Off Season Odyssey – Part 28: Starting Late

Starting Late.



If this Off Season lasted forever I’d hang around at each town, each truck stop and city, until I really got to know the people, the place.

I’d stay until that person who I was sure, given time, would be a good mate, became a good mate.

If time could be bent, or splintered, I’d play for every team I’ve kicked or drank with on the way. Every damn one! Deserts, coasts, mountains, I’d fall in love at every one, with every one.

The word dodges, and slaps and teases me, as I push through the nation, working one crappy job after another to afford the next stop, bits and pieces of my ute, money and life falling off along the way. If.

If I had more time, I’d meet every back pocket. Every wife and groupie. Every female footy player. Every bloke who runs water. Every player from the Big Time. Meet every small town mate he left behind. The ones who say, and cling to the fact: “I whopped his arse in Under 12s.”

How many blokes are playing AFL, anyway? 500-plus? 800? Enough. Geez, I must have driven past some legends and battlers!


Jonathan Brown, would have been great to meet. I used to live on the same end-of-anywhere mountain track as his larger-than-life granddad, Corker. Jonathan is a credit to his family, and an embodiment of it at the same time. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather sink piss with. We’d know the same people from Warrnambool, the ranges and coast. The same footy legends and loose units.

One beer, and you know it would end up a mighty weekend.

Amon Buchanon would have been gold. I played footy with his oldest sibling on the Victorian west coast. Every Buchanon brother is the best knock-about of blokes you’ll ever, ever meet! All 62 of them. All as likeable as their mum and dad.


My ute and I bumped into Dermie at a petrol station in Yass. That’s the way it should happen. Top bloke to chat to over a bowser, by the way.

I’m just picking up and letting stories fall off me on the way. The level they play at doesn’t matter a damn. It’s all football. It’s all Australia.

Still, I break the rules for Ben Hudson.


I’m not entirely sure why, either.

I like watching him play, sure enough. Barrack for him more than anybody. He goes in hard. Plays strong. Has that mongrel, without the peacock strut. If he wants a beard, he’ll grow a damn beard.

I like the footballer.

The footballer doesn’t seem that big, yet takes on giants. Wins the hard ball when it hits the ground. I like the way he grips the pill, spreads his elbows and shakes free a pack. I like the way he wasn’t drafted until he was 24. That made him an instant underdog. I like the way he played for the Doggies. An underdog team. On telly, there’s a damn lot to like about the footballer.

I guess, maybe, I want to meet the person.


Between training runs with a team tucked in behind Movie World and shifts in a factory, I ring the Lions. Two days later I meet Ben in a café buried in the Gabba’s shadow. The whole block is. It’s brilliant. There’s no parking around the stadium, no parks. Just working class weatherboard houses and back streets and BANG, a towering lasagne slice of 1970s grandstands, then houses again.

This oval-shaped slab of dreams and national glory.

“Yeah, caffeine hits are my one indulgence,” Ben tells me, necking lattes.

“What?” I say, distracted by his height.

In person he’s like a normal person, but bigger. No donk, or monster. No lurching Sandilands. No Brogan, 90% chin. No big Monkhurst hands. I gotta admit, it’s a little weird for some reason. Like he’s average height, but my eyes are all funny! It gets me all toey for a kick. Size like that makes me want to take on a player.

We trade stories.

“Yeah, I began up here, with basketball, but the further I got with footy, the more ambitious I became,” he says. “My Dad was a champ back in Victoria. I was always going to go down and have a crack at it, at some level, at some stage. Though I never expected Adelaide.”

It seems like, with his height and ability, opportunity’s followed him, and each time he’s gone “Oh, okay,” and gritted his teeth and taken it.


Ben has a great way of lounging when he talks. Everything’s big grins and lazy arms and legs. It’s like he wants to be amused and amazed and entertained and enlightened. All the while he’s either leaning forward or back, like a lounge lizard, turning a shitty little café seat into a sofa.

“Did starting late help you?” I ask.

“Who knows?” he says.

Yet here he is, still playing when most others have broken down or moved on. Retired, carried off, a whole club, a community club, thanking his mother for the rabbits. Then dragged back, once more into the brink, a full lap of a continent and fifteen years from where it all started. One of the true veterans, looking in his mid twenties, invincible. Still giving his opponents lip, all game, every game, even if it sometimes comes back to bite him.

Still loving it.

“The ones that take themselves seriously are the easiest to put off,” he smiles. “You’d have to ask them what I say, though.”

Again, there’s that different attitude. Too many of the blokes we watch, the men, have been in an earnest, often humourless, system since they were young boys.

“I was lucky in that I studied first. I’m a qualified physiotherapist. These kids are training and at footy meetings and playing 6 ½ days a week. You spend five times longer studying your game than you do playing it. They don’t have time for anything else. No chance to build a real life outside footy. Or for when their footy is over.”

I listen to him talk, from the heart, about how starting late gave him time to work more, for less, and I know it helped him. That every bloody thing about his seems easy, but he thinks, has values, believes in things.

“What do you miss most about the suburban footy?” I ask.

“That half hour after the game,” he tells me.

“We won a flag in my last year at Mt. Gravatt, and later, on dusk, just the players walked back onto the ground, no-one else around, put the cup in the middle and stood in a circle. Then we took turns telling each other what that moment, that victory meant to us, as people, and mates. I’ll never forget it. There was some powerful stuff.”

I get it, straight away.

One of the simple joys of last year, for me, of conceding to the Twos, was to sit in the bird-shit-stained, stripped bare wooden shed with half the team, boots off, still in our footy gear, taking out time, talking shit, as if we had all the time in the world, while from outside, we were framed by the echoes of the senior boys, fighting for mud and glory.

Fuck yeah, we’d earned that nothing time! As a group. From everything, even footy. It was in the things we didn’t say that made the after game so goddamn timeless.

“You don’t get that in the AFL,” Ben says. “You don’t get the chance. To just sit and share that feeling of mateship. Straight off, there are cameras in the song huddle and stretches and team meetings and the moment’s gone. I even miss beer with the opposition.”

Then he gives me a wry grin. A thing of magic.

“But what’s good about footy at this level is amazing!”


As we part, he tells me it was great to meet, and next time we should hook up for sure. Do something real. It’s bonza of him to say and mean it, but I’m a wood cutter who lives on a mountain in Nowhere Tasmania.

“Next time, anything, call me,” he says.

“Good luck this year,” I tell him.

Then Ben Hudson give a tell. Nails it, at the last.

“Yeah,” he grins. “I hope to provide ya with a few more games of drama.”

Not votes, not wins. Not B.O.G.s even though those things are what he’s implying. Drama. The bloke ain’t no veteran, not really. His still loves it!

And will when he finally retires to a lower standard. When he fully finishes what, by then, will be close to a 20 year circle.


I think, if you were mates with Ben, he’d be the best bloke in the world. Smart, a sense of perspective, and a total ratbag’s streak. Always looking to laugh. Always thinking.

But I’m not his mate, as much as we tried to pretend, in one crammed arvo, otherwise. He has somewhere else he has to be, and I have a date with a mining town in outback Queensland.

I’m just another bloke passing through. So is he. Both of us ruled by ifs and hurried by time.

At least on this meeting.


I’ll still be barracking for ya no matter where I end up, Ben Hudson. If I had that bit more height, that lot more everything, I might have been you.

The best underdog in the AFL, easy.


Thanks for saying g’day to me.

Very Brisbane!


  1. Big bastard retires leaving us with no ruck men worthy of playing for the doggies then comes outta retirement to play for those pricks in Queensland!! Bastard!!! But good luck all the same. Break a leg! Haha

  2. Matt Zurbo says

    Harsh. Haha…!

  3. Andrew Weiss says

    Thanks for the article Matt. Ben will be a good pick up for Brisbane. Your article sums up what unfortunately professionalism has done to the AFL. Young lads bairly out of school spending more time analysisng how they played, how they should of played, how they were one millimetre out of position so for the next week they have to practice that over and over agin just so they get it right the next time, rather than enjoying what footy is all about just playing the game!!

    Time and time agian we see these players that only get their start in the AFL at the age of 24 -26 being more well rounded, more mature in thier approach about what footy is all about.

    David PArkin had it right all those years ago when he insisted that his players had to have some other interests (other than tweeting and playstation) outside the football club including studying or doing paert time work so that they were more balanced individuals.

    This is something that the AFL definitely needs to more seriously look at.

  4. love the underdog!, love the drama!

  5. Matt Zurbo says

    Yeah, Andrew, just had a morning with a very famous bloke and we discussed that. Him and Parkin were the last of the AFL coaches to have day jobs. Both insist it helped them as people and as coaches. Yet both copped flack for it. It’s a tricky one.

    Pod, Michell, Hudson, they all seem like strong individuals. Solid characters.

    But so is Sheedy, who has lived for coaching from the age of 25. So is Judd. Still, I find myself like those ‘late bloomers’!!

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    liking those late bloomers.

    Love you, #22. How is work in Africa? Teaching any locals how to kick a footy? Doing any scouting?

  7. John Harms says

    There’s a bit of Henry Lawson in you Old Dog.

  8. Zurbs your quote “One of the simple joys of last year, for me, of conceding to the Twos, was to sit in the bird-shit-stained, stripped bare wooden shed with half the team, boots off, still in our footy gear, taking out time, talking shit, as if we had all the time in the world, while from outside, we were framed by the echoes of the senior boys, fighting for mud and glory”

    I love it, time to dust the boots off, not that I’ll get a kick but to enjoy Hanging around the sheds, bringing the little one along and getting back to the grass roots of footy that we all enjoy!!

  9. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks John! Will read some of his stuff!

    DUCKO!!! Me ol’ China!! You would be a welcome addition to ANY team! One bloke who ALWAYS knew what footy should be about. Your kid, too, will love it, too!!!
    (but I absolve myself from blame for any injuries!)

  10. Peter Baulderstone says

    Love your stuff, Matt. I reckon John is on to something with the Lawson reference.
    Reckon you should start with “The Loaded Dog”. Great story, and something about it reminds me of you.
    I reckon your stuff should be in the Age or the Oz. Chuck out Mia Freedman or old Phil Adams. Give Zurbo the page. More wisdom for a wider audience than Phil and Mia combined. Just worried that success might ruin you. But it would be worth finding out.

  11. Thanks for your great article I love to hear about my son!!!

  12. I’m a big Hudson fan, even though he played for those half baked Crows.
    That big grin, wonderful.
    Great to see a sense of perspective.
    That feeling you describe about sitting around in the sheds, talking shit, after a game – that’s why I keep doing it. Last out of the rooms, always. It doesn’t last forever. Grab as much of it as you can.

  13. Brandon Erceg says

    I’m new to the website and this is the first post/comment I’ve made. My uncle, another almanacker, referred me to your article. I really enjoyed it. Being a young, passionate footy fan who’s currenty no longer playing due to personal circumstances, much of it due o the pressures and professionalism of the ‘system’ these days, it was really refreshing to read your article and how it really is about the pure love of the game and passion for the game which has gone missing and is hidden by how professional it all is and how professionally run clubs are these days.
    Jono Brown has always been one of my favourites and you couldn’t be more right about him. He’s a pure footballer and he takes footy and represents right back to its grassroots despite being in such a professional environment. The same with Ben Hudson and it was really interesting to read bout your experience with him. He’s one of those players a lot of people might love to hate or see as an ugly footballer, but like you I really enjoy watching him and he’s one of the modern day players and characters like Jono Brown who represent what footy’s all about in these days where everything’s so professional and serious with so much pressure on the players.
    And looking back some of my fondest memories of footy will always be celebrating 3 straight premierships from 13-15 with my junior community team and the moments immediately after and in the days and weeks after,celebrating and the mateship and all the good times that came with it.

    Again,, really enjoyed your article and hopefully a good way to get me started.

  14. Matt Zurbo says

    Erica!!!! Best reply ever!!Thank you, it was my pleasure, your son is a champion.

    44 and still playing. I agree Rob! Who are you kicking with?

  15. Matt Zurbo says

    Brandon, cheers, mate! Good on you… and your uncle!!

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