Daniher’s Drive 2023: Remembering Lorna and Helping Neale Flay the Beast

Anyone with an interest in Aussie Rules footy will have heard of the Daniher family. Hailing from Ungarie in rural NSW, theirs is a 900-game dynasty of five VFL/AFL players across five decades: brothers Terry, Neale, Anthony and Chris; and Anthony’s son and current Brisbane Lion player Joe.   

Packing in premierships, best and fairests, Team of the Century spots and coaching stints, Daniher is a name synonymous with not just footy in Melbourne, but Australian sport. 

But for all this sporting pedigree, it’s as human beings where they really shine. 

This is never more on show than at FightMND’s Daniher’s Drive, an annual three-night road trip around Victoria that raises awareness and funds in the fight against Motor Neurone Disease (MND).  

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The catalyst of Daniher’s Drive – which is closing in on $15 million in the six years it’s been staged so far – is Neale. You’ve may have seen his exploits at the annual “Big Freeze” AFL match and elsewhere in the media as he continues to lead the fight against an affliction without cure that has cruelled him.  

MND is a horrible and debilitating condition that breaks down the brain and nervous system; gradually wasting away a patient’s arms and legs and removing their ability to eat, swallow, speak and ultimately breathe.  

Neale, a father of four adult children, has been fighting for a remarkable eight years now, aiding his efforts to raise the profile of MND in Australia. We’ve observed his deterioration over that time, but he’s always sported a smiling face that belies any grimaces, all while retaining the larrikin persona that embodied his peak years. 

He told The Age in 2016: “You have to find the light somewhere. The alternative is helplessness, despair. It gives us a purpose, a mission, it makes our life meaningful.” 

In the process he’s taken the country under his wing, rousing the Victorian government to provide millions in research funding and getting hundreds of businesses on board to provide sponsorship so events like the MND Drive and Big Freeze can take place on a deservingly big stage. 

Unfortunately for most of the 2,000 people in Australia who at any time have MND – every day two Australians are diagnosed with MND – the average life expectancy is two to three years.  

“The Beast”, as Neale refers to it, is as brisk as it is brutal. 

So it was with Lorna, the mother of my best mate Warren, who in 2002 succumbed to the disease at the age of 51.  

Lorna was a young 51 – an upbeat, vibrant and, most of all, kind person. She brightened those around her with her warm smile and energetic nature.  

I had the privilege of playing under her in mixed indoor cricket, and the strong batting pairing we forged was due in no small part to Lorna’s calming influence.  

She was a particularly skilful cricketer who would hold her own against many of the men. She also excelled in tennis and, as she discovered at the age of 46, netball, when she won the league best-and-fairest in her debut season. 

As Warren recalls, it was the high standard she set herself in these sports that led her to realise something was amiss in 1998, when aged 47. “She couldn’t quite get the same grip on the cricket bat and tennis racquet and could not hold on to those catches she would normally always take,” he says. 

When several visits to GPs and specialists failed to turn up answers, Lorna undertook research and practically diagnosed herself, prompting the specialists to test for MND. Lorna’s suspicions were on the money, and the family was heartbroken.  

“Our family had never heard of MND before, and nor had Mum, but unfortunately, like the Daniher family, we had a crash course, real quick, on what MND is and the debilitating effect it has on people,” Warren says.  

“And as we have learnt, it does not discriminate against who it takes in its path. As Neale says, it really is a beast.” 

Lorna and family refused to give in, employing many treatments throughout her 27-month battle, including a trip to the Philippines for a miracle cure, electrode treatment and self-healing. 

All, sadly, to no avail. When I departed Australia in April 2000 to live in Dublin, Lorna’s downward slide had begun. Eighteen months later when I returned, she was wheelchair-bound, communicating through a computer aid. But her trademark inner glow remained.  

Lorna has left quite the legacy; her children are prominent members of the Cobram community, and the local tennis club’s champion player is named in her honour.  

And this legacy has extended to the annual MND Drive – which Warren and his brother Simon, alongside a rotating group of friends all connected through Cobram, have participated in under the moniker ‘Lorna’s Cobram Crew’ since the inaugural drive in 2015.  

Since 2016, Warren and Simon’s sister, Naomi, has also entered a team called ‘Lorna’s Girls’, raising tens of thousands more dollars to the MND coffers. 

This year, a convoy of almost 100 cars and more than 300 participants will set off from MCG on the morning of Thursday, October 12 . Our four-day journey through Victoria will include overnight stays in Swan Hill, Shepparton and Creswick, with stop-offs at many other regional towns aimed at supporting these resilient regional communities.

This year will be the second event that the two Lorna crews will take part in without the support of one of our biggest backers – Naomi, Warren and Simon’s father Brian, who passed away on Boxing Day 2020, aged 71. 

Brian was a true gentleman who lived a life of reward, toil, triumph and loss; the epitome of solidarity and strength despite losing his eldest son, Leigh, in a truck accident in 1993, and Lorna less than a decade later. Like Lorna, he’ll be on our minds over the three days.

The event is always a symphony of human spirit, with ex and current AFL players, elite sportspeople, TV personalities and everyday Joes of all ages rubbing shoulders for a common cause. All the participants have been touched by MND in some way or another – or they’re supporting someone who has.  

Personally, it’s my fourth Drive – having missed 2017 to 2019 due to competing in the Melbourne Marathon which always falls the same weekend – and I’m looking forward to some fun with the rest of my 11-strong crew, and contributing to a hugely important cause. 

Lorna’s Cobram Crew is aiming to raise $30,000, with our biggest fundraiser a golf-day at Cobram-Barooga Golf Club on 15 September. It only takes a minute to donate, and every dollar is another step closer to finding a cure and ridding ourselves of the Beast.  

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