Off Season Odyssey – Part 24: Addictions



Jesse’s Aboriginal. Light, like his Mum, who he grew up with down south, in the bush where I’m from. He’s gone to work with his Dad, who is full-blood, on the Central NSW Coast. It’s been ages and is great to see him. He’s nineteen now, but, due to his height, still looks younger. Ripped. There’s not an ounce of fat on him. I dunno, maybe that’s just because he’s broke.

He’s staying at his uncle’s. Half the clan is. They come and go while we talk and drink my emergencies, from under the passenger seat.

“Man, Old Dog, I never knew I had so many relatives, ‘ey?” he tells me. “There are thousands of us!”

I tell the uncle why I’m rolling through. The whole Odyssey thing.

“That’s sorta walkabout,” he says, with an impressed grin, that slides into a cautious stare. Then he’s gone.

“So what do ya do all day?” I ask Jesse.

“Smoke bongs,” he says. “I ain’t working at the moment. Got into a fight with Dad, ‘ey.”

“I thought you were living with him.”

“Yeah, nah, that house is too full on. They’re all into heroin and steroids and doing weights and shit.”

Jesse’s cousin sits in the back yard with us, staring at the walls, not saying anything. Other family members, mostly young, come and go.

“My uncle’s a top bloke!” Jesse grins.

He keeps introducing me as his former coach, Old Dog.

“I’d like to think we’re mates these days,” I tell him.

“Hell, fuck yeah!” he says, and we go for a kick.


Jesse was about minus two when I first coached him. A cocky little bundle of fire staring hard into me when I spoke. Weaving in and out of kids seven years older than him and twice his height. Determined, even if he had to step back to take a mark on the bounce, because one on the full would knock him off his feet. Too young to play, but so what?

He was a kid, and I was training teenagers like young men.

“If you do the ball work, there’s no bailing. You gotta do all the running, too,” I’d tell Jesse.

And he’d grit, and be lapped, and be last, and puffing and heaving, always, always finish.

I saw pride. Others saw trouble.

Soon he became trouble. Him and a group of mates had been breaking into the club rooms, stealing grog from the bar every second weekend. They were young, in a small dead town. I woulda, back in the day. Somehow, it all fell on him. He reckons he was pressured to leave. Either way, they should not have cleared Jesse. Tuck ‘em into your wing, teach ‘em right, I reckon.

The night word spread he was getting a transfer to one of the opposition clubs, I saw him lurking in the shadows.

“You’ve never done wrong by me, Jesse,” I said, and he was gone.


“It’s all Rugby up here, ‘ey,” Jesse twists up his face, as we find a patch of grass between some swampy bush and the freeway. “Rugby everywhere! Rugby or nothin’!”

He hasn’t kicked the ball since he arrived a year-and-a-half ago. It takes him fifteen minutes to find his range again.

“You still got it, Jesse-Boy Wizard!” I give him his full footy name.

‘Oh, yeah!” he brags. “I’m still the Wiz!”

Kick after kick passes hard, on an invisible line, between his boot and the bridge of my nose. He even baulks and weaves and does a bit of his Aboriginal thing. Shows me the glory!

But is stuffed, outlasted by a faded hack.

“You serious?” I say.

“I’m rooted, man…”


We go for a cruise.


I like the NSW central coast. I don’t know how, but it’s still working class. Maybe because there are no hills here. No views. No way of being above everybody else.

Which is probably why it’s the first place in a long time that has no Aussie Rules. AFL is an elite thing in NSW. Something with a fancy tint. It’s spreading all over the city and small towns like gangrene. But out in the West, where everything’s flat, and the dunny builders, boiler makers and new immigrants live, where you never talk politics or religion in a bar, it doesn’t stand a chance.

“My Dad rules this town,” Jesse says. “Him and his mates. He was the first blackfella to come back. He’s just got out of jail for bashing two cops, he’s always in and out, his whole life, and he got us both jobs.”

“Once Were Warriors,” I say, but Jesse’s too young to have seen it.


We go around to his old man’s place to get his wallet. They won’t let us into a bar without local membership.

Jesse’s cousin is huge and has tracks on his arm, and stares hard at me. Two other roided-out blokes say nothing.

His Dad is still half asleep from his fix, so we bail.


“You gotta stay Old Dog! We’ll get smashed!” Jesse cheers.

He doesn’t know it, but I’m under the pump. I have to get back to Sydney to hook a whole heap of things up for the trip before work and the road drag me away. To bluff and bullshit my way into Sin City footy things, that involve big towers, big players, and, maybe, will give me the press I need.

One shot stuff, that I can’t do out here in Rugbyville.


We stop for a beer in a large, shitty pub, with pokies attached. They’re every damn where. They pay for Rugby clubs and junior Rugby clubs and bands and comedy and cheap beer by taking every cent there is.

I don’t believe it. Sorry, I just bloody don’t. If pokies were kerbed there would still be Rugby, there would still be Aussie Rules. It wouldn’t be as flashy, but the punters this type of gambling takes most from aren’t that flashy anyways. Sport is primal. We couldn’t not play. More people would just have to do it for love.

On the other hand, I don’t reckon you should legislate common sense. If they did, I’d be taken out back and shot.

I’ve got no answers.

“When are you heading back down South?” Jesse asks. “I wanna go home.”


“I don’t wanna end up like my Dad. I wannna play footy again.”

It can’t be both, but either is fare enough. I feel like a weird old man hanging out with the kid.

“You ever get on the gear with him,” I ask.

“Sometimes, when I was there. That’s why I’m really living with my uncle,” he says.

I shout Jesse some grub, then a beer, then we neck another spare, I wade into the water, trying to goad out the estuary sharks he keeps talking about with the promise of a kick, but it’s either all hype, or they don’t like the taste of battered old ruckmen.


We hit the end beach, off the cliffs and go down for a quick look, I’ve really gotta bail, but he punts the ball to me, and I give him a torrie.

I ask him while we kick and spray our kicks, why he wants to go back and play footy?

“I dunno. I’m good at it, ‘ey?” he laughs, then doesn’t.

When Jesse left our bush club he won two flags. One in Under 18s at a bloody good standard. The other, still young, in the Reserves at a rival club. He can obviously play.

“The coach wanted me to start on the bench, but I ended up forward, and showed them the Jesse Boy Wizard, yeah!” he grins a ratbag grin.

“The blokes I won the flag with were like blood,” he adds.

I can still get things done if I leave for the city now, important me things, but our kicks drift, like the sweetest things, more and more towards the water. Soon enough Jesse’s giving piles of seaweed the Wizard and I’m taking speckies over incoming waves. No on-coming elbows, knees or hard ground landings in sight.

“This should be pre-season training for all over 35s!” I call.

Neither of us have a clue what I’m on about.

“Dickhead,” he laughs, and we go for a swim.

The surf is high enough. I’m the only bloke out back. I get hammered and don’t and Jesse laughs his guts out and catches a few closer in. With each wave I feel everything getting further away. Roosy. The Sydney Morning Herald. Ambition. Sheedy, the Giants, glass towers, big shots. People I have to call about work.

Each time we laugh it all slides further off my back. This, right here and now, is surely what it’s about.


Later, we go to the League’s Club. It has a Rugby field attached to its hip, top dollar stands, the works. The gaming room is full of old housewives. To. A. One. Everything blue rinse hair tied into buns and pensions down the drain.

I watch them feeding the slot machines without mercy or expression, other than just a tinge of spite, as if trying to overdoes them.

“I’m heading Up North, Jesse,” I say. “But I’ll be back for you if ya want. I was going to cut straight down the desert, but could jag back from Lightning Ridge, I guess.”

“How long, Old Dog?”

“I dunno. But if things turn to shit here and you can’t wait, I’ll get you the train tickets. Here, to Sydney, then Melbourne, to the bush.”

I don’t tell him I don’t know how. I’ll find a way. As soon as tomorrow.

I shout us a beer.

“See him, that me boss, ‘ey,” he says of a small man by the bar, feeding the horsies. “He’s a legend. He loves me.”

“They all love the Wizard,” I say.

“Hey,” Jesse rocks back, putting on his little man bluff. “Of course!”

The man walks up.

“G’day Jesse, you ready to come back to work?” he says.


“You got it sorted with your Dad?”


“I’ll give you a call early next week.”


When the bloke’s gone, I ask how much he pays.

“Hundred a day,” Jesse says.

“That’s twelve bucks an hour!” I protest.

“Eh, it’s enough for grog,” he tells me.

I say nothing. Just try to be his mate.

“I’ll get some money up for a few weeks, maybe three, and not have to go home with nothing!” he says.

With work, I doubt he’ll get there. His family run pretty wild up here. When you can afford to match speed, and the big nasties are covering your little bloke back, it’s a rush. But the stench of junk, and junkies, eventually covers everybody. Those dodgy, grimy looking shadows of people you’re constantly crossing palms with are you tomorrow.

Jesse could never be his father, and I think he knows it. This place will kill him. He just ain’t that tough.

I’ll be back for him, money or no. Hopefully, by then his feet will be all itchy with the pull of pre-season.


Jesse’s taking a piss before we leave, when I notice his boss again.

“Pay the kid more,” I tell him.

“I’ll do what I damn well want,” he says.

“You’ll pay the kid more,” I say.

He reminds me of a plantation owner. No fuss, likeable, caring, sorta, but only because he owns you.

“Who is this, Jesse?” the man says, eyeballing me, as Wizard rocks up.

“That’s Old Dog!” Jesse says. I wait on the introduction. “He’s my mate.”


You bloody good thing.


His boss goes. The day’s both shot to hell and brilliant. Ahead is the highway or the night.

“Come to the pub and meet my old man,” Jesse says.





  1. Powerful stuff that brings an ache to my chest – thanks once again Matt Zurbo!

  2. brilliant

  3. Malby Danlges says

    Well done Matt. Hope it all works out for Jesse!

  4. Bloke I knew died on the weekend. The result of dug use a long time ago, finally caught up with him from what I can gather/guess from this distance. He had been off the gear for a long time. Last I heard he was working with junkies, helping them get clean. No judgement, the way it can only come from someone who has been there. This bloke played bass in two of the best bands of their genre in Brisbane, back in the day…

    We all make our choices and do what we think is best I guess. Hope Jesse Boy-Wizard gets his chance at footy with no regrets.

    Have to say Matt, your character-scapes are a powerful lure for a homesick expat.

  5. Yeah, real bad luck on that, Gus.

  6. Peter Baulderstone says

    Fantastic piece Matt. The Almanac has a lot of great writers and commentators. But your story telling is unique. Your style is so natural and without artifice – but you tell me more about how the world really is than anyone. ‘
    This piece encompassed booze, drugs, gambling (most of the things we can get addicted to) and aboriginal extended family (though addiction is by no means just a black fella issue). You made me think about the issues, without telling me what I should be thinking. Just that its tough, real and important.
    I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels and contrasts in this piece and your fantastic Leo Barry story. I can’t think of many more self-possessed and humble in his awesome sporting, career and life achievements than LB. And you captured that perfectly.
    How do you put Leo and Jesse’s stories together??? His Bobness maybe – “there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”
    I feel really privileged to share in your odyssey and your story stelling. It is an ornament to the Almanac and deserves a wider audience. You say more about Australia today than a hundred op-ed writers in the Oz or the Age.

  7. Thanks, Peter. Very appreciated.

  8. pamela sherpa says

    Another interesting article Matt . Interesting observation about hills and people. I’ve never thought about that. Probably because I grew up on flat land. Also the pokies . Growing up on the Vic side of the Murray the pokies were always something NSW had but Victoria didn’t -and that defined the difference. We were led to believe that gambling led to corruption
    I sincerely hope that one day soon someone actually does re- introduce common sense back into society.
    Enjoy the next stage of your trip.

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    I think PB Post is spot on you have a unique way of telling a story and making us feel a part of it and examine our social values and thoughts as well
    Any more updates re Jesse ? Thanks as always, Matt

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