Our Great Game

Darcy Coombs

Footy is a funny game. As a long-suffering Richmond supporter who bleeds yellow and black, I’ve endured the lows of zero premiership victories, empty promises and the dreaded ‘9th’ years. I’ve had to withstand constant taunts from mates whose teams have tasted success, to the point where they have ‘forgotten what it’s like to lose.’

From a very young age, my granddad, who wasn’t nearly as invested in the sport as I was, constantly reminded me that football was ‘just a game.’ You can imagine what my reaction was like.

An older (but no wiser) version of myself now agrees with him.

This all comes with a succession of events that occurred this year, wherein football was not the most important thing in the world even to those whose lives revolve around it.

Earlier in the year, we were reminded of the stranglehold mental illness can have on absolutely anyone. The public was made aware of Geelong player Mitch Clark’s issues with anxiety and depression last year, and then reminded following their victory over Collingwood this year.

Clark was seen to be visibly distressed despite defeating Collingwood by seven goals and having a good game himself. He was then ushered away from group celebrations by his coach Chris Scott and the resulting image did the rounds on social media.

Clark, a talented and highly-paid footballer, took time away from the game to get his mind right and by doing so brought mental illness to the forefront of the AFL. In a game that demands so much of the individual, both mentally and physically, footy often becomes associated with a level of ‘hyper-masculinity’, if you like.

It is often difficult not to make such an observation. All players consistently throw their bodies into contests most of us would shy away from. After all, the sheer physicality of the game only calls for individuals that are elite in skill, fitness and strength, which immediately excludes the average Joe. Players attack the football so willingly that nothing else seems to matter other than getting the next kick.

In a game that demands so much of the individual, both mentally and physically, footy often becomes associated with a level of ‘hyper-masculinity’, if you like.

Clark’s decision to move away from the game, however, reinstates the fact that for some there are more important things than our beloved game. Seeing him at his most vulnerable this year also allowed for a greater understanding of mental illness and raised the veil of stigma associated with it.

This was further embodied by Lance Franklin’s decision to address his own mental health by stepping away from football, despite Sydney’s finals presence and his lucrative contract. Again, it takes enormous willpower to step back from your team when a chance at a premiership is there for the taking. 

A powerful message was also sent to the public when former president of Hawthorn and current chairman of BeyondBlue, Jeff Kennett, stated that ‘his [Buddy’s] health was more important than winning a game.’

But perhaps the most sobering event of the year was the tragic passing of Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh. It was the end to such an incredible life that impacted everyone involved in the game, not least his own players, fellow coaching staff and family.

These circumstances aptly placed everything in perspective without any further explanation or reasoning. They provided a sense of fragility to a game that often labels many players indestructible and fearless. They reminded everyone about the instabilities that life confronts us with.

The mere thought of an AFL game seemed petty for quite some time.

Despite this, it was football that brought the AFL community back together, from touching tributes shown by Adelaide and Port Adelaide supporters to all teams observing a moment’s silence after their matches. To make the finals after such a heartbreaking moment is nothing short of astonishing.

It was a true privilege to witness what Adelaide managed to muster in the face of extreme adversity. They exhibited mental fortitude and tenacity that far exceeded the value of their own physical strength.

And just like that, football mattered again.

These humbling moments demonstrate to us how some things can be trivial but also bring us together, and football remains such a great example of just that. It reminds us of human fragility, yet has done so much for many people.

It can simultaneously create a unique platform to voice the prevalence of many issues in society and bring a sense of community and unification in times of struggle. My granddad’s words have never been more relevant.

With that, footy will remain a special game, and its players will remain human.

Darcy Coombs hides behind his computer as the beat scribe for his band Otious. You'll find him voicing his opinions in 'Read'. He also hasn't grown a millimetre since he was 14.