Saturday afternoons, or Friday evenings here in the vast and unusual country they call the United States of America, are when I feel the pangs of homesickness the most. In fact, it is probably the only time I get all doe-eyed with a wanton desire to book the next flight to the MCG. For the past three years I have strapped up to play for the mighty Kew Bears, the club I couldn’t love more if they started throwing out free parmigiana on a Thursday evening and hooked up hammocks for post-game recovery. In that time, I’ve only missed 3 games: all of them last season. One of them was to perform in a musical. Beaser nearly had a fit when I told him. ‘Now I’ve heard everything’ he bellowed in trademark fashion. Now on a Thursday afternoon my time, as I move closer to the East Coast and away from the blood, sweat and tears of the south, my attention again turns to the fate of my beloved Bears. Last season was a year to remember for us. The first senior premiership in 34 years, the seconds got up on the siren with the greatest point ever kicked by Luke ‘Mr.September’ Klasen (so proud he is of his last kick in competitive footy that he has yet to make his glorious return to Full Forward in the magoos) and we became a group of brothers. As the cliche goes, football clubs are more than just a place where blokes make jokes about showering together, someone’s ability, or alternatively inability, with the fairer sex and how much money the club captain makes. No, a good football club is an inclusive brotherhood for men of all sizes, cultures and well, footballing ability. We all want to win premierships but for me it is more the story of a club coming to win a premiership that is an exciting lesson in team building and individual growth.
Bear with me as I indulge in some nostalgia for a couple of paragraphs because the whole road to the Kew trio of premierships is one that is still so delightfully raw that my luscious chest hair (okay, there are 20 of them) is tingling in anticipation. Kew expanded its boundaries to accommodate four sides last season and with it a whole new group of characters and comedians. The diversity of such an intake must really challenge players and coaches alike across the league. You have to adjust to the cocky, the quiet and the bullish. One of the great things about the VAFA and amateur sport is that egos are not blown up with wads and cash and glorification. I’m not saying that there are not monster egos floating around, it’s just not quite as in your face. Of course, ego is not a dirty word and we all have an opinion of our place in both the football and literal world whether it be an overwhelmingly positive one or a dispirited one. Good sides generally can scuttle a big ego and bring him back to the pack whilst still allowing him time to fulfil his own personal needs. I’m talking Jack Delbridge’s weekly topless gallivant, President Joey Chessari’s love of the microphone and my… Well, when we talk egos, I’ve probably got one that is as large as the Crystal Palace and one that shatters just as easily.
Anyway, I think it was evident from the outset that we had some inexperienced yet freakishly talented young kids. Some jumped straight out of the box and held their own. Brandon Droessler, The perennial ‘Mr Charisma’ Grant Filsell and a smoky for the 2014 draft, Liam Kinsella. Others took their time but proved their worth and even stole the positions of veterans. The number one example of that was Max Waters. A kid with boundless talent and a heart to match, it was unfortunate for me that he played half back as I began playing more on the wing and negating roles whereupon I started to remember how much I despised hard running. However, with a foot like his I actually came around to speaking to him in Round 18 and found him to be a most affable character, one whom was anointed the third Balme brother by the premier tackler in the VAFA, Jarrod Balme.
This is not to say the old fellas had whittled into the woodwork. In fact, the blend of youth and experience made the place as vibrant as I’d ever seen it. It is a weird sensation when you’ve been at a club since you were 20 and you are no longer the rascals of the place but pseudo-veterans. Andrew Brazzale, Tim Allman and myself found ourselves in this uneasy predicament where wisdom and good decisions were hopefully now synonymous with our nicknames. For the unflappable superstar Andy Brazzale, this was a breeze. For Tim, it was a challenge that he relished in as he was brought into the leadership group and the forward line. For me, I remained the scallywag, taking a host of new kids such as Tom Ahern, Klasen, Zac Brabin and Taylor Newton under my wing before they stopped inviting me to their meetings.
But as I struggled with the concept of leadership, the two Michaels (Henderson and Cochrane) thrived and prospered. Unlikely leaders begun to prove themselves in all aspects across the club. Tim Bateman in the clubbies, Neddy Rohrt showed his innate toughness and ‘Chappy’ McGowan extended the influence of the Irish sect that had gained a footing in the Kew Bear vernacular. Most telling was the continued presence of the veterans who had been through the ‘unspoken’ dark ages the club had faced throughout much of the noughties. Aaron Carmen, the soul, Kymbo Allen, the heart, Nick Tinetti, the brain and Chad Watts, the good looks as ‘Jocka’ Orr settled into his role as the liver with aplomb.
All these aspects; youth, beauty and a picture of you, as Tim Whitlam so aptly put it, added up to a magical combination that culminated in a famous Spring day for the mighty Bears. The story has many heroes, many villains and many, many belly laughs. That last admission certainly sums up why the journey of a club that has an exceptional season is almost as satisfying as the taste of the premiership cup… Almost. It is the improvement of young and old players alike, it’s the social nights where everyone has a few cold beers and enjoys the company of a diverse group of individuals and their partners, it’s the support someone gets when they suffer a personal hardship, it’s the Sunday breakfasts even after a loss and it’s the sloppy Thursday night sessions where the coach blows his fuse when the ball hits the turf for the 20th time in 35 seconds.
When you think about all this, who wouldn’t miss playing footy? As the Bears enter Round 7 at 6-0 in Division 2 I will keep one eye on the Chicago nightlife and one eye on the live updates, just waiting for Timmy ‘BWS’ Allman to send me an emoticon or two summing up the afternoon. Some people might call me overly obsessed but I prefer to sum up my commitment to the cause from 10,000 kilometres by referring to it as a token of my gratitude for creating such a terrific atmosphere for a kid to grow up and become a better person. No one can do this alone and to have a place like our respective footy clubs where you get to play and hang out with a group of mates, no matter how much you have in common with them, for half a year before we return to our other pursuits such as drinking beer at the cricket, talking about the politics behind horse racing, dabbling in French literature and securing a summer fling, is pretty damn special. I wish I could go into more detail about Liam Kinsella’s freakish goal in the Grand Final, Brazzale’s mark, Klasen’s point, Scott Norman swinging Glen Evans into the forward line, Dion Abel’s shimmies for the clubbies and club stalwart Jobby’s smile when the drought was broken but we’d be here until Saturday my time.
With every game that I watch glide by with the consistent tap of the refresh button, wondering how boom Sam Bishop is fitting into the team structure, whether the older blokes are protecting the young kids, how the twin towers are going in the forward line, what the opposition is like, whether I’d be playing or relegated to water boy. All these hypotheticals and reimaginings just remind me of Hunters and Collectors’ ‘Holy Grail’, Paul Kelly’s ‘Leaps and bounds’ and Cold Chisel’s ‘Bow River’. Classic Aussie pump up songs. ‘Get your old man a beer would ya??’
What I can safely say is that I can’t wait to kick that odd shaped ball again at Victoria Park and once more revel in new faces, new jokes, new haircuts and that same old feeling I get in the pits of my stomach on a Saturday morning. There is baseball, basketball and ice hockey flying around this nation at a rate of knots and yet there is something missing… Footy. Good luck to all those playing, coaching, mending, stitching, watching, mollycoddling, canteening, overdramatising and Buddy Franklining over the weekend.
Miami, FL, USA