Short Story: Grace

By Richard Holt

“Good onya, Davo.”

The old backman looked up and smiled.

Dave Sendon had been around during the glory days when the Reds had reached three grand finals and snared two premierships in five years. The team had been the most feared in the league back then. Wozza’s Warriors, they’d been called and their coach, Warren Parker, ensured that they never went out onto the field with any expectation other than that they would leave it as victors.

Dave had been the young star in that side — a schoolboy plucked from the relative obscurity of the “twos” after big Con Kaszic’s knee crumpled. He’d grasped the opportunity, beating a string of better-credentialed opponents and creating a place for himself in the tight-knit back-line that was the meanest in the comp.

That was fifteen years ago. The other Warriors were gone now — Phil Costa, his last comrade, had retired two years earlier. Dave just kept going round. The old barrackers remembered. For years he’d been sacrificing the statistics that, with his skills, he could have collected, in favour of a disciplined defensive game. For a decade and a half he’d been an uncompromising team player. But most of the young fans just saw him as a dinosaur. He lumbered around the park, doing the hard, unrewarding things in the hope that the youngsters around him could learn a thing or two about the work that’s required to win, for the team had lost its winning ways and now lingered near the foot of the ladder.

Dave considered it an honourable thing, having tasted the fruits of success, to stick around now that that fruit had dropped and the cold winter of mediocrity — rebuilding they called it these days — had set in. And he loved the game. It gave him a purpose in life like nothing else could, apart from the two small girls and their mother, who waited each week for him on the sidelines.

He lived his life as he played his footy, with a minimum of fuss. He liked to get up in the morning, kiss Jan, and make breakfast for the kids and then spend the rest of the day preparing his ageing body for its next contest.

On game day, when he trudged from the ground, which he did these days even after the occasional win, the cries of the fans were for his younger team-mates. They had fancy haircuts and wore fancy boots. They had their pictures on footy cards and their stories in the paper. And they had within them, even if it was more a hope than a probability, the capacity to lift the club again. The teenagers who crowded around the race would sometimes offer Dave a polite clap as he passed them, or, if some young forward had kicked a few on him, give him their less salutary advice. He took most of it for granted. And he knew that each time they played at home, there’d be at least one fan willing to give him his due.

“Good onya, Davo.”

Usually that was all — “Good onya, Davo” — and sometimes, if he’d had a good day, “great game”.

She sat three rows back, just to the right of the race. Dave didn’t know her name but he’d always give her a wave in response to her encouragement, as he straggled past. He liked the way it made her grand-motherly face brighten. And sometimes she’d shout it again when he waved. “Good onya, Davo.”

Halfway through the season Dave began to wonder whether he’d saddle up again for another year. There’d still be a spot for him, most likely. The coach said he still valued his experience. The young defenders relied on him. But lately he’d taken a few knocks. His knees and hips protested. He took all week to recover, only to punish them again.

Dave wasn’t scared of retirement, really. But he knew it would make things different and he didn’t know what that would mean. By July the team had plunged to the bottom of the ladder—two wins and nine losses and a woeful percentage that reflected a couple of abject thrashings. Dave began to wonder what it was all for. It had become harder to front up, week after week. They had to take on the Chargers next, at home at least, but he didn’t look forward to the game at all.

The Chargers were not so much a footy club, in the way clubs had been when Dave started playing, as an enterprise. They’d been born out of corporate necessity and possessed, on the ground, a passionless efficiency that Dave could not abide. They had a pack of tall forwards fed by a fleet-footed midfield that brought the ball in low and fast and often. He’d have relished the challenge if, when the ball was at the other end, they’d ever have relaxed enough to share a quip or two. But with the Chargers it was all mind games and bluster. Their full-forward, Scotty Peters, was the worst of all. He’d stage for frees. He’d run to the wing and back for the hell of it just so an old bloke couldn’t catch his breath. He’d strut like a pony and preen like a peacock. And he was good enough to get away with it.

Nobody gave the Reds a chance. Even when it started raining, which evened things up a little, most of the home fans were wishing for nothing more than a good game — being competitive.

The race was covered in mud and slush as the team ran out into the drizzle. “Good onya, Davo.” Dave smiled and gave his loyal fan a wave. After a short warm up routine and the tossing of the coin — Reds kicking into a stiff breeze — he trotted down to take his place next to Peters. The youngster immediately ran to centre half-forward. Dave stuck with him. As the ball was bounced he grabbed a handful of jumper to prevent his opponent from getting away, and held tight as Peters chopped at the backman’s arm, trying to free himself. Umpire, Bernie Flack, who was Dave’s vintage, ran past. “Let ‘im go, Dave,” he warned. He was no fan of Peters’ fancy style and seemed willing to ignore small indiscretions when the ball was not around. Peters flapped his arms indicating his right to a free. “You can earn your kicks like everyone else, lad,” the umpire muttered and continued on his way to the opposite forward flank, where the Reds had managed to push the ball via a series of untidy scrambles.

From a throw in sixty-five out, lanky Reds ruckman Steve Dellarosa took the ball and ducked a high tackle. He swung a speculative kick to the top of the goalsquare. The unpredictable trajectory of his mongrel punt somehow bamboozled a pack of players. It found a clear path between their groping hands, took an advantageous bounce, skidded once in the mud of the square and slid over the line. The Reds fans went wild. Luck was with them. At least until the next goal they’d be in front. As a fan of a struggling club you take what you can get.

Dave relinquished his hold on Peters’ guernsey with just a little reminder. Peters went down on his haunches. Dave trotted back towards the goalsquare.

From the restart the Chargers took possession in space on the outer wing. Peters led instinctively into a hole left in front of him by his well-drilled team-mates. But Dave was playing him from in front and got enough of his body into the contest to throw the forward off-balance. The wily old defender swooped on the ball as Peters scrambled to regain his feet. He handballed twenty metres to little Col Parker on the run and in space. Parker took a bounce, then another. He evaded a tackle then unloaded from just inside fifty. Suddenly the Reds were two goals up.

A confidence that had eluded them for weeks returned. They continued to play better than they had all year and, aided by poor kicking by their opponents, went to the huddle five goals clear. An upset of the highest order appeared to be on the cards.

With the wind in the second quarter they extended their lead to thirty-eight points. The Chargers looked sluggish. The young Reds were playing with rare panache. They were taking the first option, trusting their teammates in tight to keep the ball moving. They were using the corridor instead of the illusory “safety” of the wings. They were marking the wet ball one-grab, and if it spilled there were players in support to pounce on it. Dave Sendon had kept Peters to two ineffective kicks. The gun forward had lost his composure. Sendon felt great as he ran off for the long break. “Good onya, Davo,” came the familiar cry as he turned to go up into the rooms.

A different Chargers team emerged after the break, focussed, and determined to turn the game into a more physical contest. They threw every extra kilogram of their bigger, harder bodies into every clash. They took every opportunity to punish the young Reds with knees and jabs in close and with bone-jarring tackles that pushed the limits of the game’s laws. Gradually they asserted a control over the flow of the game. If not for the efforts of Dave Sendon and his less experienced backline peers, they might have run over the home side. But, with Dave taking the space in front of Peters and buffeting and scrounging for every ball that came into the fifty, they managed to hold on to a twenty-point margin going into the last quarter.

The wind had dropped and the rain was sheeting down when the players dispersed for the final term. The challenge for the weary Reds would be made greater by injuries to Dellarossa and rover Curtis. Once more the Chargers flagged their intentions with a series of crunching tackles in the muddy centre square that led to a free-kick and a quick transfer to the leading Peters. Dave Sendon couldn’t make a contest of it and Peters slotted his first for the afternoon. It seemed that the momentum was shifting and Dave suddenly felt all of his thirty-four years.

Clean possessions were hard to get and goals even harder as the weather closed in, but when Peters kicked his second at the twenty-minute mark the difference was just seven points. A couple of rushed behinds later and, with only a minute or two remaining, the Chargers were within a kick of victory. The Reds hadn’t scored a goal for a quarter and a half and didn’t seem capable of finding one late. It would be up to the defenders to protect the slender lead or to let it be snatched away.

At the twenty-nine minute mark Dave Sendon watched a scrum of players on the wing and saw, in the gloom, the ball squeeze forward to space in the pocket. Chargers rover Brandon Parkes had a break on his man and ran hard to take possession. Peters doubled back to make a target in front of goal. Sendon chose not to go with him. Instead he summoned a sprint that sent mud bursting up from his heels. He made a heroic lunge for the loose ball just as Parkes came through. To the roar of the home crowd, old Dave Sendon’s fist got to the ball in the knick of time, diverting it towards the safety of the boundary line.

As the ball was sent spinning back into play Dave ran back to the unmarked Peters. Parkes took possession from the ruck contest and slung the ball goalwards. The siren sounded. Dave Sendon reached the top of the goal-square at full tilt but out of position. He swivelled to spot the incoming kick. Peters took the space between the defender and the fall of the ball, which bounced three metres or so in front of the pair and slithered towards the goals. Peters bore back onto Sendon, willing the ball through. With his arms restrained Dave struck out with a hopeful boot under the flailing forward as the two tumbled towards the muddy turf.

In the confusion of the moment he really had no idea whether he’d managed to get boot to ball. He’d felt something, he reckoned, but it could have been just his opponent’s hand. Peters seemed sure, though. As the kick slithered through between the goalposts he leapt to his feet and raced to embrace his rover. The visiting Chargers supporters erupted. The goal umpire sought out the field umpire to signal all clear. The umpire, who had taken a position near the point-post at the throw in, sprinted towards the goal. A quick consultation between the two men in white ensued and the goal umpire raised one finger and indicated a touched ball. By the width of the nugget on Dave Sendon’s boots the Reds had held on. They’d beaten the ladder leaders.

Dave found himself in the middle of a pack of youngsters who could barely believe what they had done. The home crowd celebrated as only the supporters of a lowly club can, with screams and tears and cheers and embraces between strangers.

It took long minutes to clear the ground. Dave had to negotiate a waiting television interviewer — not since his 300th game had he been the centre of such attention. But at last he came to the wing near the rooms. The trainers and water-carriers who helped out every week were there to greet the victorious Reds players. Head trainer Dougie Phelan, who’d been around since the “warrior” days, wrapped the ageing backman in a bear hug. They deserved to share this moment. “We’ll sing the old song loud and strong today, eh Davo?”


Dave stopped suddenly. He looked across the milling crowd to a place a few rows back. “Shit.” He broke away, vaulted the old fence into the stand calling on the startled fans there to give him room. “Dougie, get the doc,” he shouted, “quick!”

There are many ways that the emotion of a win like that can manifest itself. No one had thought twice about the old barracker who had slumped forward in her seat a minute or two after the siren rang. It seemed a gesture of reverie and exhaustion. Others scattered around the ground had retreated into similar poses where they could let the quivering satisfaction of the win wash over them.

As the celebrations of the rapturous thousands continued, Dave Sendon gently lifted Gracie Arnold from her seat. She was limp and unresponsive. Her body was small in his powerful, battle-hardened arms. He cradled her across the heads of the fans on the fence and passed her to the waiting trainers who had quickly brought a stretcher across. With calm urgency the doc steered them through into the rooms and made a space in a small ante-room. He called instructions to onlookers as he quickly assessed her condition. Dougie whispered to him that the ambulance was on its way.

Dave pushed a gathering circle of players back into the main warm-up area. “Come on, boys. The lady’s had a turn, let the Doc do his job.” He passed Dougie an enquiring look.

“Doc’s done what he can, mate, and the ambos are on their way,” the trainer shrugged. “Lucky you got to her when you did, I reckon. Good onya, Davo.”

Three paramedics rushed into the rooms. Dave showed them where to find the patient. He motioned to his old mate. “C’mon, Dougie, they’re gonna start.”

As the two of them wandered back to join their teammates Dave spotted Jan and the girls amongst a throng of supporters. They were beaming. Little Rachel broke and ran to him, followed by big sister Clare. Dave scooped them up and carried them to the circle of players and trainers and coaches gathering in the middle of the room. Doug chanted his little intro and the first discordant notes of the club song rang out.

Leave a Comment