I suppose my memories of football are pretty similar to many others; a freezing cold Lakeside Oval, standing on tin cans of Courage Draught to get a glimpse, sitting behind the goals at the Junction Oval, as the Cats took on the Lions, and watching The Flea Wilson and Larry Donohue plying their trades, a few trips to the terraces at Kardinia Park which were alive with the smells of stale pies and fresh urine.
It was always about the players. We came to watch our heroes.
If the Cats lost I would feel like someone had ripped out my heart. There were even tears occasionally (though I’ve vowed that this will stop in 2014). I can still feel the emptiness in 1980 as the Cats crashed out of the finals in straight sets, beaten by Richmond and a fat bloke called Rene. We trudged down the dark, dank concrete steps at Waverley Park in silence as if we were at a funeral march in Derry during The Troubles.
I remember Dad piled us all into the Golden Streaker (his 1972 Kingswood station wagon) and did battle with 8 million other cars attempting to leave Waverley car park. Another bloke tried to push his way into the traffic, against the tide.
Dad casually held his ground, ploughed the bumper bar of the old Kingswood into the other bloke’s rear quarter panel, and dragged it along the entire length of the poor bastard’s car. The sound of metal on metal was like hearing finger nails scratching a blackboard. There were a few yells, and a “you’d better not get out of your car mate”, before we all went on our dreary way home.
There was no consoling me. The Cats had lost. Defeat lived in my gut like an almighty, incurable hangover. At school, which was in the heartland of the Collingwood zone, I was verbally tortured by snotty kids with the horrible black and white stripes on their backs. And the Richmond supporters gave me a nice old hurry up in the shelter shed; blood noses and red cheeks were numerous before a teacher broke it up.
I’d copped a belting but I’d taken a few with me as well.
In fact, I remember being beaten and experiencing defeat far more often than I do triumph. Defeat is like eating green vegetables; we may not like it but it’s good for us. We become resilient, we develop a sense of self, and we begin to understand that a loss is just another experience. It was during these dark and horrible days that I really fell in love with the glorious hoops of the Cats. In defeat I found a reason to persist.
I feel sad that kids playing junior footy are being herded away from these experiences.
The AFL has deemed that playing to win, that playing for the four points, that playing to secure a Premiership is somehow evil. These kids will not feel the surge of adrenalin when the final siren confirms their Premiership victory, they’ll never experience the desolation I felt when McLeod-Rosanna belted St Francis Xavier Primary by 10 goals in a 15 minute Lightning Premiership game.
They’ll be empty vessels running around a footy ground in the pointless pursuit of nothing. If we don’t give the juniors a reason to play our beautiful game we will lose them to other sports. And the good players, the kids who get their chance on the football ground if not in the classroom, will be made numb like Randal P. McMurphy after the frontal lobotomy.
But there is a more compelling reason why kids should compete to win and play for medals and the four points.
During the training, the hard games, the wins, the losses, and even the scuffles, we become team mates. A bonding occurs. We learn what a community is, albeit a small one. We learn how we fit into that community and we feel the power of belonging. We attach ourselves to a club and the people we play with each week. And we do this because we are all striving for something. Whether we get there or not is almost secondary. But we have a go. It takes courage to enter the field of battle each week and risk losing, but kids need this life lesson.
I have just finished reading Rod Laver’s autobiography: Rod Laver: A Memoir by Rod Laver. It is a shining example of a young kid whose burning ambition was lit by competing against his older brothers, by striving to be better, by trying to win. But what Laver hangs onto more than anything is not so much the wins, but the battles he had with Muscles Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzales (amongst many others), because the games meant something. He mentions the many exhibition games he played only in passing. They had no consequence.
I don’t believe that human endeavour and enterprise can ever be crushed. Just ask Lech Walesa. But there is a danger that we will be setting our kids back if we don’t encourage them to strive. And if we don’t encourage them to fail.