Chapter 1: Early Days, Thanks Mum!
Everyone wanted to play footy in our house: me, dad, my brothers, Kevin and Ron, and even mum. Especially mum actually.
“Shoulda been borna bloke.” Dad used to say, especially after she’d given him a clip around the ear hole. She probably should have been too. She was certainly big enough.
We used to play footy in the backyard every Saturday afternoon: the brothers against mum, with dad as umpire. I remember one backhander she gave me when I appealed to dad for a free kick. She thought I’d dived and as I was getting back up she let one go. “Pow, right in the kisser” as that bloke on the telly used to say.
I swear I saw stars, but Kevin reckons it was probably teeth — I lost two. He and Ron reckoned they ought to have been able to put them under their pillows, as they found them, but mum reckoned a bloke’s teeth were his castle, or something like that and I got to keep ‘em. But even I wasn’t allowed to put them under my pillow; mum didn’t believe in the tooth fairy, she thought it was too poofy. Instead she gave me a couple of Winfields and had the teeth made into a matching set of earrings.
Those carefree childhood days at home taught me more about the game than any coach ever did, and not just when we were playing footy either. Mum was pretty solid and trying to get away from her on bath night, made trying to break a Tony Liberatore tackle look like ballet practice. She could deliver a good bump too, if you tried to beat her to the last Tim Tam.
But squirrel gripping was where she really excelled. “I’ll teach you to play ball in the house!” she’d yell, if she caught us kicking the footy in the rumpus room. She had all her wood chopping trophies on the wall in there above the pool table, and she’d go ballistic if we knocked one off, especially after dad spent so much time polishing them.
But she wasn’t just tough, she was skilful too, and she could take a great grab. I’ll never forget the day she soared over Kevin to take a one hander. Poor Kev, he was only four at the time and she must have weighed at least fifteen stone. Still, the way she soared she looked weightless, just like a Zeppelin.
Me and Dad and Ron just stood there open mouthed, we thought she’d just keep soaring on and upward. Ron started crying “Mummy come back” but for all money she was gone — never to return.
But return she did. All over poor Kev.
She had his teeth made into a bracelet, and he got a whole packet of Winfields — lucky bastard — after he got out of hospital. But he never played full back to mum’s full forward ever again.
In fact from that day forward mum played mainly on me, as I was the eldest and, at the time, the under-7s centre half forward. I had to stand her week in week out every Saturday until I was 14 and I never once beat her.
She had the wood on me every time, she was stronger, she was faster and she had a mouth on her too. She’d never stop rubbishing you from go to whoa, and you really had to concentrate on your game if you wanted to get any sort of a kick. Fair dinkum I haven’t heard such language since Father O’Rielly caught his finger spinning the prize wheel at the ladies auxiliary annual dance.
“Have you tidied your room yet, you little bastard?” she’d whisper in your ear just as you went for a grab “Because I’ll stick that bloody football up your arse if you haven’t.”
How could you take a speccy with them words ringing in your shell-like?
It was no use appealing to dad either, there was no such thing as verbal abuse in those days, nor was there much protection for the umpire in those backyard games either. If dad paid too many frees against mum she used to take it out on his hide that night in bed. At least that’s what it sounded like. Come to think of it…
Yeah, she taught us the skills of the game, she taught us courage and she also taught us to stick up for each other. If she started blue-ing one of us she expected the other two to join in and help him out. Not that it ever did us much good, but at least we went down (to the hospital) together, as mates and brothers should.
People used to think we must have been on the burgle, or that we had secret money stashed away, when mum put on her Sunday best to go to church.
“How’s she afford all them pearls?” you’d hear people whisper, “She gets a new set every flamin’ week.” And it’s true; teeth do look like pearls, from a distance, especially milk teeth
But, the truth was, we never had any money. Mum said we didn’t need it, although the price of a few mouth guards would have come in handy. She reckoned we were rich beyond our wildest dreams, because we had a loving family, which I always reckoned was pure bullshit, but she was still the best player I ever played on and the biggest influence on my career, and for that I say: