My early years were dedicated entirely to the dream of kicking the Sherrin around on the hallowed turf of the MCG, on the penultimate weekend of the season. To live out any dream is what drives us, it makes us anticipate each day with the desire to achieve and an appeal to seeking the hardships of life, knowing that the glory of fulfilment would be oh so sweet as a result. Most of my dreams were played out in my imagination, being a Bulldog supporter and having a track record like theirs, I kind of had to; there weren’t too many real life moments of premiership glory to draw upon.
The boy commentary with each chip and run, my celebrations after a miraculous goal from behind a tree, much to the delight of my adoring imaginary crowd. All in the space of my own backyard. A ride over the arms of the living room sofas was a regular occurrence. The simulation being some the game’s greats holding onto breath taking speccies which, for me, brought the phrase, ‘practise makes perfect’ to another level; much to mum’s annoyance. Socks and pillows copped hidings, playing their role of indoor footballs and opposition players. The imagination realms that I entered were endless, all in the hope that one day, I would play them out in real life.
I had some weird idea that fame would bring about this heir of heroism and that I could make an impact on others only if I were well known. Over the past few years and particularly of late, it has become more and more apparent that the everyday people of society are the true heroes and all of what I have experienced in the last few months may not have ever occurred at all without these faceless contributors. I still dream of changing the world, but maybe in a different light. Creating young superstars in the community, helping someone believe in themselves or even just bringing a small gift of positivity upon someone. This occurs for me when I watch the Western Bulldogs each weekend; I can’t help but smile with pride. What an exhilarating ride this team and this amazing sport has brought me.
The correlation with every event in my life to that of footy is no real coincidence; I have lived and breathed it forever. Footy controls my thoughts, my moods, my angst and even my general conversations with everyone and anyone. As a child, a life without footy was inconceivable, recalling childhood memories invariably has corresponding football memories. My first birthday party, the Bulldogs, helped by a six goal to one first quarter, ran riot over the Crows at Football Park. I sat in bed with Dad cheering the red, white and blue for no reason other than my hero, Dad, was modelling this soon to become obsession. The emotion of the experience was, despite unknowingly participating, something that would boil over from within time and time again over the rest of life until this day. My 6th birthday, the highlight was not the cake nor the game of pass-the-parcel, moreover, when Dad brought out a big bag of all his old Footscray Guernseys and let us just run laps of the front yard with them draping over our tiny but energetic bodies. Paul Hudson, son of the famous goal kicker Peter, kicked a huge bag against the Lions, at the then Colonial Stadium, the day I had my first drop of alcohol and even I ask myself, ‘why do you remember this stuff?’
I had chicken pox as a seven year old, don’t remember the experience much; just the bit where Billy Brownless kicked a goal after the siren to help Geelong beat the Doggies under lights at the ‘G in a final. I dominated a game of under 10’s footy in the 8:00am fog the morning of the most scrutinised game in Chris Grant’s career against the Hawks at Optus Oval. I remember hearing the whispers as we entered the ground half way through the first quarter; we hadn’t made the opening bounce despite playing our game that morning earlier than usual, just to get there in time. “Granty’s in trouble with that hit” one Hawthorn supporter said to his mate. I turned back to give him a death stare for even speaking such nonsense of my favourite player. The famous number three was later suspended in unprecedented circumstances, which eventually cost the champion the Brownlow Medal.
Perhaps though, the most memorable time, that links perfectly to the recent experience with our friends at Perth Children’s Hospital, is that of my own journey to hell and back with a truly extraordinary injury. The injury itself is a story for another time, but the time spent in hospital was completed riding every bump with the mighty Dogs in their most tumultuous, near entity ending year from hell, 1996. I watched from my hospital bed Mark Mercuri, from Essendon, break our hearts in the final round that year; turning the result of the game and possibly the minds of the umpires, inflicting a one vote runner up result in the Brownlow for Chris Grant, that’s right he should’ve won two.
It was whilst in hospital though that something life changing happened. I had dreams to be an amazing footballer but until two of my favourite Footscray players walked into the level four ward, I never knew simply being a good person was what real heroes aspire to become. Steven Kretiuk, a hard nosed defender and the up and coming ruck super star, Luke Darcy strolled towards my bed with confidence, a rush engulfed me as I sat up straight. A huge lump in my throat appeared and, if it weren’t for my body being connected to drips and needles, I would’ve bounded straight to my feet for a kick with them. They could’ve come and just sat next to me, asking the logical questions, ‘who’s your favourite player?’, ‘which position do you play?’ for all I cared. Instead, something very different happened. ‘Darc’, as I knew him asked Mum several questions about how the experience had impacted her and had she be given time off. ‘Kredda’ asked me about the needles and if the doctors were showing interest in me. I, although merely a Year 3 student, thought curiously as to why so much care. They don’t need to be there; in fact they probably had to be. At the time, it meant a lot to my mum more so than me but it was something small like this experience that planted the seed of respect forever. The smallest things in life are what matter most. In football or life, if we do the small things well, no matter the situation the bigger things look after themselves. It’s commonly known in the football world as ‘The Process’. We hear about it all the time as if a course for all newly drafted players has been created so that when they are later interviewed on television or radio, they can harp on about ‘The Process’. As an adult, I live by my interpretation of what went on that day. The way I treat those around me is with respect. For when I am no longer in the lives of those around me they will remember. Not what I said to them or even what I did for them but most importantly, how I made them feel. Not that I thought Luke Darcy would ever remember but two years later, I bumped into him as he strolled, with that all too familiar swagger, into a practice match. I felt privileged to do so and what shocked me most was that he remembered that sick little boy from the hospital. As part of the AFL community service or player profile image, I’m sure he had to visit thousands of kids, but he remembered. I can’t speak for other clubs but this was special. I look at Marcus Bontempelli now and see the same qualities; maturity, wisdom and that ability to forever pedestal others, that is something heroic. The brand of footy the Dogs have exhibited this past twelve months has been breath taking but the demeanour they, as individuals and as a club of players, coaches, and support stuff, have continually displayed is what has earned the greatest respect.
So there has been, in my life, like the history of the Western Bulldogs, a lot of pain, trauma and times of hardship but if all else has failed to show ultimate signs of success and triumph, one thing is for certain; complete and utter respect will shine through. The people around you will always be green with envy of what you achieve but can always strive to replicate. What is hardest to accomplish is to hold the respect of others. It takes very little to lose but treasured and held as sacred if earned. Don’t admire the tales I tell or the acts that I embrace, embrace the feeling that watching them brings.
This Saturday brings about some unchartered territory for me as my beloved Doggies have reached the grand finale for the first time in my life time and then some. I stand in awe of the club and its current playing group for what they are about to embark on. More than just the hope of premiership glory, for they make me proud to associate myself with a community built on hardship, disappointment and everlasting hope. So with every experience I continue to have in life, football remains the constant. I have learnt so much from experience and football together but perhaps most importantly, I have learnt how to be a better person from the experiences of football. Maybe I am admired, just like Luke Darcy and Steven Kretiuk despite not being the famous footballer I once aspired to be. If I am, I can guarantee it is from that Footscray bred respect, selfless, all-giving respect. And boy does it feel good. Regardless of how this weekend pans out, I’ll sit there in the Great Southern Stand soaking in how it feels to be respected. Respected as a proud part of the Western Bulldogs. How envious you must be. How to be more bulldog? To answer the question that this blog has been posing, will this weekend bring about life changing experiences? The answer is, no but to be in the company of die hard supporters willing to give up everything for their team whilst watching a band of young men working to earn their respect on the biggest stage in Australia will be so special.