Note to all: Reading Matt Zurbo’s story Shark Attack: a tale, I was inspired to write about Tucker’s wooden spoon…
Dale Tucker introduced me to his wooden spoon during my first year of senior football in Rockhampton, a central Queensland town about 650 kilometres north of Brisbane.
Tuck was heavy, bald and moustached. He was gruff and blunt with hurtful hands. Having been around football for decades in Victoria and Queensland, he didn’t tolerate bullshit. He was a club stalwart, an irreplaceable man who had to be talked into coming back each year, for one more season.
He wore the same white pants and t-shirt to training and games. Tuck was old-school with his methods and staunch in his support. He worked hard on everyone, no matter their status at the club.
I was in Rockhampton for three years, studying aquatic ecosystems at Central Queensland University. I was learning about water in the beef capital of Queensland. It was a cinch; I would end up working on a cattle farm.
I chose the Wandal Bulls (who else in the beef capital) because their home ground, Stenlake Park, was across the road from the university.
During pre-season, at the first club function, I wrote myself off and threw up in Flamingos, underneath a table.
I don’t remember getting to Flamingos. I remember leaving. The following day, Mike Tyson stopped Frank Bruno in five rounds. My headache was worse than Bruno’s.
At training the next week, my new teammates filled in the blanks.
‘There were a few sightings of you,’ Macca said. There was a lot of laughter. Thankfully no one nick-named me Chukka.
As a former Victorian, I thought I’d be a better footballer in Rockhampton. I wasn’t. My disappointment had nothing to do with skill. It was all about mental toughness. It was all about caution.
I was 18, about 72 kilograms at six feet tall, playing against men. I wasn’t big enough for a key position or heavy enough to play in the centre for the seniors.
I played mostly in the reserves, winning two premierships and two best utility awards in consecutive years. Somehow I finished fifth in the reserves best and fairest twice.
Early in my first pre-season, I tore a quad muscle training on my own in the summer heat, sprints and laps of the park across the road. I was committed to footy. I was also committed to silliness. The inevitable tear stopped me in the park. It felt like I’d been slapped on the leg with a metal ruler.
At training on Tuesday, I couldn’t complete the warm up and was sent in to see Tuck.
He asked me what I’d done and how it happened.
‘Training on the weekend,’ I said.
‘Think you’re gonna play VFL?’ Tuck asked, eyebrows raised and patting the bench, stepping back to let me get up.
He found the spot and shook his head. ‘You young blokes think you know it all.’ He dug his thumbs into the quad. ‘Probably didn’t stretch or warm up, right?’
‘I stretched and jogged a warm up.’
‘Then why did you get injured?’ His eyes were hard.
I shrugged and winced at the thumb.
‘You young blokes think you know it all. I’m gonna tell Fawnsy you’re injured because you didn’t warm up properly.’
Tuck dribbled oil on my leg and massaged around the tear. ‘This isn’t too bad,’ he said, shaking his head, frowning at me. His fingers checked the muscles either side of the tear, the pressure lighter.
‘That tickles, doesn’t it,’ Tuck said.
His question confused me. ‘No, it hurts.’
Tuck shook his head. ‘It tickles, doesn’t it.’
I shook my head.
Tuck felt for weakness in the muscle. ‘You don’t need to lie,’ he said. ‘You can tell me it tickles.’
Tuck glared at me while his fingers prodded my leg. ‘Don’t you get a fat.’
‘Don’t you get a fat.’
I was completely unsettled. ‘I won’t.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘See that spoon on the door?’
I looked at the door, seeing a huge wooden spoon made from heavy, dark timber. About 45 centimetres long, it could’ve been an oar. I hadn’t seen it until Tuck mentioned it.
‘I got that from a witch doctor in Papua New Guinea. If you get a fat I’m gonna hit you with it.’
I wasn’t silly enough to ask where.
‘The witch doctor put a curse on the spoon and you’ll never get a fat again.’
‘I’m not joking,’ Tuck said.
Greg, the playing-coach of the reserves wandered in to Tuck’s room.
‘How is he going?’
‘He told me about the spoon,’ I said.
Greg sighed. A committed Christian, he asked us to close our eyes while he said a prayer before each game. Occasionally if we were behind at half time he’d pray for divine intervention.
‘You’re a bugger, Tuck,’ Greg said.
‘He’ll be buggered if he gets a fat.’
‘Can he train?’
‘Not if I hit him with the spoon.’
‘What about his tear?’ Greg said.
‘Not for a week.’ Tuck slapped me on the leg. ‘Get up, Wato,’ he said.
I got off the table, sore and embarrassed. The spoon stayed on the door.
‘Ice and heat every night for the next week.’ Tuck jabbed a slippery thumb at me and smiled. See me Thursday for a massage.’
The spoon was one of Tuck’s routines for new players. No one at the club admitted to being hit with it. Tuck didn’t mention any names, not even during long nights celebrating grand final wins.
Tuck treated all my injuries across three years. The only one he couldn’t cure was a busted collarbone I got a week before the finals. I missed the grand final. Wandal lost.
Dale Tucker died in 2011. Wandal honoured him with an upset win over Yeppoon. Tuck is a life member of the club, a legend. He understood injuries, he understood footy.
He overruled the coaches and players many times, refusing to let them play or be sent back on to the ground. If a player turned up with nightclub stamps on his wrist, Tuck wouldn’t let them play.
He worked tirelessly to repair and protect us.
A few years ago, on the drive from Brisbane to Mackay, I went back to Stenlake Park. No one was there. I got out and wandered around, reminiscing.
I wondered if Tuck’s spoon was still hanging on the door.