Off Season Odyssey – Part 19: Blood



Uncle Les is dying. It’s not right. I have such vivid memories of him being so damn imposing. So solid. All Hungarian, with that slicked back hair, the angular face, barrel chest. That way. Straight down the line.

Now he’s skin and bone, there nothing there. He sits opposite me in his house in central N.S.W, in his dressing-gown, upright, hair still slicked back, for pride. Smoking and sipping brandy as best he can.

We trade a few stories. I haven’t seen him for years, or known him since I was a boy, But to hear his voice again is reassuring, soothing beyond words. One of the strong things about my childhood, that make me what I am.

The Zurbos are a funny mob. They split from Transylvania, down into Hungary’s heart, dodging the Russian bullets, then the Allies’, through Germany. For four years they were on the run through Europe, everything refugee camps and freight trains. After the war they made it here on an Italian frigate, found Heaven, grew into women and men, and split again. This time from each other, to all corners of Oz. And their kids have done the same.

I’m not sure why.

Maybe we’re too prickly to live with, too headstrong, but we love each other at a distance with all our heart.

My Aunty fills me in on the past decade. Her husband isn’t the only one with health problems. The Wagga branch have had exceptionally hard times.

But they remain positive, remain proud. It’s a privilege to be here. I stay the night. My uncle coughs every minute of every hour.


Come morning, I go to meet the two of my cousins who stayed in Wagga, and their kids, down by the lake. They have the boat out, the water skis.

I meet my second cousin, Tom, who’s about seventeen/eighteen. One of four to Joanne. He looks all Hungarian even though he’s 200% Wagga, seizing and loving life. Marc shows up. A first cousin, who I haven’t seen in 30 years. It is superb. He is superb. The best bloke, the most genuine smile.


Tom’s Dad is a straight up bloke. Fit and friendly, there’s not an ounce of gut on him. We all head to an oval and him and me and Tom share the footy around. I pit Tom and his old man against each other. The old man is taller, stronger, but Tom has a real dip. Father and son. The battle is on!

In the background the clan laughs and cheers.

Tom’s dad played a lot of Aussie Rules in his day.

“I know it’s N.S.W.s but the town seems to be split down the middle. Heaps of kids play AFL,” he tells me.

He played most of his footy for the same dot-town club Tom does, twenty minutes’ drive from Wagga. He still fills in now and then. They even clocked up two games together last year.

“Yeah, Dad’s coming out of retirement to play with me this year,” Tom goads him.

His dad doesn’t say anything, just gives the best, proudest smirk I’ve ever seen. A real father-son thing. The man letting the boy lead the man.

That smirk, it’s brilliant. The best thing!

“Aren’t ya, Fella?” Tom keeps baiting him.

“Yeah, but we won’t be playing together. I’ll be in the Ones!”  his dad finally baits back.

Tom laughs, and bashes in that bit harder.

“You’re lucky. I’ve never kicked with blood before,” I tell them.

‘Never?” they say.

“This is my first time.”


It’s my turn against Tom, and it’s just not fair. Everything about his build, his way, is hard-ball-gets, in-and-under. I’m bigger, older, stronger. And mark every one. Sorry kid. You should have challenged me to a race. If it was a kilometre long you’d have won by a mile.

“Get a run-up,” I tell him. “Look at how I’m not jumping, just putting myself under the ball.”

And he does. And takes a hanger. Everybody laughs.

I’m stoked. That’s what you want to see. A kid who learns.


Odds are I’ll never see Uncle Les again. The thought punches, time after time. He’s become so damn frail I couldn’t even hug him good-bye. But that means nothing. He still has that presence, that way. He’ll always be a mountain in my eyes.

I watch Tom and his family as we all go our own Zurbo ways. He looks so young, so invincible. He’s been raised well. You can tell.

I watch them all, and quietly thank them all. Tom’s father, Joanne, Marc, Marc’s kids, my Aunty. The family that didn’t spread. That stayed.

Uncle Les’ legacy is a thing of gold.


And then there’s the open road, and, like so much of my blood, I’m gone.



  1. Rocket Nguyen says

    Turbo Zurbo – always interested in a piece on Wagga.

    Where does Tom play?

    There are a lot of “dot-town” clubs 20 minutes from Wagga…
    The Rock, Marrar, Collingullie, Mangoplah, even Coolamon if you drive fast

  2. Matt Zurbo says

    Sorry, Rcket, I don’t know. They told me, but I forgot. What’s the footy like up there?

  3. pamela sherpa says

    Am enjoying reading about your travels Matt, and your family history. Some people were just born to wander.

  4. Thanks Pamela. Nice to hear from you.

  5. Andrew Fithall says

    I too am enjoying your travel tales Matt. However, I should pick you up on something. I believe you should never call Wagga Wagga Wagga. The lines from the Greg Champion song on this theme can be found at

  6. Rocket Nguyen says

    That’s right Andrew.

    In a NRL call once, Rabbits Warren blurted out about Joey Williams coming from Wagga…
    Sterlo said, “It’s Wagga Wagga, not Wagga Ray”.
    Sterlo played for Wagga Kangaroos in Group 9 before embarking on his illustrious career with Parramatta, NSW and Australia.

    At the time the best four half-backs in Sydney RL were from Wagga Wagga: Steve Mortimer (Canterbury-Bankstown), Tommy Radonikus (Wests), Steve Martin (Norths) & Sterlo.

  7. Andrew, Don’t call Wagga Wagga Wagga without apporsraphies (sp?), or hyphens, is a baited statement! Most of the locals I met have come to the conclusion they can’t be bothered with the extra wind. But, hey, whatever. (And stay tuned for my kick with Champs when the Odyssey went Tamworth…!)

  8. Damo Balassone says

    Really enjoyed this one too. Just to satisfy my curiosity: are the Zurbo’s originally from Hungary? Or did you migrate from Romania prior to that? I ask because Zurbo sounds Latin.

  9. Damo, my father can point out the village he was born in, but can’t name the country, as there was so much conflictt and shifting boarders with the Prussian war. They came from Translvania which was a part of Hungary, but in the divvi after WW!! was made Romanian. Mpst people there are still Hungarian, though. That is my understanding. Others would know more.

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