On the weekend just gone, a friend texted me to ask if I was still up for having the kick we’d loosely discussed earlier in the week. ‘I have to run!’ he said ‘I feel like a caged animal.’ As anyone with a passing interest in both the beautiful game of Aussie Rules and the importance of free-range adulthood would understand, I didn’t need to be asked twice. I grabbed my boots, threw them into the car, and headed to our agreed kicking patch – to call it an oval would be stretching things a bit. Nestled between the local bowls club and a synagogue, its uneven surface hosts local dog walkers, amorous teens, families making use of the playground, plus the occasional enthusiasts kicking a ball around. It’s not too flash, but it does the job.
As I drove the short distance between home and our own field of dreams, I marveled at the sense of excitement that still came over me on journeys like these. The anticipation, the little rituals ingrained in these get-togethers are a direct trip back to childhood: finding your mate when you arrive, the chit-chat as you put the boots on, a quick stretch to make the most of the remaining light of the late afternoon…every part of the experience is uncomplicated and comforting, in stark contrast to so many of the aspects of adult life.
As a short, skinny kid growing up in the nation’s capital, those rituals and that sense of anticipation were the constants and the markers of everyday life. The week was punctuated by bursts of excitement – training, thinking about your game coming up, scouring the papers to try to work out if your VFL team would be the one game featured on television on the upcoming Saturday.
For me, that VFL team was Tommy Hafey’s Collingwood of 1977 to 1982. Names like Ronnie Wearmouth, Rene Kink, Peter Moore, Ray Shaw, Dennis Banks, Ricky Barham, Billy Picken were all footy cards coming to life on a Thorn colour television, but none of the names were bigger than Tom Hafey. Without wanting to make it sound as if conditions of that time were akin to a Dickensian poor house (with the exception of wearing fingerless gloves on the frozen morning fields, but even that was more of a nod to Tears For Fears than A Tale of Two Cities), you had to savour every scrap of coverage on the box back then. I think that’s why Tommy Hafey made such an indelible impression on my young mind.
As any dewy-eyed bar-bore will tell you, the seventies and eighties were a time of ‘characters’ in football. Colourful, profane, some half-mad, they had some rough edges, and were all the more exciting for them: Mick Nolan, Bones McGhee, Phil Carman, Don Scott, Ron Barassi…they were larger than life. We knew so little about them that we could easily project even more fanciful notions of their wildness on to them than perhaps were true based upon the odd black and white photo and what we saw take place on the field.
In contrast to many of these real or imagined wild-eyed hard nuts, when Tommy Hafey spoke on television, he had an air of kindness about him, a softness in his delivery that suggested something beyond the vein popping, wild eyed insanity of other fire and brimstone coaches like Barassi or Parkin . Belying the athletic and powerful physical form that his collared V-neck Adidas t-shirt could barely contain, he projected a sense of calm and simplicity. At the time I had not the faintest clue that he was already a Richmond legend and four-time premiership coach. To me he was as black and white as the Yakka logo and Ronnie Wearmouth’s Peter Frampton-esque locks. That’s the innocence and ignorance of youth I suppose. The main thing I knew about other teams at the time was that you hoped to beat them, and that Tommy’s tigers of old had inflicted one of the more painful grand final defeats upon the black and white of my young life.
To me as a kid, he seemed to exude an almost saintly type of goodness and decency. As I grew up, it became plain that, unlike so many impressions you form when you’re young and, well, impressionable, nothing changed. He really was goodness personified. Perhaps it was down to the child-like enthusiasm he carried with him everywhere, his unshakable belief in the potential in everyone, his feeling that football was a great teacher about life. His philosophies were simple, but undeniable – ‘If it is to be, it is up to me’ he’d say. He was right. We all like to complicate things, to overthink, to get bogged down in imaginary reasons as to why things can’t happen. Sometimes it’s better to strip it all back and get into Hafey mode – keep it simple. Football, life, music, family, friends…work hard, be grateful for the good stuff, try to fix the bits that aren’t working and stay positive. Keep fit.
Greg Baum wrote a fantastic piece in The Age where he said that ‘Hafey never lost faith in sport’s affirming and redeeming power’. While it’s probably reasonable to think that a lot of us who love footy feel the same way, it takes a special kind of person to actually embody that faith and to lead by example as he did. He was in love with the idea that football and life was all about the people within it. The joy and the triumph for him came not just from winning premierships – although he knew plenty about that – but from the friendships you formed and the people you met along the way. As much as the recollections from those close to him have been about football, overwhelmingly they were about their experiences with him, and as a result of him. To be remembered that way says as much about the people he shaped as it does about the person who shaped them – Tom got through to them.
As my friend and I started kicking the Sherrin around our local patch of grass, people walked past with their dogs, dads kicked balls with their young protégés, and a gang of local kids, just out of the synagogue, came running out armed with soccer balls and swarmed the field. Parents chatted and kids shouted whilst Jimmy and I worked on hitting each other on the chest with erratic success. After a while a couple of the kids stopped what they were doing and started calling over to us ‘Hey! Sydney Swans. Swans!’
We stopped. They wandered over. ‘What are you doing? Do you play for the Swans?’ one of them asked, immediately outing himself as an extremely fair-weather supporter, and unknowingly insulting the skills, median age and fitness of the Bloods’ entire playing list. After a bit of explanation and some heartbreaking truths (more for us than for the kids – no, we weren’t elite AFL players aged 25), a couple more came forward asking for a kick. Well, from that point, it was on. ‘Bluey’ (not his real name, but a mad Carlton supporter so that’s the one we gave him) was the most vocal, calling for the ball, running the length of the field without passing it. He was dirty on Juddy for doing his hamstring again. ‘He’s not that fit’ he lamented, as my eyes widened. ‘You’re a tough crowd Bluey’, I said, but he remained unmoved. His more modest red-headed mate told me he wasn’t much of a player before putting the ball lace out on to my chest. They ran around, having commandeered the Sherrin to their own ends.
One of the Dads wandered over and we started talking about footy. He was a ‘pies man. A stray ball flew in his direction and he flicked a nice handpass back to his son. The sun was fading, a chill in the air starting to creep in. I had to get home soon. I started to feel the same disappointment come over me that I had as a kid when it was time to come home after a kick, except now I was a Dad talking to another Dad, and there was a whole new generation of kids caught up in the magic of a flying red ball. All around me were the signs of activity that come from genuine community. Kids shouting, parents talking, dogs barking. Life. An hour earlier I hadn’t met any of these people, hadn’t watched my friend Jimmy take three marks behind his back, hadn’t met a kid called Bluey, hadn’t worked up a sweat, hadn’t met a bloke wearing a yamulke from Carlton who barracked for the same team as I did. It constantly amazes and surprises me how simple things like kicking a ball in the local park so often lead to richer experiences, extending well beyond the original intention.
In that one tiny moment of time, we were all connected when only moments before we weren’t. Kids, adults, the religious, the undecided, the non-believers – it mattered not a jot. A flying red Sherrin made the introductions for us, and started a conversation. It’s that idea of footy enriches your life that Tommy Hafey espoused. The idea that by just walking out the door every day you can enhance your experiences, improve your life. A football was the conduit in this case, but it could be anything – a guitar a paintbrush, a book, a camera.
As the light starting fading on our weekend run around, I had to break the news to our new young mates that the jig was up, and sadly I had to retrieve the ball and make my way home to my own family. They looked slightly crestfallen, but they took it well. Another kick or two, a couple more handpasses, and the ball was returned. They gathered around and we said our goodbyes. They thanked us for the kick. I felt a bit emotional, partly because of their impeccable manners, but more because they were so full of life and excitement, the type that can barely be contained during those years. I remembered it in myself, and I see it exploding every day in my own slightly younger kids. It’s boundless and a bit wild, and when it’s channeled into something like footy, it can be a lifelong gift – the kind that Tommy had tapped into so perfectly with missionary zeal.