WHEN I was 21 playing country footy a teammate of mine committed suicide on the eve of a semi-final. He was not my best friend nor was he in the closest half dozen mates I had at the footy club, but it still hit me hard.
He was there on Thursday night, training the house down. And on Saturday he was gone. Not away on some bucks weekend or at home sick or injured. Just gone. Needless to say the club was shattered.
I remember the half hour in the sheds before the game vividly because it was the first time I fully grasped the concept of the black tape. Sure, strappers and assistant coaches had placed tape around my arm dozens of times before, telling me sombrely that some club legend of yesteryear had passed away quietly in his sleep the night before.
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But this was the first ever time I actually knew the person, the first time I really processed that I was playing for more than just me out there.
Just before the siren the team stood facing our crowd in the pocket, arms interlocked as we bowed our heads for sixty short seconds.
That Saturday we won by ten goals, belted out the team song so it could be heard wherever our mate was resting and then shared a very sombre beer together in the sheds with family members of our lost teammate.
Sometime between the first sip and the last we resolved as a team and as a club to make a greater effort to be there for our teammates should they ever need someone to talk to, to be forever more vigilant when one of our club mates seemed sad or angry or simply down.
It was pretty emotional. I certainly cried, how could I not when a father who had lost a son was struggling through a sentence of thanks for our efforts that day, telling us how proud his boy would have been?
Not a weekend has gone by where that story has not been repeated in frighteningly similar fashion on a footy field and in sheds afterwards somewhere across Australia. Beloved brothers, sons and fathers of football are lost to the game every single week. But the show always goes on. Always.
Because the game we hurt, bleed, cry and in some extreme cases die for is bigger than any one individual person
…at least it used to be.
When a footy club suffers a loss off the field the players wear armbands. It is a mark of respect and it symbolises the enormous contribution that the departed made to that club, or perhaps the game in general.
Players run out and they play in memory of the man or woman they are carrying on their arms, often playing inspired, emotionally-charged footy in a glorious and memorable victory. And that is it. What happens after that is up to the club and the family.
No national ninety-minute TV tributes, no hour-long ‘insider specials’, no banning of club songs nor banners across the whole league and absolutely, no matter the circumstances…
No cancelling the game! Any game – especially the one game that was needed to be played the most.
And now the entire game is compromised.
What happens in the future if three players are in a car crash mid-week and are in critical conditions come game day? Or two? Or just one?
What if the father of the club captain passes peacefully away the night before a big final? Or not-so-peacefully? What if he is killed during a home invasion?
What if the assistant coach dies? Or the club president? Or the strapper?
These questions are like a cancer to a game that was, until last Friday afternoon, above such tragic hypotheticals.
The Adelaide Crows never got the chance to remember Phil Walsh the way countless footy men have been remembered for over a century and a half.
With that raw, emotional little bit of black tape that symbolises everything that needs to be said and inspires everything that need be done.
It was denied them by a weak AFL leadership and a media machine so hell-bent on syphoning every ounce of emotional currency from this death that they trampled on the memory of the very man they claimed to be honouring.
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