Kick to Kick with Old Stu
Around this time each year, after summer has surrendered to autumn and office workers keep their souls invigorated with footy chatter as a new AFL season gains momentum, memories of my footy-fixated childhood come flooding back.
To when multiple games were staged on a Saturday afternoon.
To when money-obsessed outsiders hadn’t yet fully dipped their fingers into football’s pie.
To when my Collingwood-mad uncle rang after a semi-final win in 1984 pretending to be mercurial Collingwood forward Peter Daicos – and I believed him.
And to when I kicked the footy with Old Stu.
It was autumn, 1987. I was 10. We were new to the northwest Victorian town of Swan Hill, Dad
The first drop in light signalled time-on in the final quarter. Collingwood five points down. I was tough-as-nails wingman Darren ‘Pants’ Millane, thundering towards full-forward Brian Taylor for the winning goal – between the light post and the mailbox two doors down.
But a stray kick landed in the arms of an old, bespectacled man, who fired a 20-metre handpass back at me. This wasn’t in the script.
Even though we’d never met, Stu knew my first name, and also that I barracked for Collingwood. He was a Fitzroy supporter; said he wanted to see a premiership before he died. His creaky bones hampered him somewhat, but he was skilful and nimble, his drop kicks spearing into my chest. We went back and forth until the ball and darkness became one and the closing credits for A Country Practice rolled in unison in the surrounding houses.
The following evening, I looked out the window and there he was again: the old man, hovering under the street light.
And so it became a nightly ritual. In between kicks, he’d quiz me about school and junior footy. Mum would reserve her best neighbourly smile for him, while he and Dad became mates. Old Stu would sometimes call around on Saturday afternoons and sit with us by the fire drum in the backyard as the ABC footy crackled from the radio. The commentators would talk excitedly about St Kilda’s Tony Lockett breaking the record for most goals in a game. Old Stu would agree; he reckoned Lockett was the best full-forward since 1950s Essendon legend John Coleman.
His eyes narrowed somewhat on Sunday afternoons, however, when Sydney’s tight-shorted show pony Warwick Capper stole the show.
A stray kick landed in the arms of an old, bespectacled man, who fired a 20-metre handpass back at me.
By late 1988 it was time to move house again. I went next door to say goodbye. Old Stu’s place was modest: a tiny kitchen and bathroom; a lounge room cramped with old china. Ancient Fitzroy Football Club paraphernalia filled the absence of family photos – he’d never married. On the coffee table sat a photo album filled with newspaper clippings, curled-up and yellowing. A footballer of promise, the war years had cut Old Stu’s own career short.
He was sad we were leaving. I made a promise to visit him again. I never did. But Fitzroy became my second-favourite team – and I always associated them with Old Stu.
My teen years passed without much thought of Old Stu until 1996, when the Lions folded and merged with the Brisbane Bears. I hoped Stu had taken on Brisbane (now the Brisbane Lions) as his team after the merger. And I hoped he was still alive to see their three premierships just after the turn of the millennium. For me, the twin blows of Brisbane’s pair of grand final triumphs over Collingwood (2002 and 2003) were softened by the thought of a ninety-something Stu in his armchair, soaking it up.
Now I’m on the eve of my 42nd birthday, and a father of three single-figure-aged girls, and footy and I have fallen out. My short career peaked at 19 with a runner-up in the best and fairest for Cobram Seconds in the Murray Football League. My pedigree as a Pies supporter has moved from one-eyed to almost ambivalent. Other interests – travel, love, words, music, running and booze – have taken the place of footy.
Don’t get me wrong; I can hold a conversation with a footy nut, but my views certainly aren’t nuanced. Now it often seems too chaotic and complicated – and wrung free of colour. I spend my days chasing simplicity. It’s elusive, yet it’s always there. It’s in my girls’ smiles.
And it’s there at the local park whenever I see dads and their sons kicking the Sherrin back and forth, the tiniest sliver of sunshine breaking through the cloud, an old man’s twinkle-eyed smile going against the grain.