The Nuclear Football
23rd March 2018
It’s the quarter-time siren. If you’ve been reading this at the time of publication, you’ll get to enjoy a little moment of topicality here. This week is Holy Week, otherwise known as the start of the full AFL season. For many of us, it is the equivalent of the rapture. We are born anew with the first bars of our team song, the first siren, and the first bounce. It felt like this day would never come. For others, this week marks the beginning of another long winter hibernation. No longer welcome in the office conversation around the water cooler, shunned in the school playground, hounded and taunted in the street, the non-football fan now retires to the dark shadows on the fringes of society where they must remain until the start of October. Off you go now, off you pop.
The religiosity of football here is well signposted for the new arrival. At passport control, the Border Force official checked my documentation, asked me where I was going to be staying, if I was carrying any food or plants with me, and had I picked a team yet? I’ve never applied for full citizenship in my seven-plus years in Australia, but I understand the first and only question on the exam is “What’s your footy team?”
So, if by paragraph three you still haven’t picked a team yet, don’t worry, there is plenty of help available. No one, including myself, will try and push you into following their team, it doesn’t work like that. It’s more scientific. It requires balance and harmony. We have an equalization process. You have to be assessed, have your personality analysed by psychometric experts (everyone in Australia is qualified to do these exams) before being cross-referenced and matched to your perfect fit. Don’t worry if this team you are allocated differs from your family/partner/friends – you’re not expected to barrack the same way, your results are yours and yours alone.
After my own numerous consultations, the consensus was firmly in favour of me following the Western Bulldogs. They were about as similar to Partick Thistle as you could hope for. A small club with a fiercely loyal fan base, constantly on the verge of financial oblivion,
family orientated, community-minded, and most importantly the perennial wooden spooners. It was initially troubling to have to don the new colours of red white and blue. I confess it doesn’t quite suit me. The streets of Footscray with it’s painted kerbs, walls, fences and park benches feels like war-torn Belfast at times dressed in those colours. It took a while before I realised that this was the cuddly losers club, with not a balaclava or sash in sight. It was indeed home.
Now that you have your team, it’s time to enjoy a game. If you don’t understand what the rules are, don’t worry; it’s not important to. Nobody understands what’s going on, including players, match officials, commentators and coaching staff. If you don’t understand why an umpire’s decision has gone one way or another then don’t worry, by the time your brain has tried to process what has just occurred, there will have been another five ball-ups. If you want an update on what you missed, ask your neighbour (who may or may not be supporting the same team as you) and they will helpfully shrug their shoulders and tell you they don’t know what’s going on. Footy is the great social leveller.
The governing body of the AFL has one main job, which is to preserve this equilibrium by introducing new rules changes to the game every season. This way, if anyone has finally worked out what’s actually going on at the oval, they’re quickly returned to the fold of blissful ignorance. We can’t have anyone trying to get the jump on anyone else. This is what is known as the great Aussie Fair Go, or blanket stupidity as I prefer to think of it.
If you need a general pointer, all you really need to know about Australian Rules Football is that it’s basically a big game of Hot Potato. The ball is hot; you must get rid of it immediately. If you receive the ball you have to get rid of it straight away. It’s pretty close to how I feel about chemo in general. Yes, I want it, yes I’m calling for the ball, aw crap you gave me the ball, I don’t want the ball, I’m now throwing the ball away. You can keep your sodding ball. Don’t you dare throw that ball at me.
For two or three days in each chemo cycle, I have to avoid touching or drinking anything chilled. Drinking cold fluids will produce a sensation of choking, and it is common to find that you can’t breathe. I’ve been trained in how to bring myself out of this if necessary, but to be honest; I won’t even contemplate anything cold for at least four days til I know the danger has passed. Oxaliplatin, one of the drugs in my cocktail, can produce cold sensitivity neuropathy up to seven days post administration, resulting in cripplingly painful attacks of pins and needles in the fingertips, not unlike shingles I’m told. I do my best to minimise these effects by wearing gloves as often as I can. I have my day-to-day gloves, my typing gloves and my disco gloves. I take gloves for all occasions with me everywhere now. But as a novice chemo patient, I was always bound to screw up. Last week I had one day without pain and I thought I was in the clear. The gloves came off, literally. An unremarkable trip to the supermarket to get the messages found me playing a solo game of Aussie Rules hot potato in Ballan IGA to a stunned audience. A cold milk bottle I had grabbed from the fridge burnt through layers of nerves, deep into the tissue below, dissolving my fingerprints. I tossed it from one hand to other. Hot potato! Hot potato! Give it to me! Give it to me! No, get it away from me! Hot potato! Here, you have it! After a chain of hand passes, I finally managed to get it onto my boot and punted it for 6 points into the back of the dairy section. The crowd went wild.
There’s another popular sport here. It’s called Healthcare. As a chemo patient, it’s best that you come to understand your role as the football within this game. Let me take you back to the scene. It was the first of October 2016, 2.30pm at the MCG. I had walked in to get the results of a colonoscopy, expecting nothing more than a report on a few routine polyps to be cut out. Ball up. I’m immediately blindsided in the ruck by a tackle. It seems to come from nowhere. We found a tumour. The ball spills out. Pick it up. Here’s your paperwork. It’s a hand pass to Administrative Services. Get some more papers. Knock it on. Send the ball to the Stoma Nurse because surgery isn’t always perfect. Here’s how to empty a colostomy bag, you know, just in case. Are you ok? Oh dear, did you only just find out? Overhead handball. Looks like a throw, but the punch is there, it’s legal. Push an opposing player out the way and collect, bounce and run to radiology. I don’t know if we can fit you in this week. Do you know how urgent it is? Wait there, I’ll see if we can move some things around. Get an appointment for a CT. Join a queue. What are you here for? Specifically, what type of scan do you need, do you know? Ball is loose, Pathology is down the corridor, if you take a seat down there someone will come for you soon. Bounce. Can’t find a vein. Let’s try your hand. Toe poke it to Day Procedures. We’ll need to book you in for a week. Sorry, did you think it was a day procedure? I don’t know why you would think that? It’s not 15 meters, there’s no mark, ball is still in play. There’s no time to process, you’ve been handballed again. It’s exhausting. It’s the final quarter, fatigue has set in, legs are tired, but the intensity never stops. Can’t I just have a moment to sit and process? Back into the ruck. Balls up.
In the scramble, the ball comes loose and falls to Buddy. Buddy is one of those players. He can turn a game around single-handedly. I’ve seen him demolish us so many times. There’s a reason he’s on the biggest wage in the league. Everything hangs on this moment. The game has been a war of attrition up to now, but a push here, in the last minutes of the game would be enough to finish us off. When you see Buddy scoop the ball you know it’s all over. He might have turned his ankle early in the game but he’s a tank, he won’t be stopped. There’s a clearing for him to run into. He’ll run to space, he’ll kick, he’ll score, you know it, you’ve seen it time and time again. This is how we lose a Grand Final; the momentum will flow to The Swans, here and now. This is it. It’s nanoseconds in total but as he pivots for the turn, reality comes crashing down. Of course, we would lose. It’s the most Bulldogs thing that can happen. It’s unbearable; we should never have let ourselves hope. We should never have let ourselves believe. Buddy is on his feet. He’s going to take off with that million-dollar burst of speed. I could cry. I do. Fucking Buddy Franklin, our destroyer.
Here is Dale Morris. The old dog, near the end of his career. Never the superstar, never less than dependable. Solid. It’s ironic that I think of him as the backbone of the team because he was playing that day with a broken back. We only found out about this, months later. He’s never been someone to make a fuss or seek attention. He was playing with a broken back! This is Dale Morris’ moment. This is the moment his whole career and life will be remembered for. Here is Dale Morris flying horizontally at Buddy’s legs. Here is Dale Morris holding on with a vice-like grip as Buddy tries to shake him. Here is Dale Morris, with his broken back, engulfed in a pain that would make most humans blackout, being thrown around mercilessly but never ever ever letting go. This is Dale Morris.
Hot potato. Buddy releases, it’s a loose ball; it’s anyone and everyones. Here is one of the most successful clubs in recent years playing one of the most hopeless ever, but who just happen to be having the run of their lives. This is David v Goliath. This is 62 years in the wilderness and heartache. You know whoever picks it up can win this thing. There are just over five minutes on the clock, we’re nine points up but it’s only worth two kicks. It all comes down to this moment. It will decide everything. Don’t hope for too much; don’t let yourself be hurt, it was good enough to get this far. It’s more than we expected. It’s more than anyone expected. Take being in the final as being enough, because it is, it’s a fucking amazing achievement. We will never forget this day and we will be proud of our guys no matter what. It’s ok, let the dream go, it was never ours. It was beautiful whilst it lasted.
Here is Tom Boyd, the Doggie’s great underachiever. Here is Tom Boyd, who we blew our entire budget on to secure in the greatest act of desperation ever witnessed in the game. Here is Tom Boyd, our last and only hope. Here is Tom Boyd, who is so broken by the constant criticism of his failure to live up to his potential by that he will seek an open-ended leave of absence for treatment for depression. Here is Tom Boyd, just a kid. Here is Tom Boyd, the bravest man there has ever been. Here is Tom Boyd scooping, collecting, and kicking from sixty meters out. Nobody kicks for goal from that far out but there’s nowhere else to go. There’s no one to kick to. It’s hope against hope.
Here is the ball dropping short of the goal line. Here is the ball bouncing vertically straight up. Here is the ball spinning in the air. Here is every player desperately chasing it down. Here is an entire nation holding its breath. Here is a ball spinning on its axis in mid-air. The world spins on its axis. My brain is spinning in my head. Spin. Spin. Nothing will ever be the same again. Here is the Doctor, leaning over and putting a hand on my shoulder. Take a moment, he says. Have a cup of tea, have a cry. Perhaps we can call someone to be with you? Do you have someone to stay with you tonight? Don’t worry, we’ve got this. We’re going to set up some more appointments for you. We’ll take care of everything; you just focus on your family and yourself. Rest. It’s about you now. We’ve got you. You’ve got this. Take a seat over here, away from prying eyes whilst we get the scans booked in. Close your eyes. Sleep.
It’s what dreams are made of.