Off Season Odyssey – Part 25: What Makes a Champion?

Tamworth

The ute bashes it’s way to Byron Bay where my former club president from Tassie now works and lives.

He tells me being in charge of a footy club in the heart of logging country is “a challenge” with a wry, understated grin. “Nobody ever has any idea just how much work is involved, the small jobs, the small-town politics, the endless phone calls and faxes, the punch-ons between teammates. But shit yeah, it was worth it…” he insists, then the rain sets in for three days, washing out my work, and I’m gone.

 

Rob McLelland

“Where to now, then?” Rob asks.

“Brisbane,” I say. “Via Tamworth.”

Rob laughs.

“Because it’s not raining inland?”

“The Country Music Festival. I might get some rigging work.”

“Where’s the footy connection?” he grins.

“Gunna try and meet a Champion,” I tell him.

“Greg Champion? From Coodabeen Champions radio fame?”

“Gunna try.”

“His show starts in 7 hours. It will take you at least that long to get there in this weather. 8 in that thing.”

“Love a challenge,” I tell him.

“Well, it’s flooding all over the coast, roads are out everywhere. You’re going to have to go through the highlands,” he tells me.

We’ve had some great times, Rob and me. The Sydney boy, who’d never played a game in his life, yet, through his sons and their love of football, got to be a legend in a town he might never have known. Not really.

Rob laughs again as I take off.

“Byron Bay to Brisbane, via Tamworth,” he chuckles.

I just shrug and hit the wipers.

 

The ute cuts upwards, along the ridges and spurs, winding through the rain on the route less likely to be washed out. My suspension’s shot, the wipers are crap. I’m hugging the windshield because I can’t see anything.

If the blokes in white lab coats are right, people on the coast are going to have to get used to this.

Eventually, finally, the rain eases, and I’m in Tamworth.

“Three McDonalds In Town”, a sign brags, as I’m entering. Must have some size to it, I think. Everywhere I go there are ways of measuring a place.

“It was a one shop town.”

“Two footy clubs.”

“They have a Shire office.”

“No school.”

“One pub, with nine utes out front.”

“Two KFCs.”

“No cops.”

“Four cops.”

“A pool.”

“A cinema.”

I hit the main drag. I’ve never seen anything like it. Every room of every pub has bands in it. Every restaurant and café. Each RSL and Bowls Club. Down by the river, the showgrounds shake with the weight of the BIG acts, framed by clown games, hot pies and rides. Footy ovals have become stupidly overpriced camping grounds. Tamworth is a big rural city and it’s bursting with music, all of it underpinned by buskers.

Hundreds of them.

They fill all the corners, the shop fronts and doorways. Hog the ATMs. Old farts in Ford tops, stupidly young kids, awkward teenagers strutting it out, cool cats with lap guitars, and heaps of Aboriginals in cowboy hats, and Jesus freaks on weird box guitars, and geek family bands.

Some sound just like old op-shop bins full of Tammy and Johnny and Kenny. Others carry the echo of beautiful dust. The stuff you pick up off the trail.

I stand in the middle of an intersection, face one way, and an listening to two Aboriginal blokes doing Hank Williams. I turn my head two feet to the left and a 14 year old girl in braces is playing the Banjo. Behind me the Stone Girls, or something, mother and daughter, are doing their boot-stomping, big-breasted, big hi-y’all grinning, good time gals thing.

On a stage, a bloke is singing a slow winding song full of hurt.

I had no idea how important Country music is to Australia until I hit the road. It comes with a lifestyle. The Tassie highlands, Queensland, the Outback. Anywhere remote. Anywhere there are horses. Farms, cattle stations, small dot towns, cold table tops. It gives the people of these places an anthem. Their own mark.

Ye-har!

 

Go, Li’ll Lady

 

I Got Dem Ol’ I Used To Barrack For Fitzroy Blues…

 

I go from venue to venue. There are so many of them. Champs isn’t anywhere. I get back in the car and drive like a loon all over town and find him, at last, in the back room of a pokies pub, in the suburbs. The man who once won the Golden Guitar, pushed off the main stage.

All up it’s taken me ten hours and three near misses with trucks in the rain. I have nowhere to sleep and not much dough. Champs half way through his last song. I catch it and the “Thank you, and good-night” and he’s done.

Hell, yeah, it was worth it! Greg Champion is one of my football heroes.

 

I first heard the Coodabeen Champions about 25 years ago. I was young, dumb and living in a windy dairy shed up on an icy mountain range. I would tune in and get shitty that this ‘sports’ show had no sports in it, just five blokes, doing their routines, laughing, talking, taking the piss. I wanted results. Goal kickers. Best players!

Damn, I’d get angry!

But soon I loved them. Greg’s songs, especially.

 

“Ischenko”

http://youtube.com./watch?v=ht2wB6AjARg&feature=related

 

“Dermott Brereton is a Hood.”

http://youtube.com./watch?v=7vgFM1sCEx4&feature=related

 

The Ballad of Robbie Muir, Tales of Dipper and Knee Reconstruction songs and Eagles and Fitzroy anything and everything that was fun about the game. That came from a love of the game.

I rang in now and then.

Suddenly, leathery, bearded blokes who’d never given me the time of day would call me over to their utes as I walked towards the clubrooms on game day. All talk of rotary blades and chainsaws and winches and dairy machinery would stop.

“Them Champion blokes gave you another mention,” one would say, to which they’d all give a little nod of approval, and I’d be in their circle. Approved of. And was welcome back any time I wanted.

I hook in with Greg’s gang and two days later we’re having a kick under a helicopter ride flight path.

I’m not fit, so I go hard for a few minutes, then get him talking until I’ve sucked in some air again.

Bluff.

   The Old Dog and his bag of tricks, I think.

“They called me the Neck,” he says.

Goddamn, the best nickname, ever!

“I’d leap a mile, but mark it near my neck.”

And…

“No, I was an Adelaide C-grade Amateur player. That was my level.”

And…

“I only ever took one true speckie. It was over a pack, right in front of the coach’s box and spectators. Somehow, I held it by its tip, like an egg. They all went berserk. It was a funny as it was anything.”

And…

“I thought: This is easy. Tried again, came down on my head, of course.”

I can picture him playing footy. Back in the day. Trying hard. Loving it. Being all tall and skinny. I bet he was real skinny.

And…

“I had to retire at about 24. The music. My fingers,” he holds them up at me. “Like any person forced to give the game away, I had pangs and urges, and temptations to play, and delusions about how good I could still be until I was about 40.”

But he found a release in Athletics, and later, senior Athletics, and an avenue for his huger for footy, in comedy and his tunes.

He tells me these things, and I keep thinking: Greg Champion! I’ve known him for 29 years, heard the banter, the wit, and I’ve never known him at all.

 

The helicopters come and go and do everything but blast Ride of the Valkyries.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpvLCptAHT8

 

“GO LONG, CHAMPS!” I call.

Hell, yeah, that sounds good!

It’s taken him a while to find his range, but he nails it. And I do, too. Mark out in front, full stretch, full stride.

I lead long again.

“GO LONG CHAMPS!”

I cut in short for a kick, so I can break long again!

“GO LONG CHAMPS!”

My gut is busting. I’m cramping, have a stitch.

“GO LONG, YOU CHAMPION!”

I’m killing me.

Champs is onto it. An old dog himself. He’s pretty much given up on this leading stuff, knowing I’ll run around like a tired, slow, headless chook regardless. That I just want an excuse to call:

“GO LONG, CHAMPS!

As if such things were food for the soul. I’m kicking he ball with Greg Champion! I am the fan, I am the grown man, the child.

I ask about his songs, how it makes him feel, knowing he’s left his mark on cricket and football.

“It doesn’t make me feel anything, because they haven’t,” he says. “You’re young, you think you have, but these things are bigger than you.”

I tell him he’s got to be joking? That I’ve heard people humming “That’s the Thing About Football” on the way to the game. That a whole generation sung “I Made A Hundred In The Backyard At Mum’s” while bashing electric-tape-soaked tennis balls through neighbours’ windows.

“No,” he says. “Like here, people don’t associate my name when they say Tamworth. I haven’t left my mark.”

Then he looks at me.

In a voice unlike any I’ve heard in three decades of out mutual, intertwined football and radio careers, from deep in his guts, he leans and says:

“But that’s not why we do it…”

 

Good on you, Champs! Damn straight. At last I met the man.

 

In one sentence I understand. The suburban slot in a rural city he once ruled won’t stop him. Neither will losing the Sunday night slot on the radio. Nothing will.

He’ll keep running. Keep writing songs. Keep giving to footy. Keep being a Champion to his fans

 

http://youtube.com./watch?v=qeJNFKdQUe8The

 

The helicopters come and go and come and go again and shit us. We say our good-byes, and, like that, I’m leaving Tamworth. There’s nothing left to keep me here. My money’s all gone, and there’s ten more hours of road to go.

Greg gives me about five of his CDs for the highway. What a champion. Head to name to toe.

Just as well, there’s no country on the radio.

“I marked it like this…” Greg Champion

 http://www.gregchampion.com.au/

Comments

  1. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Hey Matt, did Greg give you the Coodabeens latest CD? It has a purple cover. My Bombers song is on there.

  2. Retirement is a problem. Met a bloke today who has retired five times. I think he is saddling up for a go round next season with the Falcons. In true pre-season form, he looks the goods!

  3. Matt Zurbo says:

    Pamela, that’s brilliant! I’ve been playing three of them. I’ll check the others on the road tomorrow.

    Gus, yeah. I’ve retired only once. Now I know better.

  4. Skip of Skipton says:

    I love the smell of Dermott in the morning!! Tamworth is a top town with or without the music festival.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Enjoyable read as always admire and yes Keillor of your free spirit in doing the odyssey
    Champ is a person you feel as tho no know having listened to him for years but don’t understand exactly what you mean there . I have met , Greg and spoke briefly on a couple of occasions and happy to report that he loves the whole , Bob Neil , tomfoolery and loves all the songs which goes with it
    Thanks Old Dog

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