I’ve been lucky enough to meet Tommy Hafey once or twice along the football journey. First time was when he came to our club in the mountains. He watched me train the kids, then took the seniors. The kids were equal favorite for the flag. I trained them hard. Turned out, Tommy and I believed in a lot of the same things. Character, work ethic, honesty, self-motivation. I asked him if he was going to take a drill or two.
“No,” he said. “I’m happy to observe.”
At the dinner he gave me one of the highlights of my career, praising my coaching in front of the town once or twice. No-one else in the room would remember that, he rolled onto bigger things. Richmond, Premierships, Collingwood, Capper. But I’ll never forget.
He made mention of the fact we, and rivals, Alvie and the Western Eagles, had no actual township. Of how dot clubs like ours were so important to footy. How we were so important to footy.
Of how we were so important, full stop.
“I was speaking to a farmer from central Victoria,” he said, “who told me since their local footy club folded ten years ago, without that Saturday morning glue, he hadn’t spoken to his neighbour once.”
He couldn’t stress it enough. Clubs like ours were vital to things beyond football.
After the talks, I told him about how my Dad came out on a boat after the war and was thrown into an orphanage, where, knowing no English, they were teaching how to speak like a wog.
“Each Saturday he’d sneak away and stand in the outer at Punt Road, watch Richmond, and learn how to speak like an Australian,” I said.
Tommy was so excited by this story, he said: “Let’s find some pen and paper…” rushed off, came back with a biro and bar coaster and wrote my old man a small letter.
“That stuff’s what footy’s about,” he said.
I watched him signing it. No, this is, I thought.
I met him again last year for the footy book. We talked, in his great place on the St Kilda waterfront, where he ran, swam, and did push-ups every day, greeting everyone, footyhead or not.
He talked a lot about junior programs, and schools that work with their local footy clubs.
“I’ve been to many of them,” he said, then reeled off names of town after town after town, in love with football.
Eight months later, I’d had a late start to the day, so was still up a mountain, an hour past dark, in the drizzle, splitting and loading the day’s last jag of firewood, when my mobile rang.
“Hello, Matthew? It’s Tommy Hafey. I see your name in my diary. When are we due to talk, mate?”
“Actually, we did eight months ago, Tommy.”
“I’m back in Tassie now.”
“Oh, Tassie! What part?”
“The North East.”
“Beautiful country!” he enthused. “I’ve spoken at a lot of schools out that way. Scotsdale, Bridport, Baranxtolm, Ringarooma…”
And he was away, happily talking footy for an hour or more, until my battery went flat.
I stood in the mist and drizzle, in the dark, a world away from the St Kilda foreshore, smiling like a loon, taking in every little bit.
“I’d be happy to speak to you more for your book when you’re next in town,” he said. “If you want.”
How could I not.
These things are bigger than our great game. Tommy had character, work ethic, honesty. He cared about and believed in people, good coach or not.
The bloke gave.
And the absolute best thing about him to me is that there are thousands of people out there, probably tens of thousands, who have Tommy Hafey stories just as good.