, Ter,” he would occasionally say; but, more often than not, he would sigh, drop his bag, take the mark, send it back at me with three times the force, and I’d have him.

You can always read your playmate’s level of enthusiasm by the tempo with which they retrieve an ill-directed ball. It’s possible my kicking accuracy developed as it did through my dread of making Dad, once my exuberance had worn him thin, walk any distance unnecessary. His dawdle to fetch my mis-kicks would scream his annoyance, and I’d play on in dread of any future mistake meaning the end of our game. While at my end, any side-of-the-boot shockers from Dad I would scamper after with an eagerness that was not purely hunger for the ball, but more a worry that the longer Dad stood idle, the greater chance he would have to decide that he’d had enough.

Thus, the pressure to perform came early in my playing days. I think my scurry to collect the tumbling ball after Dad’s wayward punts tuned me into the vagaries of the bouncing footy and set me on the path to reading its random rebound. It’s an understanding essential, not just to gathering the Sherrin, but to learning the skill of bouncing the footy in play. (I teach the game to teenage girls at school and it’s this skill that confounds the most, like there’s some mysterious quality to the nature of the leather that they just can’t crack.)

Similarly, thanks to Dad, my delivery skills have long been reasonably efficient. I’ve more than once in my playing days had to kick that ‘after the siren’ winner; and did so, feeling not an ounce of the pressure that the occasion surely presented. The mere win-or-lose, hero-or-villain dichotomy that was brought to bear at those moments was nothing to the angst that used to grip me at the possibility of ever displeasing my dad.

Sometimes my after-school backyard wait would pay big dividends. Having marked the plastic ball that hit him as soon as he opened the side gate, Dad would take it inside, saying “Just hang on a minute, Ter”. I’d fidget in the yard until he’d emerge from the wash-house, the loo flushing behind him, holding the good footy – the real footy; the one seriously big and heavy, the one that smelt like a saddle! I’d all but wet my pants when he’d walk out with that, for it meant we were going down to the park, for a seriously big kick.

Johnson Park was only a five minute quick-step from home, and in its vast expanses Dad would launch into his glory of unfulfilled potential. While I had to run three-quarters of the gap between us to ensure my drop punts met their target, Dad would let loose with his biggest bombs; they seemed to soar forever.

Most times down the park, we’d kick til tea-time. In the fading light I recall him stepping further and further back, until I could hardly make him out against the silhouettes of pine trees. Then I’d hear the thump from beyond, leather on leather. I’d look blindly to the dusky heavens in awe and optimism, then double up with the realisation the footy would soon have to come back to earth. I’d crouch in silent anticipation, arms folded over my head, til a second thump, leather on turf, would signal it safe to stand and go fetch.

Sadly, I hadn’t the same defensive instincts when it came to a far more vicious bombardment – the magpies. As the daylight hours started to stretch and the footy season warmed, Johnson Park’s feathered residents were at their fiercest. Many times my kick to kick delights were menaced by the sound of flapping wings followed by a needle point jab to the top of the head. There was sometimes blood, there were always tears. And there was Dad’s retribution.

To soothe his sobbing son, Dad would melodramatically boot his best torpedo at the nests way up high in the pines, swearing at the birds and daring them to try again. He said they obviously weren’t aware that I was a Collingwood supporter, and it might be an idea to wear my black and white beanie in future to show them. Dad’s allegiances to the Magpie fold were widely known, and I presumed that was the reason he never, ever got swooped.

One day, the nesting birds were particularly angered and, bereft of beanie, I copped a peck on the scone that felt like someone had thrown a dart at me. I don’t recall if there was blood, but there was a torrent of tears. Another kid in the park was also swooped and likewise went wailing to his parent. As Dad comforted me and prepared to exact revenge on my behalf, he noticed that the other kid had stopped crying. In wondering aloud why it was I continued to blubber, Dad all but called me a wimp. He changed his mind about booting at the birds’ nest, gave me the footy and said it was time we went. I bounced the thing disconsolately home, silently shamed for my pain, and Dad, I suspect, quietly disappointed with the softness of his son.

In grade two, during the last year of my parents’ partnership, I broke my arm. At lunch-times, regardless, I would shed my sling and play in the matches on the school’s bitumen court, and found it, in fact, an asset. Dad was impressed when I went home to report about the other kids’ reluctance to tackle me, and of the rucking advantages of the plaster cast. He might have thought there was some toughness about me yet. Mum just frowned: “If you’re still OK to play football, you’re still OK to dry the dishes”.

My wrist had been fractured on Mother’s Day, playing ball at Grandma’s. ‘Keepings off’, it was, and Dad had tossed the ball high to a cousin. Problem was, I’d been sitting on it at the time, and I landed on the concrete path with an ominous crack. That was, I think, the last game Dad played in the small yard at Grandma’s. By Father’s Day, we were living there – without him.

So, by the time I was old enough to join a junior footy club, my father was more or less out of my life. Consequently, I never had what would be known as the ‘footy parent’, what with Mum being far too busy with the raising of three kids, the management of a house and a full-time job. Between them, I think they watched about four matches that I was part of. Mum had little interest in the silly game anyway, and Dad, it seemed, had little interest any more in us kids. He had started his second family by then, and he was ardently spoken for. He did see me play two games, some twelve years apart, though I doubt he’d remember either.

The first was in under-12s. Bulleen-Templestowe Youth Club was entered into the Preston Junior League, and we were nominated to play the curtain-raiser to the big VFA clash Preston versus Dandenong. I’d grown out of the only pair of footy boots I’d owned, and Mum, having not a spare cent, had asked if Dad could help out. So on the day of our big-time block-buster (Channel 0 were broadcasting the main game and there was a chance we’d get some air time, Mr Johnstone told us), Dad turned up to Preston City Oval and tossed me a big shoebox.

My disappointment at finding in the box, not a sleek set of Adidas La Plata, nor a rugged pair of Peter Hudson Puma, but a high-cut, screw-in, no name facsimile of a footy boot was shameful. I didn’t show Dad my letdown, and had to later wonder why it was I’d expected the real thing in the first place. Name brand footy boots were expensive, and Dad, with second familial responsibilities, was not exactly flush with funds. I think I just associated top-line boots, which all the other kids had, with fathers, which they also had. And, despite my being reliant upon those fathers for transport to the grounds, I somehow felt that it was my cheap, generic footwear (referred to disparagingly by all kids as Ron Barassi’s) that was the screaming give-away to the fact that I was one without a footy parent.

But on this particular Sunday, I did have one, and the game was doubly memorable for it. In my stiff and shiny two stripe boots I ran around the Preston oval, alternating between ruck-rover and forward pocket, conscious the whole time, not of the swelling crowd or the possible TV cameras, but of the presence of my father standing behind the northern goals. My performance was mostly unremarkable, and I provided Dad with precious little to suggest a career in the big-time. But, in the last minute of the game, with us trailing something like 1.5 to 2.3, I stuck my head into a pack, somehow popped out with the ball, kicked around my body and watched it spiral through the big posts.

Amidst the crowd (over 8000 that day – VFA was big then), behind the goals, I saw the glow on my dad’s face as the Ross Faulkner sailed over his head, and it remains one of the richest football moments in my life. When the siren blew a minute later we all ran excitedly over to Mr Johnstone, and he embraced me like I was his own son. In the elation of the win I forgot about the blisters on my toes, and we marched off in a team line, arms around shoulders, signing the club song. As we lined up outside the players race, clapping the giants of Dandenong onto the field, I looked over to the crowd behind the goals. But I couldn’t see Dad.

I was embarrassed by the three cheers I got from everyone back in the rooms. I knew I hadn’t really played that well and Dad would have seen that. I wanted some feedback from him, I suppose; a nod to say it was still OK to celebrate. I took to gingerly unlacing the rigid new boots and felt my feet cry from the relief. There was a heady blur of back pats, the ruffling of my hair from other kids’ dads, the complimentary Four’n Twenties and cans of Fanta. Dad must have figured I was doing OK, and left me to the spoils of victory. I think he probably went home to his wife.

A dozen years later, he brought that wife and their kids to watch me play again, coincidentally, at the same ground. It was my first year back in Victoria after four years of University in Perth, my first as a senior footballer on home soil. I’d been lured down to Springvale by a mate and the waving of dollars; it was the only time money played any real part in my football, and it was the least enjoyable season I ever played. In fact, so disenchanted did I become that I hung up the boots at the end of it.

The second game in which Dad watched me came on a Mother’s Day, and, unbeknownst to me, Dad had brought his young family to Preston Oval to see me in senior action. The VFA had lost some of its grandeur in the interim, or at least the crowds had thinned, and only a few thousand turned out to watch Preston dish it up to the Association’s newcomers. My memory of the match is that, in the first quarter at least, we were ably dishing it back.

The first I knew about Dad being there was when he arrived at casualty at PANCH with his family to see how I was. I’d been belted behind play and had a hole in my top lip I could fit my tongue through. It had happened twenty minutes into the first quarter (I had, at least, kicked one goal) and, until the runner came out to take me off, I was unaware that I was so awash with blood. As he walked me around the boundary in front of the feral Prestonites, I heard a maternal voice amidst the delighted abuse: “Oh, you poor love!” Those words have long stayed with me.

When Dad turned up to the hospital, neither of us registered the fact that it was the same day, same place, some fifteen years earlier that he’d driven like a lunatic to have my broken arm treated. I told him that the bloke who had punched me in the mouth, well off the ball, was a former Collingwood player. I almost expected him to say that next time I should wear my black and white beanie. Instead, he said, “Yeah, that’d be right”, and my disillusion with the romantic appeal of football heroes was complete. My face hurt like hell, and the doctor said that the scar on my face ‘shouldn’t be too bad, though you’ll have to be careful shaving’.

My desire to play top-line footy lost strength after that day. I’d had injuries that were worse and I’d had games more forgettable, but it was something of a turning point in my attitude to the game, and to those who took it so seriously. Maybe Dad was right on the day I bawled long and hard after the magpie attack. Maybe I am too soft. Or maybe not having the parental poke in my junior footy club days deadened my zeal. Or, maybe, as Dad once or twice suggested in moments of exasperated ire, I am too much like my mother. Who knows?

I still love the game, and have watched it fervently. I decided some years back that the likes of Collingwood didn’t need my support any more. I signed up as a member for Fitzroy, feeling more empathy for them than the corporate wannabes running Victoria Park. It was a breaking of tradition, a heresy to my roots, and in the eyes of many, unforgivable. As adulthood took me even further adrift from my father, he never felt to question my switch, but I’d like to think he understood.

I did play again, well after the sourness of my VFA experience had waned. Called up by cricket club mates who needed a hand getting their C-grade suburban charges into the finals, I revisited the fantasy and played in a premiership. I even found myself dusting off old boots for a couple of comeback seasons in my mid-thirties in country football, which I found a culture unto itself. (Spookily, both teams bedecked me in black and white). But, unlike my brother Paul, I doubt I ever really had what it takes to make it in the big time (a few seasons in the WAFL was as big as it got).

Today I can sit with my father and watch his youngest son fulfil both our fantasies of yore. Paul was recruited by Geelong, and has shown considerable promise, enough to suggest the club might keep him, and so must Dad wrestle with his own loyalties. ‘Bloody typical,’ Dad said of the cruel irony that pitted Paul, in his senior debut, against his beloved Pies. I was with him on the day. He didn’t know where to go. Throughout the game, and its three point climax, he said nothing.

Dad and his wife have watched Paul all the way from Under 10s, and I’m sensitive to the pride he must feel today, not just for Paul, but for the contribution he has made himself. In that sense, if I, of all his offspring, had been the one to make it, it would have been a bit of a waste. Because of his restricted input, he would not have taken quite the same pleasure from my successes, which would have been sad. For, even though he was virtually never there and I was rarely conscious of his influence, I realised once, well into my twenties, it was for him that I’d played the game.

Comments

  1. Brilliant read Terry

  2. John Butler says:

    Terry

    I’d just like to echo Josh.

    Great piece.

  3. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Wonderful story Terry. You capture how footy can shape our lives through our relationships with parents and family. More than anything else, footy is about relationships and how we try to make sense of them through the game and its culture. Great stuff!

  4. Andrew Starkie says:

    Well said, Phil.

    Great piece, Terry. Footy is about people as much as it’s about chasing a ball around.

  5. David Hyland says:

    Terry,

    What a moving and heartfelt piece. Footy can be so much more than just a game. Just outstanding, it really moved me.

  6. Terry, you are a legend! A fantastic piece, stirring, emotional, it left goose bumps.
    Love you as my brother

  7. Terry

    Superb

    JTH

  8. Richard Naco says:

    Articulate and passionate stories like this are exactly why I love our game.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  9. My favourite read on this site, up there with Matt Zurbo, written from the heart.

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