Warm feeling on a cold day

By Damian O’Donnell

It was mid-winter, the mud was cold and deep, and the rain had a sting to it. It came down on that awkward winter angle where no part of the body is shielded. My footy boots were full of water and my long-sleeve jumper hung shapeless, like a clock face in a Salvador Dali painting. I could feel parts of my fingers, but the tips were frozen and red, and the cut on my knee was throbbing and bleeding freely. Somehow this was comforting. So long as I could see blood flowing meant I didn’t have hypothermia yet.

It was a magnificent day for the game of the season.

The two tribes were gathered in their half-time huddles. Two teams representing two proud schools. We stood close, shoulder to shoulder, resembling emperor penguins with backs to the Arctic winter. We muttered encouragement to each other. I was getting pats of encouragement on the back and hearing “Keep it up” and “Great stuff” from the senior players, and rain was trickling down my back.

A collection of intrepid parents had picked its way across the water and slop and looked in from the back of the gathering. The parents stood under umbrellas like the stone gods on Easter Island. Those who hadn’t joined us in the middle were sitting in cars around the boundary with fogged-up windows and windscreen wipers on intermittent. The Goons were probably playing on the radio.

Our coach, Ray Keane, urged us on with his recurrent message:

“Kick the ball looooong!”

Ray was a great communicator. Harsh when harshness was required, critical when criticism was necessary, and encouraging when he saw a bloke put his body in where angels fear to tread. His assistant was also a pretty handy bloke to have around: Garry Wilson, the Fitzroy champion who should have won at least one Brownlow.

Ray was busy pointing to various players with a finger as wide as it was long.

“You’ve done nothin’… and you’ve done nothin’”…,” he said as he went around the muddy faces in front of him.  Meanwhile, Garry Wilson was busy patting blokes on the back, having a quiet chat.

“Run”, he said to me, “When you get the ball, run.”

I felt like saying that if my boots didn’t weigh about 10 kilos each, and my jumper wasn’t as heavy as Ned Kelly’s armour, I might do just that.

We were playing this mob on their own dung heap. They had the local knowledge to keep the ball away from those parts of the ground where the water was a metre deep. At times the ball had disappeared under the mud and players momentarily stopped. Eventually the tip of the ball was seen above the water line and blokes threw themselves at it like Harry Butler catching a crocodile.

I glanced at the scoreboard. It was a point the difference: 2.9 to them, 2.10 to us.

“C’mon Friars”.

We broke from the huddle.

The umpire reminded us to keep our eyes on the ball and tossed it up to commence the third quarter. Expecting a high-leaping ruck contest on a day as wet as this is a bit like expecting an elephant to jump, so when the ball was thrown up the two big fellas collided and the ball spilt to the waiting pack.

On this particular occasion it squirted out sideways, slid off about three pairs of mud encrusted hands, and straight into my arms. With Garry Wilson’s words ringing in my ears I ran.

Remarkably no one tackled me from behind. There was only one opponent between me and centre-half-forward. I stepped around him fairly easily. Or so I thought.

The fist that crashed into my nose was swung with all the control of a wrecking ball in a demolition yard. Whack! I think they call these wide-arm swings a “coat-hanger”. Upon connection, my feet headed in a northerly direction and my head flung southward into the mud and slime. Back first.

Freezing-cold rain, mud and blood joined forces like a well-constructed pizza. I had one with the lot. My nose was numb, I felt the juice of past generations flowing down my chin, and had a magnificent mouthful of muddy water.

But funnily enough this was a great moment because I was a youngster in this side and hadn’t been sure if I had the respect of the year-12 blokes. Being the shortest in the team was also not helping my confidence. Did I really belong with these blokes? In this jumper?

In a few seconds I got my answer.

My first memory is looking up from the mud and seeing Butch flying through the air like a capeless superman, arms out stretched, hands in that “I’m going to strangle you, you bastard” grip, and heading straight for the guilty party. They came together and disappeared from view into an ever-increasing melee.

What followed was a cacophony of fists connecting with cheeks, jaws, stomachs and kidneys. The wet slapping sound of skin on skin was everywhere. Blokes wrestled each other to the ground and rolled around like baby hippos at play. It was quite some brawl. The McClelland brothers acquitted themselves very well, as did Butch.

Whitefriars went on to win. I can’t recall the scores — it was probably 3.15 to 3.14 — but what was important for me was that the senior players had welcomed me to the side with muddy grins, bloody mouths, swollen noses and red cheeks. I was part of the team.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. johnharms says


    The Dali clock reference is superb. Love your piece.


  2. Damain O'Donnell says

    JTH – thanks for the comment. One of my older brothers who was very arty used to spend hours reproducing Salvador Dali clocks in charcoal on reflex.

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