In life, I barely knew Phil Walsh.
He did train my older brother as they both started their careers at the Geelong Cats. Our paths crossed briefly as he started as head coach at the Adelaide Crows, but I left the club for the USA not long after he arrived.
Having sat with his best mate, however, as he fought and lost his own battle with death last year, I strangely feel like I knew Walshy well.
From his hospital bed, Dean Bailey told tales of their times on the road together while they were assistant coaches at Port Adelaide. He spun me stories of the two mates sharing strategies via phone on how to handle players when they worked on opposite sides of the country, for the Eagles and Demons respectively. And I knew first hand of the care that Phil gave to the Bailey family when Dean died.
In one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard, Phil delivered a personal eulogy at the memorial service for Bails just days after he died. Going back over it now, it rings just as true for this man who left the world too soon yesterday. Here are some snippets from that speech which sum up the link between the two — as coaches, and as men:
On what coaching really means:
“If you look up the word coach, it literally means ‘a vehicle that takes people from where they are to where they need to be.’ No-one did that better…
He was a master coach.”
On his wishes for those he worked with:
“He had a vision for all of us, and that was to be the best we possibly could be. He’d want us all to chase our breathless moments and, like Dean did, he’d want us to do it with humility and humor. And to always remember to share our victories with those close to us.”
On sharing time together:
“For many years, I shared a room with him on interstate trips… If we were in Sydney or Brisbane or Perth, it meant green bottles, BBQ chips, and Friday night football… There were some great coaching moves made in that relaxed state on some of those hotel beds. And in 2004, some of those hotel room dreams came true.”
On what made him so special:
“He saw things in all of us that we didn’t see in ourselves.
He made us better.
They could so easily be the words of someone describing Phil Walsh himself.
Following social media from a hotel room here in New York after hearing the horrible news, I was struck by what it said about the coach some of his former players affectionately called the ‘Great Man’. The tributes hinted at the impact he had on those around him in post after post from the players, coaches, and other staff at the club I called home less than a year ago.
"A bloke that I learnt so much off in such little time.. You have left a foot print on my life, I fell in love with you…instagram.com
"To a man who has changed the lives of many and has touched people in such a positive way, a man who would make you…instagram.com
"Words cannot express the sorrow and disbelieve. What Phil Walsh has done for our football club in such a short period…instagram.com
"The West Coast Eagles are stunned and shocked by the tragic death of former assistant coach Phil Walsh. Our thoughts…instagram.com
I noticed a similar pattern in the way both Bails and Walshy were spoken of after their untimely deaths. Nods to their passion, their commitment, their caring, their impact beyond just the game they were meant to teach. It reminded me of a very left field quote — the type both Bails and Walshy would’ve loved:
“Let him think I am more man than I am, and I will be so.”
- Ernest Hemingway, who died on the same day in 1961.
This is what both the coaches had a knack for — believing in the men they taught to the point where the men trusted their coach more than themselves, and began to believe too.
In what is such a tragic and utterly incomprehensible situation, perhaps the only small solace that can be drawn is that two great men — both inspirations to so many of us still here — will now see each other again.
Two mates, sharing green bottles, BBQ chips, and football forever.
RIP Phil. Say g’day to Bails for us.