Season 38

 

I’ve had three special moments in cars. Lots of them, actually. But three stand out.

 

First, not 20, a mate and I were playing pool in the city, bored, and decided to go for a drive. A day-and-a-half later we were on the desert’s edge, nothing more than the clothes on our back. We drove in, everything gravel, sand and horizons. It was magic.

 

After a few hours we found a crossroads. Slamming the car into full-doughnuts-lock, I asked my mate to count to 20. When he reached that number, I straightened it out, and we drove down the track the car was facing.

 

The second, decades later, was simply driving with my wife and baby. Just a moment of clarity, how perfect it was. Motion, them. Us.

 

The third was today.

 

We’re back in the Otway Rangers for a few months, while I help a mate build his house on a remote part of the Shipwreck Coast. Where it all started for me. Where I first played for Otway Districts.

 

Everything before then was pretend. Ignorance.

 

We drove along, then down from the ridge, to Colac. Elena and Cielo dropped me at the team bus, then pushed on to the city for her work. The bus took us in the opposite direction for 1½ hours of back-roads, to pretty much nowhere. It was beautiful; the lazy motion before a game; not having to drive; knowing we had time. Watching hundreds of kilometres of volcanic rock fences, not even able to imagine the hardship that went into making them.

 

I thought about my family. We’re not insured, there’s no safety net, just what I make through my own hard labour. But here I am, 52, with a baby, heading off for season 38 – another adventure.

 

Pain has never stopped me, the twists and dents in every limb testament to repeatedly coming back from injury too early. Nothing’s for nothing. Footy has given me the world – stories, friendships, a revelry of life. I’ll forever be grateful. But I knew it then, and know it now its here. You pay tomorrow.

 

Money has never stopped me. I have said no to jobs, careers, even fulltime football writing, when they demanded I give up my chaotic Saturday safe place, out on an oval.

 

I’ve taken the worst paying jobs, the more gut-busting the better. Just to challenge myself, like I do with footy.

 

Bodies were made to be used, to be thrown at things. So throw them.

 

650+ games and counting. The only thing that might stop me is the love of my family.

 

**********************

 

The Otway football/netball club is special. A small oval in a barely town, surrounded by eucalypts and rolling hills that climb into fog and drizzle-set mountains. Always full of characters, hard men, tough woman, brilliant, giving families, no matter the generation.

 

These things that are instinct, like baby turtles hatch and clamber for water.

 

My wife’s Venezuelan, with no footy background, or interest, really. Yet on Thursdays she’s been coming to training, just so our baby girl can run crazy with all the other kids, knock about the netballers, sisters, mothers, fathers, footballers. Everything casual white noise. A family club, in all its glory, eating a $10 meal together. Toys in the far corner, a sneaky beer for Papa, chips and gravy.

 

It’s funny. Geelong played Essendon the week before in Colac. I went to help the club raise coin selling chips and burgers, but the game itself? Apart from the cheer squads, nobody cared. We watched a bit, but, mostly, caught up with people we used to play against, or with, or drink with, or still play against, or with.

 

Those blokes out on the oval were the elite, incredibly honed machines, of exquisite fitness, practiced and natural skill, within the gears of modern coaching, within a professional framework, within an industry. I admire them all, but didn’t know one of them.

 

There was not one ounce of personal involvement.

 

Good luck to them! And their brilliance. But give me a Thursday night on the track at dinky little Otway. Give me the three raffle tickets for $5, good greetings and tall stories.

 

I barrack for every one of our players, on the track, oval, and wherever life takes them.

 

I want to go to battle with them! Prove myself to the next generation. Not that I’m the best – I never was. That I have a go, that I have worth. Can contribute, and in that, speak to them as equals.

 

There are very few ex-teammates I don’t adore, but there is a huge difference between being a current player, in the middle of something everybody looks into – an oval – and sharing memories.

 

There’s a feeling of worth, to come off the paddock exhausted, spent, all guns fired. That in itself, beyond scorelines, is a victory.

 

But last year, playing in a reserves final in Tassie, I copped my fifteenth concussion. I know that’s an average of only four per normal career. Acceptable or not? I never gave a shit. Footy keeps me fit and young and contact hardened, not to mention socially active. All good things for my family. Yet, it’s also because of them I’m starting to think had about the concussions…

 

Memory farts, name slips, jumbling of words, shaky hand after gut-busting work, are any of these things those 15 egg-lumps catching up with me? Or just age, so stop whining?

 

When I broke my back in three places two years ago playing in, basically, an Army league in Townsville, Queensland, the doctor told me my back was already stuffed. 30+ years of hard, minimum wage, mostly lifting jobs for a tall man had left several problems. Erosion, fusion, bulges, something. Ironically, he told me work kept the muscles around it holding everything together. That if I stop, it will all seize up. Catch 22!

 

Still, I wanted to get the bugger who kneed me there, breaking it, so played five weeks later!

 

Pride.

 

Yes, footy keeps me young, yet one more concussion will see this huge void enter my life. I’ll put the red pill away for family.

 

I thought all this while the bus rolled on, through one dot town after another.

 

Every game from here on in could be my last, and I’m no-longer fit enough to finish in glory.

 

I wanted, family free, to run out at least one more time with the club that, despite our lack of success, has given me more pride than any other.

 

Timmy Pekin once spent 1 ½ hours bagging out Robert Walls to me, then when I asked the 200+, two club, VFL vegan bush legend who is best ever coach was, he replied; “Oh, Wallsy!”

 

Are you serious?

 

“Absolutely. He got me at that time. I was pliable. Learning everything. And there he was, teaching me.

 

I loved Dodges Ferry and Lilydale and Curra, even AJAX, but I feel the same way about Otway as Timmy did about Walls.

 

 

**********************

 

 

The other team only had 18. On their home patch. Including the obligatory wiry old bloke who could still play, but in a higher standard a lifetime ago must have been something special. The little kid with the helmet on in the forward pocket. The loose unit in the back pocket who necked a beer before the game. And the overweight ruckman who couldn’t jump, but killed it by dropping into the hole and never once handballing.

 

They asked for players, so I put my hand up and ran out in different colours. The numbers the Otway coach had on the ground, and on the bench, are the club’s future. I was just happy to serve. Be out there.

 

Otway won easy. A good, rare win lately.

 

I played terrible for the other mob.

 

Even in my prime I was never fast, could never leap. Ordinary skills. Just kept working. Just read it well enough and stood my ground. Courage under the ball was, really, my only attribute. And today it was very lacking. I flew to avoid getting hurt.

 

After the game I had a corker lazy drive back with my great mate, Jack Daniels (not real name). We talked about each other’s kids, roughly the same age. His is a dead set ripper. Loves the footy. Jack just cuts him loose, letting him play with other kids, climb all over playgrounds and players.

 

But I kept thinking about The Hawk – a ruckman who dominated for Simpson back in the day. A mountain; strong, tough, steely. Could play, could hurt you. Could hurt your rovers. Each time our proud bush clubs clashed – us built around logging, them around dairy and spud farming – I couldn’t wait to take on his fearsome challenge!

 

Then, after a decade of bumping into the Hawk, I saw him, in his 40s, play in the reserves one year, not holding marks, leaping already worried about where and how he’d land.

 

Just like that, over summer, he’d lost it.

 

He continued to serve his club and community brilliantly! Played ressies, ran for the seniors. A warrior not just for himself, but those around him. Yet, bang…! Gone as a footballer. The mighty Hawk! He had always seemed immortal.

 

That game never left me.

 

And, last year, I fit into its frame nicely. The coach got two other blokes to fill my positions, just about the time I was starting to worry about elbows and landings. Ego wasn’t enough. Playing well no longer pushed me through fear.

 

“Just a form slump, just confidence…” I told myself.

 

Who knows, but with a kid, maybe I just don’t have the fire? Maybe, for her, I no longer want to break bones and spend copious time in hospital. Certainly, with her, I don’t find the time to train as much as I used to.

 

Or, maybe I just have to toughen up again? Go harder at getting to where I can again go harder.

 

And if one more concussion ends it, it ends it.

 

I thought about the Hawk while cruising with a great mate, talking about family.

 

 

**********************

 

Meanwhile, I knew the boys on the bus would be getting sloppy.

 

Jack and I decided to meet them at some local cricket finals, half way back to Colac. It was sensational. His ute wound us down through lake-filled volcanoes towards rolling hills pinned together by two ovals, each with a grand final on it. Each surrounded by cars! Cars, utes, more cars and utes, people, KIDS! Kids and cars and people and kids everywhere!

 

Cricket in the Otways, in Tropical Queensland, in all of Tassie, has always baffled me. A group of blokes and teenagers, killing perfectly great summer’s days in front of no one. Yet this was life, glorious! The Div 2 final had fatties, various ethnicities, a 4-foot man behind the stumps. It just reeked to me of a love of something. Something their families and communities were sharing in.

 

Sport at its finest.

 

 

**********************

 

Jack was going home with his kid. It’s not often the wife, baby and I are apart, so, stuff it, I got on the bus again! The plan was to NOT have a big night that leads to two days without sleep, and un-guessable final destinations. Just to pocket a few memories; of when I was my teammates; of this batch of teammates. To observe the miracle.

 

They were rotten! Happy!

 

At first I looked around, everybody carrying on, doing just plain stupid things, smashing about, laughing, bronco riding in the isle, hilarious piss stops… And, there it was, my life before my wife: Bloke’s World. Tough bush jobs with men, then a few drinks in loggers’ pubs with men. Footy. Logging communities, drink driving dirty bush tracks to forgotten pubs buried in forgotten towns.

 

I loved it, yet the loneliness of it was killing me.

 

I have no desire to go back.

 

The boys were being louts, hurting no one. Having the time of their lives, forming mateships that will last forever, memories to build a bank with. Reveling in everything! Footy gave them that. By training, by getting on a bus and putting their bodies on the line in central nowhere. By playing one of the world’s hardest games without quarter. They’d earned it.

 

We stopped at the “Fart beer pub”, they called it, because the lines were always dirty. They shouted each other everything, stuffed their faces with dim sims and the jukebox with songs! They played terrible pool and tried to recruit some road workers who didn’t want a bar of them. They startled the locals awake and ruled the universe.

 

One of the players, full of beans, kept trying to get me to stay for the long haul, as if the bus might just drive forever. Pubs and piss stops and the odd nightclub on the way. My momentum was up, the Bundy cans were tasting super… But good comedians know to get off stage while the jokes are still funny.

 

“Just one night…” one, drunken voice inside me said. “You can’t live in two worlds at once,” said another.

 

The bus driver is a handy player and great clubman. When I told him I’d decided to gun for my family in Melbourne, he discretely made sure this busload of Romans got back onto its chariot in time for me to make the last train.

 

 

**********************

 

On the way up the coach and I had talked forever about all the great players we had played against and with. It felt brilliant, easy, throwing about familiar names, giving and getting a story or two with each one. He’s seen some ripper miles.

 

On the way back, all we had to do was give each other a knowing nod beneath the chaos. The one that said; This is what it’s about! Teammates. Earned adventures. Earned happiness.

 

The last twenty minutes back to town was the best ever. Top 3, easy! Made all the more better for stepping off at the station, knowing only 4 more hours of two trains, a bus and a cab, would see me in, the same day, finish my journey from rural Victoria to my own little family, who I don’t want to spend a single night without. Not ever.

 

As the bus pulled out I called; “You bunch of degenerates!” to Bronx cheers, that faded into the ether.

 

 

**********************

 

3 ½ hours later, I didn’t feel the satisfaction of earned pain from my game when in the cab, because earlier in the day I hadn’t gone in hard enough. An awful, new sensation. But up to me to rectify, or fade away.

 

These things always feel the worst straight after a game. Defeat. Underperformance. Fortunately, the bus ride had righted my bad game mood 6 ½ days sooner than normal. And, by just before 11pm, I was greeted in the doorway of a South Eastern suburb of Melbourne by the woman who means everything to me.

 

Knowing, somewhere out there, beyond Colac, the boys were still going strong without me.

 

 

If you want to read more from Matt Zurbo, click here.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. New words from Old Dog are food for the soul, this time a wonderful meandering escape over lunch.

    Perfect.

  2. Great read. Thank you.

  3. Malby_Dangles says

    What a ripper read! Yes much of this I can identify with in sport and in other parts of my life. For me things changed when I had a family to help look after (and for them to look after me).
    Beautiful stuff, mate!!

  4. Shane Reid says

    Thanks Matt Zurbo, what a wonderful piece of writing.

    Love this line “I barrack for every one of our players, on the track, oval, and wherever life takes them.”

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    Cracking read as always Matt, great to have you back in my neck of the woods, a wonderful place!.

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks to all. Good to be back, Colin.

  7. Kerry Bourke says

    I loved reading it all Matt. Brings back memories of my early country netball (and football) days (without the drinking!)

  8. Matt Zurbo says

    Fantastic Kerry! And well done on your African venture! Incredibly impressive in these troubled times. Proud to know both you and Francis!

  9. Peter Fuller says

    Matt,
    I came to this late, but it’s just so beautifully evocative. You have a great gift of self-knowledge. My old man used to say, it’s OK to bullshit to others, but never bullshit to yourself. Your honesty about facing the threat of retirement, and its motivation – that superb family unit you’ve established makes my heart sing.
    I don’t usually buy food or drink at the footy, preferring to take my own. At the AFL my motive is that I don’t like the rip-off prices and I hate queueing. However, you’ve made me glad that I sprung for a hamburger from the Otway tent at the Colac practice match between Essendon and Geelong. I’m disappointed I missed you.

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