The better angels of St. Pat’s Ballarat

“Ultimately it is this innocent charm that provides the lingering impression of John James, a boy who delighted in the stolen moments of jam toast with mates in the stoker room and a man, standing on his own staring in wonder at the corridors of his old school, smiling blissfully to himself.”[i]

At 1pm on December 14, 2010, St. Mary’s Church, Robinvale, hosted the memorial service of Carlton champion and St. Patrick’s College old boy, John James.

Perhaps more than any school in Victoria, the jumpers worn by members of the St. Pat’s First XVIII are cherished and preserved like holy relics. Generations of boys have steadfastly cotton-balled them in drawers and cupboards, displayed them in glass picture frames like Victoria Crosses and, in at least one recorded case, carried them, talisman-like through the jungles of New Guinea during World War Two.

On this day, in an act of such profound and symbolic sentimentality that even Melbourne’s Archbishop might have turned a blind eye, St. Patrick’s 2011 College Captain and First XVIII Captain Nick O’Brien placed his First XVIII jumper at the foot of the coffin of John James, the St. Pat’s football legend.

While writing about the St. Pat’s First XVIII in 2009, I was lucky enough to meet both John James and Nick O’Brien. The similarities between the two were striking and tell a lot about this famous College.

James was a literal icon of St. Patrick’s, a school which admires, more than anything, sporting prowess. For, in his time, he was the most stellar athlete the College had ever seen. Black and white, framed photos and oral-histories reveal him as a champion at nearly every sport he turned his hand to, including boxing, rowing and of course football, where he once famously kicked 35 goals against Ballarat High School and played in the epic team of 1952, a side which slashed through all opposition like a combine harvester, kicking virtual cricket scores, embarrassing the best Melbourne schools and eventually boasting two future Brownlow Medallists, James and Brian Gleeson (St. Kilda).

James went on to star for the Blues, winning three best and fairest awards and eventually listed in the Carlton Team of the Century. In the year James won the Brownlow (1961), the Sporting Globe ran an article on the Carlton star and his famous former coach, Brother W.T. O’Malley, noting that there were at the time fifteen ex-St. Pat’s players in VFL ranks, a then record for any school.

As a sportsman James was universally admired. Despite his at times wayward kicking he was described by contemporaries as incredibly strong and “cat-like” in his movements. Cardinal George Pell, who idolised him as a young St. Pat’s student watching from the boundary fence, described him as “the most outstanding athlete I’ve ever seen.”

Like any St. Pat’s old boy, I approached my first meeting with John James with a level of anxiety, conscious as I was of meeting a living legend. I was, to put it simply, taken aback at how unlike the legend he seemed. Something in his eyes brought to mind the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the curtain is drawn rudely away to reveal just an anxious and vulnerable man. It was as though he found it hard to understand what all the fuss was about and was at least as interested to find out about other people as to talk about himself.

Part of his anxiety may have stemmed from a history of innocent misadventure which seemed to plague him. He was kicked out of his first school when the nuns found him obstinately standing up to them for their brutal corporal punishments. At first he ran away from St. Pat’s before returning to develop a love-affair with the school that would last a lifetime. He brought about the end of boxing at the College for an ironically accidental but perfectly timed “clip” that knocked out his opponent in the divisional final, causing furore among the parents. He stole jam toast from the boarding house kitchen to eat in the stoker room with his beloved mates.

Later, as a country school-teacher he found himself in hot water when the local press kicked up a fuss because he was unable to attend school duties while playing for Victoria. He recalled during one of those state carnivals coaxing mates Kevin Murray and Ron Barassi to attend Mass with him, a ritual he always respected (along with the priests and brothers), only to be thoroughly embarrassed when the collection plate was passed round by a nun and one of the group asked, “James give us some f … money will ya.”

James recalled all of these stories with a glint of schoolboy cheekiness and spoke with affectionate nostalgia of how he loved looking around his old school just on his own, quietly remembering the cherished friendships and memories of his youth. Although his hobbled frame gave little clue to his once brilliant physical exploits, he seemed, in his mind at least, forever young.

The rest of James’ shyness almost certainly came from a guiding humility that seemed both natural and part of the grooming process at St. Pat’s, where no matter how good you might be, it was unacceptable to put yourself ahead of anyone else, or worse, to devalue your mates. When speaking of his football achievements James always referred to the “teams” he played in.

When I met James in 2009 all of this added up to a very humble, good-humoured and kindly man, still in touch with his religious faith and still embracing the traditions of his old school and the Robinvale community in which he spent most of his life. The award for the College’s best player in the BAS Grand Final is now a coveted one, named in his honour. After a roll-call of brilliant footballers, lasting more than a century, at St. Pat’s College, no-one else’s name is held in higher regard.

In 2011 Nick O’Brien will play his third season in the First XVIII, an achievement usually reserved for the “greats” or those destined for big things. In 2009 he brilliantly spearheaded the team to the Herald-Sun Shield Final as a fifteen turning sixteen-year-old centre-half-forward. He dominated  every contest and showed leadership beyond his years until finally realising his mortality on the biggest stage against arch-foe Assumption, when St. Pat’s lost the Shield in an MCG heart-breaker.

Showing fierce determination O’Brien produced a sustained marking performance the following year and was instrumental in St. Pat’s crushing demolition of St. Joseph’s in the 2010 Shield Final. He lit up the stage in what some experienced observers described as the best schoolboy side they had ever seen. Heading into his final year at school, O’Brien, from Carngham-Linton, has been recognised for his leadership and individual qualities for both St. Pat’s and Vic. Country.

Like James, when meeting people O’Brien is immediately deferential, wishing to learn more about them than talk of himself. Almost painstakingly humble and polite, he consciously avoids any overt reference to his own considerable achievements in football, cricket and many other sports which have made him almost a household name in Ballarat and loved and admired among his teachers and peers. He is, quite simply, the kind of boy most parents would love their son to become.

Perhaps, one day, if the scouts are sharp enough, he will gift his natural qualities to an AFL Club where he has all the markings of a leader. If he does, in a similar case to his legendary predecessor, he will join another fifteen St. Pat’s players (after last week’s rookie draft) now on AFL lists: Drew Petrie, Matt Rosa, Clinton Young, Shaun Grigg, Nathan and Mitchell Brown, Matt Austin, Nick Suban, Will Young, Josh Cowan, Eddie Prato, Tom McDonald, Lucas Cook, Stephen Clifton and Daniel Nicholson.

O’Brien, like James, in many ways reflects the best facets of St. Patrick’s College, qualities today cultivated in earnest by First XVIII coach Howard Clark: honour, loyalty, humility, love of school and family, mateship, team and, occasionally alongside these, touches of breath-taking sporting brilliance.

Like any school, St. Pat’s is, and always has been, imperfect. Yet from the brutally un-Christian corporal punishments dealt out to past generations of scholars to the splintered and uncertain masculinities of the present, football has given St. Pat’s a rock of unchanging certainty in stormy seas. In an unbroken symmetry of over one hundred years, boys like John James and (though he has a long road to travel) Nick O’Brien remind us of the better angels of St. Pat’s.

I hope that is what people were reminded of today when, in such a simple but timeless act, this boy laid his jumper down to honour the dead.

(Wednesday Warriors is available from connorcourt.com.au for $29.95)


[i] Gilchrist, James, Wednesday Warriors – Doing It for the Jumper, The St. Pat’s Ballarat Tradition, Connor Court, p. 74

About james gilchrist

James Gilchrist is another Collingwood tragic who enjoys reading, writing, music, travel and teaching. A father of three, he teaches at Genazzano College, writes for the Footy Almanac and waits ever patiently for that next elusive Magpie Premiership.

Comments

  1. James,
    Great Read
    I have a mate who played under John James at Robinvale who speaks of with awe about his approach to football and what he put into the community. I was lucky to have met a number of legendary players from the late 40s and 50s through my father who played with North and Footscray. What you say about humility and humbleness was born out on every occasion although when they did talk about themselves it was usually in the context of the team or a social event involving team mates and wifes. It sounds as thoughNick O’Brien might be cast in the same mould which is refreshing in the times of Generation ME. Maybe it is Nick who has the parents that every kid should dream of. Ones that have kept him grounded and appreciative and respectful of those who have gone before him.
    cheers
    TR

  2. Thanks very much Tony. I think you might be right! As a school teacher I have usually found that what you get in kids is traceable to parents. Nick’s grandpa has also had a profound impact on him and they can be pretty important as well. I did some tennis coaching in Robinvale years ago. It is a great community.

  3. Footy’s lost another beauty today. Maurice Rioli has died too young. R.I.P.

  4. Interesting and insightful read – prompts some thinking. I have a bunch of friends and relatives who do/have played in school footy and rugby teams in Melbourne and I haven’t picked up any appreaciation for past players. The only person who comes to mind is Luke Ball, who seems to be held in a certain affinity by Xaverians

    On a side note, the church anecdote reminds me of a story told recently at my Opa’s funeral, when at English language classes in the 50’s he was asked the full name of current PM Menzies and responded ‘effing Menzies’ as that was what the other men stationed at the building site he worked at called him

  5. Andrew Starkie says:

    James,

    can’t get to launch tomorrow night. Good luck and congratulations.

    Andrew

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