Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Football Chronicles: Part 2

Iris Gaines : You know, I believe we have two lives.
Roy Hobbs: How... what do you mean?
Iris Gaines: The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.
"The Natural"

Wow, I didn't expect to write so much about this time in my life, but this is looking like it might be a six-parter. It has taken a different approach to what I initially thought it would, and there is a real reason at the end of this series to it all, but you'll have to wait for that.

Continued from the previous post…

I don't remember a thing about the colts game that Friday night, I was too focused on the B grade game the next day – though after the season was over I learned I got best on ground (MVP for the game) in that Friday night game.

Like I said before, footy was very important in our home town. My family was very prominent in our particular footy club, and Dad most of all. He played his first A grade game when he was 16. Mum once recalled that when Dad was captain of the A grade team, he got discounts on the washing machine and a host of other things for the house, which would have been a life saver for a very young married couple with two kids at that stage.

Dad had a lot of knee troubles though, going through several operations. He had at this stage captained and coached the A grade team holding down the back line since he started and wearing the family's number 3 on his back all the time. After one operation too many, he was forced to retire at the age of 26 or risk not being able to walk properly for the rest of his life. I can not remember seeing Dad play any games of footy, but I remember the day he retired because the local paper ran a back page story on it, with Dad and us three sons in the picture. My younger brother was still in nappies (diapers) at this stage, and I would have been 5 maybe.

Playing A grade, or "League", was special for our town. They made a big deal out of your first game, and milestones like 100 games, 200 games or the ultra rare 300 games were great occasions to celebrate. League players were treated as minor celebrities in the town – which you can understand, as no real celebrities came to town sine it was so far away from anything. B grade players, or "Reserves" however, were a little different. Apart from maybe 8-10 players per each team who were actual "reserves" for the League team, most were the guys well past their prime or others who never had a prime at all. Even though the records for the games were kept, they were never really counted like they did in the League and they were rarely celebrated. Besides the players themselves, nobody really cared if the reserves lost as long as the League team put in a good show.

However for me, this was a big step. In colts, a 17 year old and under grade, even though I was a junior I was bigger than maybe 70% of the competition. That would be reversed when I played Reserves – and not many 15 year old's strength can match that of a fully grown man. I was a little nervous going in, as I knew I wouldn't be able to be my usual dominate/arrogant self today. I would be in a supporting role at best, and I just wanted to get a kick in the beginning.

We were playing against South, our arch rivals (if there is such a thing in a four team competition), and to boot we were playing at their home ground which was far inferior compared to ours which the competition used as the main ground.

Reserves play the curtain raiser for the League team, so there is hardly any crowd there at the start of the game but that can rise to nearly 1000 by the time the games ends. Most of the league players don't get to the ground until half way through the reserves game either.

The game gets started, and I am in a supporting position in the forward line, playing on someone I don't know and who I imagine doesn't know me either. After about five minutes, I couldn't tell you what the football looked like let alone feel like. Eventually when it did get near me, I made mistakes and gave it away. I was getting beaten at every chance I got, and I felt like a fish out of water. If I did get my hands on the ball, I was tackled before I had a chance to do a thing. If my opponent had it, I would give away a free kick. It was terrible, and I felt like I couldn't do a thing to stop it. It was the exact opposite sensation that I had been enjoying for the past 8 Friday nights. I kept telling myself I was playing against grown men now, I'm only 15, what the hell am I doing?

After the first quarter, we are down by a few goals as we go into the coaches huddle to get the review and instructions for the next quarter. Generally, the crowd is allowed onto the ground during these breaks to kick the footy around or listen in on the coaches. Past players and the League players are always there for this, as well as anybody else who can be bothered jumping the fence. I was feeling pretty crap, and wondering how long I would be left on the ground before I got benched. I hoped it was long enough to get at least 1 kick – because that was 1 more than I had at this stage.

A friend of the family affectionately known as Boo Boo tapped me on the shoulder. BB was a mountain of a man, and in his hey-day as a League player was a champion for our club. And he loved his footy – lived for it. He played footy with Dad, as this is where the majority of our family friends come from.

BB gave me a little punch on the shoulder – which with his strength was quite a big punch for me. And then he said in a normal voice "You're better than anyone out there". And he left it at that.

I'm sure the coach had some inspirational words for the rest of the team, but I couldn't hear a word of it. All I was thinking about was what BB had said. I thought about it, and all of a sudden I started to see all the other players as B graders, not grown men. I started to feel a little more confident and headed back out onto the paddock this time ready to prove him true.

In a little piece of play I managed to gather the ball and thought I had enough time to finally get a kick away. I tried to kick it forward into our attacking zone, but unfortuantly while running full pace I had gotten a little too close to another opponent and kicked it just above his head, smacking into his outstretched arms. Some how, the ball bounced on the ground and leapt straight back into my hands – and without missing a step I continued on running flat out past all the players and finally got a kick away to a team mate that ended in a score. The play got a little smattering of applause form the crowd – which was very rare in an away game. Man, that little play was lucky, but I knew it must have looked good.

Before you know it, I've run off a pack of players, gathered the ball and kicked my first goal of the game. Then the confidence comes back, and all of a sudden I don't even think about my opponents – I let them think about me. Before long I have been moved, back into the centre as I have become accustomed to. We're looking a little better on the score board by half time, and I'm feeling a hell of a lot better.

By this stage the League players are all here, including my mate the 16 year old "child prodigy" as the local paper had named him. All the players were sitting near the goals closest to the change rooms watching the game, waiting until it was time for them to go get ready. We were kicking to that end this 4th quarter (or 4th period if you like).

On one play, I talked to our tall player who would be contesting the boundary thrown in (like a basketball jump ball) and told him where I would be running to as soon as the umpire threw the ball. The plan worked perfectly, and I caught his tap before it hit the ground while running full pace, and slotted through a fairly tough shot on goal straight away. I could see the look on the faces of two of the League players, who were pretty impressed with the play (not just my part in it).

Later in this quarter I'm standing behind the biggest guy from the other team and the ball is coming in high. I prop, and get ready to try to leap up and catch it – a "mark" as it is called in footy. At the time I was also playing basketball heaps, and as such I had a decent vertical leap – nothing to brag about, but enough you know what I mean. Anyway, it rest happened in slow motion for me. I jumped up onto the biggest guy on the opposite team (who was actually in my basketball team at the time), and realised I had gone too early and the ball was still in flight. But, I had managed to jump onto his shoulders, and stayed there for a fleeting moment, paused in mid-air and just as I started to finally come down, the ball fell into my hands perfectly and I landed on both feet. If I got a smattering of applause before, I got a genuine roar from the crowd now. It felt like there was 10,000 people cheering, but in reality I would be surprised if it was a handful over 500. The point was the people in the grand stand were cheering – even those supporting the other team. I took my kick and I thought I was too far out to score, but lo and behold it sailed through. It was a tight game and this goal sort of sealed it for us, so players came from everywhere to congratulate me. I remember thinking it was just another goal, nothing more and they still had time to get back at us but when the crowd of players gathered around, I felt a genuine adrenaline rush, and I would have run through a brick wall if I was told to right then.

The final siren sounded a short time later, and we headed into the change rooms to sing the club victory song, which is another great tradition for footy. I was feeling pretty good, and while I wasn't the best player on the team that day by far, I felt like I had done enough for them to ask me back next week which was good enough for me. Me and a few others from the colts team who played would shower and stay around for the League game.

The League team was playing well, and during the 3rd quarter when I was walking out to the huddle with all the other reserve players, one of the assistant coaches came up to talk to me.

"Pretty good game today Heath."

"Yeah, thanks."

"Yeah, you went well. We've been watching for a few weeks, and would you play A's if you were picked?"

For our town, and for a 15 year old playing footy in our town, this is akin to asking if you call an all-in while holding a Royal Flush.

"Of course, if I was picked" – I added the proviso, more to keep from getting ahead of myself and too excited at the prospect of playing A grade next week. I had not been actually asked yet, and this wasn't even the coach asking me, just one of the assistants.

"Good, good, we'll talk later in the week."

I tried to keep my mind from racing further, and tried to think if this meant he had actually asked me to play League next week or if he was just making idle chit chat. I didn't want to say anything to anyone because it would be a major embarrassment if I had bragged about this little exchange and it turned into nothing. Besides, just a few hours ago I was kick-less in a game that I thought was out of my reach, and I had not entertained the idea that I was good enough to take the next step immediately.

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