Life as a veteran local footballer

I hadn’t given much thought to retirement until about 20 minutes before I made the decision.

 

We had just won a semi-final, the reward being a Grand Final berth and to my eternal gratitude, a week off.

 

My contribution to the win was minimal. I played my part as an undersized, not so athletic back pocket but didn’t have a lot of influence on the result. I’d like to think I gave my all, but really, I was doing what was needed while conscious of not doing any more damage to the knee injury I’d been nursing for most of the year.

 

I’d thought I’d done a good job of preserving myself without letting on that I was holding back until I rather daringly tried to kick the ball more than 30 metres, thus jarring the knee, and feeling searing pain go right through my leg. This had been happening about twice a week for a few months.

 

I instinctively turned away from the bench where my coach and other influential selectors would be watching and screamed that simple word that succinctly captures frustration, pain, surprise and anger all in one syllable.

 

What I didn’t realise was that I was metres away from my parents in the crowd and had made my struggle a little too obvious to them.

 

My idea of subtlely preserving myself was blown out of the water when my dad’s booming voice let me and everyone else at the ground know that I was injured and I should get off straight away.

 

As has been tradition my whole life, I ignored Dad’s orders and continued to hobble around, praying the ball wouldn’t come near me and that my opponent wouldn’t realise I wasn’t capable of more than a gentle trot.

 

But it did come near me soon after and I was instantly tackled into the ground. I felt a bit sore in the ribs but pushed on until the pain became a bit too hard to ignore and the coach took me off.

 

I was told I was being rested so I’d be right for the Grand Final. That was reassuring to hear, but I honestly didn’t know if I was going to be right.

 

What I thought might have been bruised ribs turned out to be torn obliques. I didn’t even know what obliques were before that diagnosis but I was well aware of them now that getting in and out of bed felt like having a hot steak knife inserted into my midriff.

 

It was when I spent 10 minutes on the Monday morning in bed mustering up the courage to sit up that the epiphany came – I’ve had enough, this is it.

 

In hindsight, retirement had been on my mind for a while. For a couple of months, every time I’d been in the changerooms making small talk with another player over 30 I would steer the conversation to next year, inquiring if they would go on. Maybe I needed validation that pulling the pin at 33 was more than reasonable.

 

One of these teammates was Andy, one of my closest friends who I had played my first organised game of football with 24 years earlier. We’d been through our entire careers together, used to muck around as our parents would share after match drinks in our junior days and now watched on as our own kids were the ones mucking around together.

 

Thanks to an unusual arrangement this year where my club had two reserves teams we actually played our first ever game as opponents earlier in the year and naturally drifted towards each other.

 

Competitiveness kicked in and we were going out of our way to nullify one another up to the point where late in the game Andy jumped out of nowhere to smother a kick of mine, causing the knee injury that I’d carry and remind him of for the rest of the season.

 

That was one of a few challenges of my final season – yo-yoing between the two reserves teams, keeping my fragile body in working order and sitting on the club’s committee as we dealt with all sorts of internal politics.

 

Then there was the not so insignificant arrival of my second child in July.

 

Matilda, just like her big sister Clara, is the best thing to happen to me but it’s fair to say that having two kids under the age of two isn’t the best thing for your sleeping patterns and, by extension, any physical performance.

 

Like many parents of a newborn we had an arrangement whereby I would be able to sleep through the night during the working week but would do the overnight feeds on Saturdays and Sundays. As you might imagine, this wasn’t overly helpful to life as a weekend warrior and I was now staggering into the changerooms on a Saturday morning looking in worse shape than the 21-year-olds who had been at the pub all night.

 

That pre-match period was invaluable for me though. Everyone has their own routines, be it push-ups, music, laps of the centre square or getting ankles strapped by the same trainer.

 

My routine now involved finding a quiet corner of the changeroom and having a powernap. It probably wasn’t all that inspiring for other players and brought back memories from when I was one of those 21-year-olds laughing at a veteran teammate who would be sound asleep as balls would ping around and players would whip themselves into a frenzy. But now I completely understood where he was coming from.

 

That challenge gave me appreciation of AFL players with similar family situations. You don’t often hear of sleep deprivation as a reason for missing or performing poorly in a game, but surely there are quite a few players battling with it. But they’re probably doing some Monday to Friday feeds instead.

 

Self-preservation was key to me for most of the year, but so too was keeping up appearances.

 

Perception is everything in footy clubs, especially when we had both our senior and (one of our) reserves teams headed for Grand Finals.

 

There was competition for spots and I knew that the push for youth and fitness would mean scrutiny on the slow 33-year-old with a bung knee.

 

My coach, who not so long ago was himself an ageing reserves back pocket with two young kids, was sympathetic and understanding.

 

But he was also honest and let me know on the eve of finals that attending both training sessions was a big factor for other members of the selection panel. All season long I’d only been training once a week, mainly so I could make the most of the two-hour window between getting home from work and the kids going to bed.

 

I knew that I wasn’t losing condition by not training on Tuesday. If anything, my body was benefiting from it. But then again, perception.

 

It’s an amusing quirk of local sport that showing your face at Tuesday night training is a sign of professionalism, while debauchery on a Saturday night was simply an amusing source of stories to tell.

 

It did occur to me that some of my younger teammates were getting home from nightclubs at the same time on a Sunday morning I was wading through an icy Port Phillip Bay to nurse my bruises and strains.

 

Maybe I’m just jealous and maybe that obvious generation gap was another sign that it could be time to give it away.

 

Anyway, the sacrifices were made and I trained twice a week for the last month of the season, leaving the family at home while getting what I could out of my creaking body.

 

I made it through to the Grand Final and knew I was privileged to be picked as there were plenty of hard-luck stories around players of a similar vintage to me. No one gets left out of a Grand Final and agrees with the decision but it was obvious which was the better side of 30 to be on if you happened to be on the fringe.

 

It is hard to argue against the investment in youth at the expense of older players but I’ve seen dozens of exciting young players come through the door, only to leave within two years after close to zero contribution to the club’s culture.

 

At the same time, I’ve seen seasoned, loyal, upstanding people who are part of the fabric of a community club be cast aside at the expense of those younger players when it comes to the pointy end of the season.

 

It’s hard to see, especially when it’s happening to close friends but I did have the sense of there but for the grace of God go I.

 

We ended up winning and by a comfortable margin. Personally, I played one of my worst games for the year and let my opponent kick three goals despite the ball barely coming down our end.

 

This would have irked me in any other game but not so much now. I’d finished my career as a premiership player and had also confirmed to myself that I am indeed past it and it’s time to move on.

 

It’s now a few months on from footy season and thanks to joining a gym for the first time ever I’m as fit as I’ve ever been but that’s not quite making me second guess my decision.

 

I won’t miss the cold nights, the corkies, the tight back and the boggy grounds. I won’t miss that split second after going into a pack wondering if all my teeth are still in place or lying in a hospital bed after having part of a limb reconstructed wondering if it was really worth it just to run around a park once a week for no financial gain.

 

My internal organs won’t miss the pre-match cocktail of anti-inflammatories and energy drinks I’d consume just to help me run out four quarters.

 

But I will miss the camaraderie and the competitive outlet. I’ll miss that 20 minutes after a win and the sense of achievement that only comes from dedication, sacrifice, and facing physical fear.

 

I’ll miss congregating with other new dads, joking about the drastic change in our social lives and our increased responsibilities as we all desperately try to cling on to the vestiges of our youth.

 

Mainly I’ll miss having a little society where I can temporarily escape real-life pressures and expectations, where I can enjoy feeling young and stupid and care about things that don’t really matter. I’ll miss being one of the boys.

 

 

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About

Luke Holmesby has played 17 years of suburban footy. He has now retired but is exploring other hobbies to avoid spending time with his family.

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says:

    Hi Luke.

    Love your story and welcome to the Almanac family. In my travels around all things footy in 2015 I discovered Melbourne Seniors, home ground in St Kilda behind the Junction Oval, where old warriors go once out of their local clubs – ages range from 30 to 73 (Ian Shep Shepard). Rules are adjusted – no tackling like the other games, just a bunch of blokes running around still having fun. Shep has retired up North last time I heard. At that young age finally gave it away.

    I am not trying to get you away from your young family – just saying that there are many out there still having short seasons/games and forming a community.

    I’d be like your Dad if you were my son too. It’s hard to watch your babies being roughed up, even voluntarily. You will see for yourself when your girls grow up to play in the AFLW!

    Go Saints

  2. Earl O'Neill says:

    Great piece, Luke, thanks.
    Blokes like you are the heart and soul of Australian sport.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Welcome Luke, great to see the famous Holmesby name in these pages.

  4. Mick Jeffrey says:

    All that’s left is to stay away from those who are inclined to beg you to play again until it’s either their shout at the bar. I wish I could be like you and be retired, but sadly the fact that I had to make up numbers for a social off season basketball comp doesn’t bode well (may want to stay away from that, too tempting to want to go back to something more competitive like footy). Besides I have something else to train for…..

  5. Super Rules is calling you Luke. Training once a week, playing once a fortnight. Great fun.

  6. Welcome Luke. Nice piece.

    It catches up with you pretty quickly. In the last quarter of my final game I split my eyebrow, took myself off and heading to the emergency ward of Flinders hospital I rushed out of the sheds towards the car. A voice called after me, “Hey, Mickey, you’ve left your boots behind!” I heard myself yell back, blood streaming down my cheek, “Keep ’em or bin ’em!” And with that I was retired.

  7. chris bracher says:

    Hi Luke
    Consistent with the Yvette Wroby recommendation ( thanks YW):

    http://www.melbourneaflmasters.com.au

    An eclectic bunch of like-minded warriors. Join Almacker Steve “Snake” Bakerin his comeback….and me on the sidelines (until the mid-season player shortage arises)…. in the purple and gold. Camaraderie, no dickheads, everyone welcome.
    A life without sporting purpose can be put on hold for the next 20 years!

    Chris

  8. bring back the torp says:

    “…Matilda, just like her sister Clara, is the best thing to have happened to me…”.
    The wisdom of the ages.

    Great article. Any relation to Russell Holmesby, football historian?

    You do miss the camaraderie.

    Your comments on the older, borderline playing clubmen’s importance to the team, culture, & long term future of a club are profound. Other side of the coin, though, is that promising younger blokes might leave a club if not getting a game in the one’s -which they “deserve”?

    Finally, sounds like you’re keen to keep fit. You might want to consider non-tackle summer AFL9’s.

    Clubmen like you are the bedrock of community football -and you tend to find more of them in the ammo’s (Controversial comment!)

    Looking forward to your future articles.

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