Almanac (Footy) Life: Pepsi and Suntan and a first game of footy

“You can play footy right?”, wheezed a breathless Ian Lister. There was genuine panic in the tone of his enquiry.


His shadow poured over me. A heaving, sweating monolith of a man, it was never his intent to intimidate but the effect was unavoidable.


Ian was your classic beer and steak man (and I’m not excluding breakfast here). He piloted the archetypal big man’s build: Impressive latitude with most square yardage above the equator. All mounted precariously atop a wispy set of heroic legs.


His belt clung bravely at the hips. His slacks hung loosely off him like retired windsocks.


“I mean, you know how to right?” he steadied, more focused.


I was not yet at the point to assess the motives behind his interrogation.


For one thing, it was Friday morning in the office.


Having not long transferred from our Canberra branch, Ian was yet to properly comprehend the nuances of Qld office culture, in particular that Fridays were about lingering tea breaks and gentle walks to the photocopier. Perhaps the odd flirtation with professionalism should circumstance demand but certainly NOT any serious enquiry that would require considered response.


For another thing, Ian was not unfamiliar to a dramatic entrance. There was a burgeoning consistency to them such that now, whenever he entered flustered we, his new colleagues, took it upon ourselves to pre-empt each new dilemma with our best guesses before any official explanation could be tendered.


Only a week earlier he had entered much the same, only more pallid than today.


Paranormal encounter, anemia, and vitamin D deficiency were early nominations. Studying his drawn complexion carefully, I elected to go with prostate exam.


Turns out he had been carjacked. Wow, I was way off.


A surly gent had waved at him from the roadside that morning and Ian interpreted this as familiarity enough to pull over. The wave was promptly replaced with a sharp knife and a blunt request to drive him to an outer suburb of Brisbane.


Ian trusted everybody. If Jeffrey Dahlmer had invited him over for dinner and requested he wear gravy as cologne, I doubt Ian would have considered the consequences.


Suffice to say, he lived to tell the tale. As soon as the feet of his stabby new acquaintance touched ground, somewhere outside city limits, Ian had the wheels spinning and didn’t trouble his brakes for some time.


This was the caliber of bizarre fable Ian could regale us with, with impressive regularity.


So, naturally, when Ian burst in sweating like he’d been force fed a vegetable, nobody (least of all me) was prepared that what followed might conclude by being swept up in a good natured ambush.


“Aussie rules. AFL. You know? I know you like it. Can you play?”


Eyes wide like empty dinner plates, he leaned in for my response, his nicotine infused breath gently fanning my eyebrows.


“Well…yeah I guess,” I said.


“Great. Thanks mate. 7.00pm bounce at Yeronga. You’re a life saver.”




What just happened? Dear Lord, what did I just say yes to?


“No…hang on a second…” I stumbled, searching desperately for an exit strategy.


“It’s fine mate,” he pre-empted, “Just bring boots. We’ll supply the rest” and before I could further clarify, object or feign a stroke, those overachieving legs of his had already swept him far from earshot and off in search of other unsuspecting conscripts to petition.


Shit. I think I’m playing footy tonight.


What I had neglected to mention across our many football themed conversations is that I had never really kicked a ball in anger (in the official sense) my whole life. I had wanted to (See Finding Igor for further details on this) but it was yet to become a reality in any meaningful way.


Numb. I felt the blood drain away from my face.


My enthusiastic co-workers seized upon my pale complexion:


“Mate, you look terrible. Let’s see…Vitamin D deficiency…no wait…prostate exam!”


“Oh shut up!”



“Just bring boots?” he had said. What’s the protocol here? Did players still favour screw ins? What time do the cobblers close?  I’m in serious trouble here.


The ‘we’ in Ian’s proposal was the Murri Mavericks, a proudly indigenous football team founded in Brisbane in the late 90’s.


The Mavericks had a bye slated for this round but an eleventh hour call to Ian (as team manager) had happily informed him they would now be playing Friday (tonight) and, of course, that they were sorry for the inconvenience.


Arriving at the ground as late as practical I crept slowly in shadow towards the change rooms. I was greeted by a triumphant looking Ian Lister alongside Mavericks’ Captain Coach and former representative of the Melbourne Football Club, David Cockatoo-Collins.  Any pre-conceived ideas I had about this being a beginner’s standard were killed off right then and there. Both beamed at me adoringly.  I looked behind me expecting to see a more impressive athlete but it was me they were pleased to see.


David approached me enthusiastically. “We really appreciate this. When there’s a bye, some of the boys go walkabout” he laughed.  “We can’t contact them and we’d hate to forfeit.” Remember, this was circa 99/2000 so mobile phones weren’t quite so ubiquitous.


“Go in and grab yourself a jumper from the bag” he smiled slapping me on the back as I shuffled past.


I entered with a single-minded philosophy: Don’t draw attention to yourself. Fly under the radar and you’ll get through this.


I remained inconspicuous for exactly 12 seconds at which point I stepped into the handle of one of the senior player’s bags and proceeded to drag it half way across the dressing room, before I could be mercifully liberated by its owner.


Searching for the dimmest corner available I immediately recognized the five other conscripts from the office. You’ve never seen a less convincing looking band of volunteers, shifting uneasily in the corner, confused and vulnerable like we might be up for adoption.


I was too embarrassed to properly inspect the jumpers and took the first one off the pile. It turns out that the numbers reflect the sizing. That is to say, the higher the number, the larger the jersey. I don’t remember the number I took but I suspect it had a comma in there somewhere. It was huge.


Sparing myself the indignity of going back to the pile like an amateur, I rolled, folded and tucked my smock into my shorts as professionally as possible. Some of the bulging proved quite flattering. Though not so much the ones around the back.


All the Mavericks were warm and welcoming.


A stocky, back pocket type with long hair and an untamed beard walked over to me.


“Welcome. The boys call me Cavey.”


“Ah yes, of course. Because you look like a caveman?” I chuckled pointing at his beard.


“No…my last name’s Caven.” He walked off looking slightly hurt.


And I wonder why I struggle to make friends.



I eased slowly down onto a vacant patch of bench and drew a shiny new set of boots from my bag.


“New boots mate?” enquired the perfectly chiseled athlete sitting beside me.


How did I not think to rub mud into them? Amateur.


“What, these old things?” I countered, partially blinded by my reflection in them.


“You gotta love that new leather smell hey?” He continued, ignoring my clumsy deflection.


“No…that’s me. You know, Aldi brand cologne. You get what you pay for.” I’d committed to weaving this cunning web of deceit. I couldn’t stop spinning now.


“Yeah right. You know, most people cut the plastic tag off the laces.” Bugger.


“Yes, well…” Think Simmons. It’s unraveling before my eyes. Code Brown. All units to The Bullshit Department immediately.


“I find it helps me work out which way the breeze is blowing…oh fuck it, who am I kidding…I’ve never actually played before.”


“No shit!” He smiled after a generous pause.



I’m a fraud.


“You’ll be alright” he said, springing up and resting his wide palm on my shoulder. “Just listen to the boys around you and most importantly, have fun.”


Have fun. Yes. How hard can that be? I mean, the rich, burning aroma of Deep Heat, the machine gun rhapsody of moulded souls on concrete, the shameless machismo of back slapping and lewd banter. My god, this is intoxicating.


And like a chorus line of rhythmically challenged tap dancers we filed out of the change rooms and into a few warm-up drills and stretches.


Only the pre-game huddle remained. “Only 18 players tonight boys” explained Cockatoo-Collins, “So I hope you’re all feeling energetic.”


No bench. So, I couldn’t even negotiate a cameo if I tried.


“Jimmy has to work late but he reckons he’ll make quarter time.”


C’mon Jimmy. Think about others for a change. Red lights are more of a guide than a legal requirement anyway. Just get here as fast as you can. I grin nervously over at the other five conscripts knowing they share the same longing for the arrival of a man we’ve never met. I’m anticipating a Stawell Gift style sprint for the boundary line once Jimmy starts warming up. I might have to head him off in the car park.


Cockatoo-Collins slid magnets around the board with purpose until he settled on mine.


“Jamie, we’ll sit you in the forward pocket next to Pepsi.”


Pepsi was their power forward and occasional ruckman.


“He’ll look after you,” nodded Cockatoo-Collins encouragingly.


Pepsi was tall and muscular with a shock of curly hair. He reminded me a little of West Australian legend Stephen Michael who I vaguely remembered from State of Origin games in the 80’s.


“Mate, just get to my feet,” he offered as we made our way to the attacking end of the ground. “If I can’t mark it, I’ll bring it to ground in front of me.”


Get to his feet? He expects me to read the play? Shit, I get lost in Coles and he expects me to read the play!


My opponent waddled at me with intent. Instinctively I offered my hand. What followed was as unexpected as it was disturbing.


He looked at my hand with contempt and launched into an effortless tirade of racial taunts and slurs. Unprovoked, unnecessary and, perhaps worst of all, sanctioned by the laughter of his teammates.


Still a little stunned, my hand extending into oblivion, I hadn’t even managed to notice the game had started.


I was entranced by Cockatoo-Collins. I’d never seen a proper footballer from this side of the fence before. With an effortless beauty he skated around would be tacklers and pumped the ball long into our forward line.


I watched it cutting through the night’s dark canopy overhead. Beautiful. Now, what was I supposed to remember? Shit! “Get to his feet!” Head down and I’m running towards a jostling Pepsi like a lost child at reunion.


In accordance with prophecy, Pepsi was able to drop the contested ball out in front of himself. I deflected the ball deftly off my face into my rigid hands. An indecipherable wall of advice washed over me. It didn’t matter. All I could see was goals.


I heard a stampede behind me and kicked blindly with everything I had. The ball spun once, lost interest and floated gently over the line for a goal. An actual goal.


A sense of belonging that only sport provides, denied me for so long, engulfed me as my teammates swept me up in a team embrace. I have never felt so alive.


Suffice to say my direct opponent was less supporting. Incensed, to be accurate.


Pepsi happily fanned the flames. “Good skills. Clinical finish,” he observed with a high five.


The racially charged vitriol continued, stopping only long enough to use profanity as punctuation. In particular he questioned my pasty complexion. Though not quite so eloquently.


For the briefest moment I went to correct him. I had no aboriginal heritage to speak of but I could see how the jumper might be misleading and I figured the misunderstanding on his part was perfectly understandable.


Wait a second. The Mavericks had been nothing but nice to me and was this really someone I should be seeking the approval of?


“Reverse suntan mate,” came my casual reply.


“What?” he grunted. I detected a slight Neolithic accent.


“You know. When you white blokes tan you get darker. We go the other way. I thought everybody knew that.”


A cloud of uncertainty settled over him. Somewhere behind The Forehead that Time Forgot gears grinded and groaned. His tenuous grasp on physiology was being seriously questioned: Is that true? Is that even possible?


I sometimes wonder how long he would have grappled with this conundrum had it not been interrupted by Pepsi’s laughter, giving the game away.


More profanity. More slurs.



I’d had a useful quarter. A few scrappy disposals to advantage and one incredible goal that dared to re-write the laws of Physics. Not a total disaster. To be fair, Pepsi had put most of them on a plate for me and my opponent was as talented as he was articulate.


Each time the ball hit the ground, I had him for pace but so did most glaciers. I’ve seen continents drift faster than this bloke covered the ground.


Quarter time and Pepsi held court, beaming as he shared the reverse suntan story with the playing group. The players lost it.  High fives ensued.  I was a King amongst men for a good 30 seconds and “Suntan” for the remainder of the game.


My opponent was dragged in the second half and I wouldn’t see him again. I suspect he left early to return library books or attend the Opera but I’d be lying if I said the bigotry left with him.


I want to say that I ran the game out strongly but that would be a distortion of truth also. The forward line had hidden me for as long as they could. I doubt The French Resistance could hide me on a football field for 4 whole quarters.


At three quarter time, Cockatoo-Collins administered the playing group instructions and me the last rites. I was cooked.


The undermanned Mavericks went down of course but if nothing else we gave them a contest.



Post-game in the sheds I grappled with the racial slander I had been exposed to. The fact that it was misplaced made it no less hurtful. And yet, it was minor compared to what I had heard some of the other boys subjected to.


Peeling our armor off I asked Pepsi about it assuming, perhaps hoping, that it was a rarity, maybe even a one off.


“Nah, we get that all the time” he said, from behind his least convincing smile to date. “You get used to it.”


I didn’t quite know what to say to that. I still don’t.


I left the ground buzzing from my first ever game of footy, hopeful (and blissfully unaware) that my football journey was only just beginning. I also left a little less naïve.


That would make for a perfectly acceptable enough end to that story I suppose, had fate not stepped in to provide a footnote.



Later on that year I found myself enjoying the ambience of Brisbane nightclub culture with work colleagues, somewhere on Caxton Street.


Forgive my lack of clarity. The location was as dimly lit as I was at around 10 bourbons deep into the evening. Not knowing the lay of the land I found myself straying from the herd in search of the men’s room.


A set of mysterious stairs opened up before me and took me down into an unadvertised bar. Had I been called upon to lead authorities back to that bar next day, I doubt that I could.


Upon reflection, the general lack of ambience and music should have served as warning enough to me at the time. It didn’t. It was gothically dark but refuge in the shadows is exactly what many of these patrons were looking for.


I couldn’t have described anybody in that room but I was keenly aware that all were watching me with suspicious interest.


I was suddenly and happily distracted by the sight of a bathroom and swayed my way inside.


Before I could patronise the facilities the doorway behind me had been filled by menacing shadow.


Four generously portioned lads with little regard for personal space, took an instant dislike to my presentation.


“You must be lost mate,” whispered one.


“No, I’m Ok. Found what I’m looking for,” I slurred, pointing at the cubicle.


“Not here you haven’t,” he leaned in hissing.


“Better yet,” said the widest among them “You can piss in the sink instead.”


The others agreed enthusiastically with this proposition.


For most people, the lightbulb would have flickered to life by now that they might be in some trouble. But for me, still not that long out of Tassie, the penny hadn’t dropped or if it had, it’d rolled off under a couch somewhere.


“That’s Ok. I’m happy to wai,” I chirped from behind an inappropriately cartoonish smile.


A powerful hand clamped down on my forearm and towed me towards the sink. “I’m not asking you.”


“Oh,” I said looking down at his grip and spying that penny I should have looked for earlier.


“Suntan!” came a familiar but, as yet, unlocated voice.


The welcome shape of Pepsi stepped briskly into the light and shouldered through the entourage.


“Suntan, I thought that was you. I tell all the new boys at the club that story. How are you?”


Pepsi’s grand entrance had startled them slightly and bought him enough time to slide an arm around me and shepherd me safely back out through the door.


“You don’t want to be down here mate.” He whispered, scanning the flanks cautiously as we walked. “Everybody knows that mate. Some angry types about. You’ll be much happier upstairs.”


He guided me gently upstairs and back to the familiarity of my herd who were waving me toward an idling Maxi Taxi.


I fumbled for a non-existant seatbelt before looking back awkwardly into that big, beautiful smile one last time. “It was nice to see you again Suntan,” he nodded. And with that, he rolled the door shut, banged twice on the roof and disappeared.


“Thank you,” I slurred too late to a parade of passing street lamps.


I’m not sure what the moral is here, perhaps there are several but I have elected to go with: be nice to each other. Just because you can. It could save you an ass kicking one day. Not to mention that people out there who clean sinks for a living will thank you for it.



More stories from Jamie Simmons can be found HERE



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About Jamie Simmons

Born in Melbourne, a third generation Fitzroy supporter, in 1972 before emigrating to Tasmania during The Great Broccoli Famine of 86. Leaving my island lodgings, largely at the request of locals, to settle once more on the mainland in 1997. These days living out a peaceful existance on the outskirts of Brisbane, where I spend most of my time serving as a fashion warning to others.


  1. A wonderful read, Jamie.
    Plenty of fun, but plenty more serious issues to ponder also.

  2. This was great, Jamie. As Smoke said, while there are plenty of moments to smile about, beneath the surface lurk uncomfortable truths.

  3. Warren Tapner says

    Wonderful. I would kill for the ability to write like that.

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