Off Season Odyssey Pt.35.
Life sows its own seeds. You do anything long enough, the actions of it ripple out, bouncing back off the edges, crossing your path. That’s what this Odyssey’s been about. Using sport to discover a nation. Proving you can start with a dog, an old work ute, a footy and no money, and hit the never-ending road, hooking in with and getting work through men I once coached as kids, former teammates, opponents that became friends, meeting legends and glorious hacks along the way.
I wanted to show myself you don’t have to have a direction, that this land is still free.
And ended up stranded, broken down, penniless and nowhere.
After a few rough nights in the Daintree, I make my way back to Port Douglas. A glamorous resort town that Skase built from a tiny fishing village, when he drained the mangroves and put in a big harbour. I train with the Crocs, if only for their name. Hell, yeah! I love any team with a relevant mascot.
Something that’s not just pretty, but puts them somewhere.
The Meningie Yabbies.
The Gladstone Mudcrabs.
The Gold Coast Suns.
The Canungra Loggers.
Sometimes I think about names there should be, but never will.
The Dimboola Emus.
The Queenstown Gravel.
The Otway Panthers.
The Port Adelaide Bashers.
Sheeds, I love ya, but what the hell is a Giant?
The club President is a do-er. He, and others no doubt, built the ground, the rooms, the rugby field, skate part and netball courts, over the years, from a tip.
He gets on the blower and reduces my story to:
“Fred. Got a bloke here. Hard worker. Been fucked up the bum. Got anything on?”
It turns out Port Douglas is an empty castle. With the dollar up, tourism’s stuffed. Most of the tradies are doing it hard. It takes him all of an extra three phone calls and 1min 30seconds to land me a job tree arborring.
I meet the bloke and get straight to it.
We wear thousands of green ants and paper wasp bites, working through the wet that hits every night and day. When it goes the sun comes out, turning everything to steam so you can’t breath.
The high ground is all rainforest. When it gets dark I sleep by the mangroves in a five foot long tent that floods whenever I stretch. I haven’t been dry, day or night, for a week.
I keep training. And every time I run onto that oval, I am saved. There is sky, full of clouds, fruit bats, lightening and everything is simple and I rule the damn world!
The boss gives me a cash cheque on Saturday morning to tide me over. I creak into the bank on waterlogged blisters and a voice says:
“Matty Zurbo!? What are you doing here?! Step into my office…”
I sit in a bank’s control room, something I’ve never done before, staring at the man talking to me. His neat hair, his glasses.
“I normally don’t work on Saturdays. Not ever. This is, maybe, my second time in three years,” his mouth says. “Even then, I’m behind this door. I’d just stepped out to ask the teller something when you came in. Do you know her father played for Collingwood?”
“What?” I say, still stunned.
“It’s great you’re here,” the man says.
Phil Davey was the club Treasurer at Apollo Bay, just short of Cape Otway, where I clocked up about 100 games. We trade stories.
“Oh, no worries, I’ll push the Italian exchange student into my daughter’s room,” he says, and, like that, I’m not wet and I’m saved.
Back at his place, with his ripper family, we share a beer.
“Does a Treasurer qualify for your Odyssey?” he says.
If you were a shuffling old water boy, we have played footy together. If you were a club President we’ve played together. If you served at the canteen, time-kept, masseuse, we have bloody well played together. If we met, drank, or shared a bus because we were serving the same colours, we’ve played together.
Donkey was a stocky, half-crazy red-head who’d stolen Ned Kelly’s beard. He came to every Otway game for the longest time. Rain or shine, he’d be behind the goal, beer in hand, making some of us laugh, making others try to hide their laugh. Getting under the opposition’s skin. Driving them so insane we’d cop their fists.
I loved him. Every club needs a Donkey. A loud, red-hot, blue-collar fan.
Sometimes Twisties, and Braddles, and Charity would be surrounding him, like the boozy, cackling walls of a megaphone. Sometimes It would be just Donk.
When I greet him, I do it with the affection of a former player. Maybe not a finals teammate, but as someone who knows that something I know.
Phil Davey and I, the bank manager and the bush worker, belonged to the same tribe for about five years. He was a part of my career.
I believe that with everything I’ve got. Everything!
And here we are.
I work hard to get up enough money to fix the ute. On the weekend I convince Phil and his family to come up into the mountains, where the heat isn’t stifling, the people are much more cruisy than on the coast. Locals, old school.
“I was only a Reserves player,” Phil says, as we kick and lead through the easy drizzle with his boy Ronan. “If you want to get ahead in banks, you have to move from branch to branch. I was Treasurer at three clubs, from three different leagues. It helped me get to know people, to be involved.”
He tells me about the backroom mechanics. The club’s duck feet.
“I know at smaller clubs, like Otway and where you play in Tassie, the President is an Everyman, but, usually, it’s the Secretary that does all the work,” he says. “The President is the broad strokes man. No-one knows just how much work these people do to keep a club ticking over. They say they do, but they don’t. It can be amazing.”
We kick some more.
“A club really exists year to year. Money’s hard. There aren’t as many backroom deals as all the gossip says.”
Everything about Phil is down the line. He is friendly, courteous and has a banker’s way. I don’t doubt him a second. I know they go on, the backroom deals, and often burn a club for years, financially, socially, disgruntled locals hit the road, but not the clubs he’s at. Backroom deals are not his way.
We go to a great old pub. It’s big and dark and worn, and fits just right into the rolling view and small mining town. Even its fridge hinges are tried. I shout wedges and a few drinks all around. It feels good to have cash, so I share.
“All my kids were given a musical instrument, they all do something sporty, even if not footy. That would be nice, but as long as they’re active, I’m happy,” he says.
Two feet from us hard rain weaves itself in and out of the mists and mountain peeks. It tells me
“Your car is still stuffed.”
“You have no way home.”
I don’t care. I’ve a roof over my head, and am talking to a great mate I would never, ever, have met but for football.