The Final Stretch III – At The End of the Road

At The End of the Road

I’ll be perfectly honest with you.

I found it hard to come up with something to write for this.

I mean, retirement. Wow. It’s such a big thing.

When you’re eight years old, you think you can just go and play football forever. You honestly believe that you will go on with your career, and end up playing for your favourite team in the AFL, winning premierships with them all the time.

However, around your teenage years, you get a reality check. You figure out that there are thousands of kids your age, all who are aiming to play at the highest level, and a good portion of those are better than you. You continue to play junior football for a while, before giving it up to do something else, like work at the local supermarket. The lucky ones continue to play, going through to the under 18s, and eventually play for the seniors. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the players born each year get drafted, and you’re most likely not one of them.

I’ve known for a long time that I’m not the best player. I’m small and unimposing in physical contests. Most players are able to bump me out of the way. I also don’t have the advantage of speed that other people of my size tend to get, and I’m not the best kick.

One thing I do want to say that happened during my career was that I did what I was meant to do.

If I was told to stay on my man in the backline and not give them an inch, I would do that to the best of my ability.

That’s what I was good at.

 

***

 

I’ve played about seventy games in my career, and three of them have been finals.

Two of them were in 2014, in the U12s. We finished second on the ladder, with one loss for the entire season, to the top placed team.

We played them in the misnomered semi-final. I say it was misnomered because the winner would go straight to the Grand Final, and the loser would play in the preliminary final. You may not care about that, but there was another match, also called a semi-final, and the loser of that was out.

We were never completely outplayed during the game, but we were never on top, and we ended up losing.

The next week, we played a preliminary final. We lost by a point. That was possibly the most heartbreaking loss of my career, up there with a game in the U10s that we lost by two points.

This year, we were back in the finals.

 

***

 

Way back, during pre-season training, in March, I told my teammates that we should aim to make the finals.

There was talk that we were lucky to be playing in the As, talk that we should have been a B team.

I was having none of that. I wanted my teammates to be proud of the team they played for. A bunch of our players over the last few seasons had gone off to play for another club in the league, and the last thing I wanted was for any more to be like that.

A 58-point thrashing in Round 1 got us off to a good start. We beat the team our ex-teammates had nicked off to, as well, and that was a great victory. Those were the highlights of the season.

And now, we travelled off to a sandy, lopsided ground to play an elimination final.

This was the team we’d knocked off in my last home game, two weeks ago. We knew that our best could beat their best.

However, we’d played a game at this ground earlier, and it hadn’t gone well. With the score tied at half time, we kicked one goal in the last half to lose by 52 points.

We didn’t want that to happen again.

 

***

 

At training, a player for the senior team, a life member of the football club, went along to talk to us about nerves.

“Don’t let the nerves get to you. Treat it like it’s just another game.”

He also spoke about the intensity of finals (“The first five minutes will have you knackered. You need to push through them”) and to keep it routine (“Eat something good on Saturday night. If you did something and then played really well after that earlier in the season, do that”).

I showed up to the ground forty-five minutes before the game, about the time we were supposed to. Spent some time chilling, stretching, getting prepared for the game, listening to instructions from the coach.

I was playing in the forward line. They thought I’d done really well in scoring my goal last week, so I was encouraged to do that for the whole quarter.

 

***

 

We went out on the ground, the ball was bounced, and it was finals time.

The first quarter was regulation.

I impressed midway through by running onto and taking a mark at about the 50 metre line. I attempted to centre it, but it was intercepted by a tall defender.

I also got a kick in general play. I was under pressure, though, so it went out on the full.

At quarter time, we were behind 1.2 to 0.0. However, we’d been going uphill, and dominating most of the game. Surely we’d play well the second term.

The second quarter was tight and scrappy. We kicked three goals in it, but the opponents had six scoring shots. They missed off four of them, but they had scored two.

One of them could have been argued as my fault. I had let my man run off briefly, and he took a mark and kicked it to the big full forward, who converted from the goalsquare.

The second one my teammates tried to blame on me, but I was having none of it. There were two players within 25 metres of the goal, and I was on one of them. Someone, chasing the ball, had let their man free, and they got the ball, kicking the goal. My teammates said “Stats…”, and I started to stress out.

It wasn’t my fault! I was staying on my man! Someone else should have been on them!

Fortunately, this soon subsided.

Half time. Oranges. Refresh. Reboot.

I stayed in the back pocket for the third term. This was where things started to go wrong.

They doubled their score for the term, while we only managed one point. I’d stayed near my man, on the goalsquare, done my job, but people kept getting free.

At one point, I did score a rushed behind for them, but since there’s no deliberate in this league, I was safe. I’d done the same thing in the previous quarter.

At this point, I’d fallen on my shoulder, and the sand they used to cover the mud stuck to me like velcro. It stung like all hell, but the main problem was this.

We were 26 points down at three quarter time. This was going to be the end of my football career.

 

***

 

At three-quarter time, I asked the coach if I could go on the bench.

“I don’t think you’d be able to get the best out of me if I was on the ground this quarter…”

He looked me in the eye.

“Stats. I’m going to put you in the forward pocket this term, and I want you to do the utmost you can to help us win this match.”

I nodded. I didn’t want to disappoint my coach.

He gave a speech, telling us to go down the quarter and possibly win by sheer weight of numbers.

He showed us the board, I was still in the back pocket. I started to object, but realised that I had to do my job.

Nothing went right the last quarter. Going uphill, they found it as easy, maybe even easier, than they had going downhill.

When our ruckman injured his leg (we suspect it might be broken), our fate was sealed. They’d been battering him all game, and he’d gone down in each quarter. This time, it was for good. We had a back up ruckman, but last week, he’d suffered a perforated eardrum, meaning he was out of action.

They kicked five goals in the last quarter, and the siren sounded. We had lost by 49 points, and I was officially a retired player.

 

***

 

The coach made a little speech on the ground to kill time before we went back into the rooms. The 16s were yet to come out.

He said that he was proud of what we’d all achieved this season, but I was hardly listening. I was too busy trying to comb back the tears in my eyes.

Eventually, one of the club people, someone who’d made treats for us to eat at three quarter time, came along, gave me a hug, and I let it out.

 

***

 

I was the last player out of the clubrooms.

It wasn’t really that I was being sentimental or anything, I was just taking a while to get everything ready.

I had to take my jumper off, and give it back to the club. As I took it off, it struck me that that was the last time I’d be holding the club jumper. I gave another hug to the team manager, who was collecting it.

The coach shook hands with me. He’d coached me to the finals two seasons ago, and was responsible for one of the most important bits of help I’ve taken from my football career.

“Use this side of the brain”, he said, pointing to the right side of his head. “That’s the bit that’s responsible for emotions and things. You get too analytical, focus inwards on your own performance, get upset. Just leave it alone, ignore it.” He repeated that countless times throughout that season, and it’s probably the best thing any of my coaches has said to me.

My dad was there.

“Hey Dad.”

“Hey Nick, how’s it going.”

“Alright. (Cue the awkward silence.) Where’s the canteen here?”

“Over there. (He pointed).”

“Can you get me something?”

“OK.”

 

***

 

Next year, things will be different.

I’ll be absent from the playing fields, the mostly green, sometimes muddy, sometimes sandy grounds. Oval fields with white squares and arcs painted on them, with four posts sticking out at each end, two long, two short.

I won’t be part of the pregame. A bunch of teenagers, tossing a footy around, laughing at each other, the occasional comment about last night’s football. Talking with the trainer for a short while, mocking him about Essendon.

Running out onto the field of the U12s at three quarter time, having a kick.

Going off to play with a bunch of mates, aiming for victory, but in the end, not really caring.

Next year, someone else will get my number six. It’ll be strange seeing my own number being held by someone else.

Many people have told me to umpire. I’ve decided against it, I don’t have the tank to run all game.

I’m sure going to miss playing football.

But they were the best winters of my life.

 

About

Nick the Stats Guy is a former football player.

Comments

  1. jan courtin says:

    Great story Nick. I’m sure you’ll be successful in whatever you choose as your next phase in life, especially if you take your coach’s advice about the right side of the brain!

    Good luck

  2. Dave Brown says:

    Yep, good luck with future endeavours, Nick. Hope you find something to adequately replace it.

Leave a Comment

*