The Word, Mates and Country Legends.
“When you get to the beach turn left, we’re 8.3 kms along,” Pete’s text says.
After 450km of desert, the road makes its way onto another type of sand, and I roll along the low tide mark in second, passing hoons and families, and brilliant, still, glassy water. There isn’t a ripple, not a breath of air, just a never-ending sunset out over a horizon so smooth it fades into the world above. Kilometre after kilometre, ute after ute, tent after tent, I cruise by the working class on holiday, no distractions, plug-ins or amenities. No fees, rules, lights, whistles or bells. Just tinnies, just fishing rods, beer and kids who know how to amuse themselves.
No stupid signs saying: WARNING – THE WORLD.
Fish make the odd appearance close to shore, three tiny plovers keep pace with the ute for a while, only to be replaced by dolphins, sliding into and out of the water, not leaving a ripple.
Every group of hoons I pass whistles or barks at my untethered dog, then laughs dumb and loud. The glorious shit-heads. Every family man gives a disgruntled small wave. Kids play after bedtime. The distance between each camp increases the further I go, until, finally, there’s Pete and his family, away from the crowd, nobody either side.
“It’s 45 degrees in Bordertown. Too hot on the farm. We may as well stay here an extra day,” he smiles.
I meet his partner, Jo. She is a sheep shearer who’s seen every inch of this country, and has that no frills, no bullshit shearer’s way. I like her straight away.
It’s more dark than day, but Pete and I break out the footy, handballing and lobbing small kicks and talking on the edge of the never-ending, falling horizon.
“Beats working,” I say. “What sort of job do you have lined up for me, anyway?”
“I dunno. We’ll deal with that when we get back to the sheep station,” he tells me.
Peter Featherston is a genuine country football legend, and as massive as he ever was. 6ft5, strong. A big presence. He drives trucks, and makes the eight hour round trip to see his twin daughters in Mildura when he can, but is getting itchy for some land. He talks farming as natural as some people do Australian Idol, or AFL football. Rotary blades, pivots, cattle feed, water retention techniques. A language I half understand falls out of his mouth, as if all those words fit, because they do.
One day he’ll have the money, buy a block, give up the trucks, work it hard.
The bush isn’t well. The world is leaning away from farming. But Pete is a country football champion because he does it his way. A champion bloke, first and always.
“Remember the time I finally got to line up against you?” I say.
“Yeah,” he gives a big, dopey grin.
“I wanted ya!”
“You’d wanted me for years.”
“I tried every trick. Leaped early, dug my knee into your hip to both shove you off the ball and get leverage, pushed up, stretched to full height, swiped as hard as I could… and reached just below your wrist!”
Pete laughs. Fond memories. For one of us.
We talk shit. The sun just keeps on setting. But we’re there for it, and our eyes adjust. The night is rarely ever pitch black. There are always greys. There are always stars, or clouds, or the moon, or something.
I often wonder about the blokes bashing about in the bush leagues. The legends, who could and should have made the Big Time. What their real story was?
What they might have been?
The word with Pete was he was well on the way before he lost half his foot in a work accident.
I hate ‘the word’.
Bush footy is chockers with it. Fuck ‘the word’, I simply ask him.
“Nah,” he smiles. “That’s full of shit. I cut me foot off when I was twenty.”
“Thought so,” I say.
“Happened in the off season. Didn’t miss a game.”
So, what went wrong, I ask? Why didn’t he make it?
Peter Featherston grew up in Beeac, a flat, dry farming district outside of Colac. No shelter, no scenery. His Dad was a handy Twos footballer. The sort of bloke you build a club around.
Not a team, a club. That’s important. It instils values.
Pete made the Falcons, easy. Made All-Aussie Under 18s, won a flag, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“Why the hell not?” I protest. I would have killed for what he had. Thousands would have.
He gives that dopey grin, that great grin. I can see it in the dark. I can hear it.
“It was alright if you were a college boy! I was still too young to drive, yet I’d have to find my own way from Colac to Geelong. I’d get there, covered in grease, oil and dirt from my apprenticeship, knackered, and there’d be all those Geelong Grammar boys strolling in, still in their poncy jackets.”
He got asked to come back the following year, but returned to his old club, Irrawara-Beeac.
“AFL would have been nice, but I had my aprentership, and I’ve enjoyed my footy. Got to play with some great mates. Nothing beats bush footy and good people! That’s what it’s about, isn’t it?”
For some, it seems, it’s everything.
I ask him how he would have gone if he’d taken the offer to train with Geelong Seniors?
“I dunno. Who cares? I was probably not quite tall enough to ruck at that level, and too slow for a key position.”
And that’s why I’m here, 1,000 kms away from where I was meant to be heading. Two extra days and three states of driving. Despite all the bush footy hype, the bloke is honest. Has no tags on himself.
Everything about Peter is straight down the line. Everything. He is a huge, respectful, farm boy turned truck driver. A corker of a person.
Peter is a man you build teams around. He won flags at Irrawara-Beeac, and when he moved, for love, to Apollo Bay, another flag and League Best & Fairests.
My best memory of playing against him was when he followed his hit-out on half-back, gathering the ball, shrugging off players left and right as he ran away from us, towards his half-forward line. He was so damn strong, unstoppable.
Most of my best memories of great players involve seeing the back of their jumpers.
Pete did well when he moved to Mildura, following his kids, but, soon enough, as always, returned to play at Beeac, and won one more flag.
He could have made a fortune off football, but never did. A fortune! Could have seen the world with it. But stayed loyal as best he could, even when he didn’t live there.
‘Why did you keep going back?” I ask.
“The people were great,” he says. “The Thursday night cards that went until 3am. Small stuff like that.”
We did that at Otway. I point out a lot of clubs have good people. That there’s nothing in Beeac.
“It’s my home,” he tells me.
I can’t argue with that. Why would you?
And here we are in Kingston, on a thin strip of coast with no flies or mozzies, because the land behind it has no water. An hour from his new home, with Jo, off a long, narrow road somewhere out back of Bordertown.
Doing it easy.
After a year of playing on the hard grounds around the border region, Pete tells me he is sick of bone grafts and hand surgery, that he’s done, retired.
“I don’t believe you,” I tell him.
Dolphins re-appear and are gone again. The odd fish breaks the glass surface. The water is never this smooth, he says. But it is.