I'm walking my little dogs, after the club announced Tom Boyd's retirement. The autumn air is crisp; there's a blazing sunset but I barely notice it. Running alongside my tangled thoughts, a couple of lines from a Beatles song are, annoyingly, stuck in my head.
I heard the news today, oh boy,
About a lucky man who made the grade...
The news of Tom's retirement has hit me like a truck. There's a sadness and sense of loss that could be disproportionate about someone I've never even met.
It's got almost nothing to do with his on-field contributions or what he could have done for us on the football field. Something much more important is preoccupying me. His retirement crystallises all the things that are the other side of my love affair with footy. Players on pedestals, made to fit our preconceived ideas of their golden lives as they pose at the Portsea Polo. Snide media, hoping, barracking, for failure. Over-the-top adulation of young players, so quickly descending into spite and vitriol.
And I'm look backing through the time tunnel, to the end of 2014, when first Tom Boyd's name was linked to ours. Ryan Griffen had defected; days later we were also without a coach. Our club was further away from a premiership than ever before. We were incandescent with rage at Ryan Griffen. We scoffed when he said he had lost the enjoyment of footy. We weren't going to buy that feeble excuse, undoubtedly just code for: 'The Giants have offered me a crap-load of money and I want to play for a club that will soon win a premiership.'
We wanted our club to strike back, strike back hard. In our abject state, just hearing that Tom Boyd, who'd been picked as the nation's best young player, was considering our club as a destination, was a fillip. When he actually said he would come - to US, the battling Bulldogs - there was a tinge of hysteria in our joy. Cop that, footy world and naysayers!
The footy world mocked the amount we'd paid for a guy who, despite his lofty draft status, was still unproven, calling him the Million Dollar Man, but we were defiant. We'd dreamt big, for once. Was that really so wrong?
About Tom Boyd, the 19-year-old person, we knew little. He was a pawn, successfully used to checkmate the mess in which our club was floundering. If we worried about the impact of the fevered media attention on a teenager, our fears were quickly allayed, or rather we wanted them to be. Tom Boyd was well-spoken, thoughtful, mature, intelligent. Maybe if he'd been one of those spindly, frail-looking 19-year-olds, we'd have been more worried, but he looked so solid, so robust; we brushed the concerns aside. Maybe, just maybe, we were too desperate for that flag to think about it too deeply.
And, after all, the gamble worked, didn't it?. A whole chain of events flowed from the Tom Boyd trade. A new coach, a reset of that dream which was closer than we knew, and the man himself turning on a breathtakingly wonderful Grand Final performance. He was the Norm Smith medallist in most of our minds. His was the goal that brought on the famous description: 'the stadium holds its breath.' As it went through, Tom reached skywards in triumph. Triumph, and maybe release from the weight of the terrible expectations placed on his shoulders; he said afterwards that he wasn't even aware of Toby McLean jumping on his back.
The dramatic, famous last chord from 'A day in the life' could have rung out right then, reverberating around the stadium. Our sorry history overturned, the wicked spell cast on our club broken at last. Vindication for the Tom Boyd story!
Things are never as they appear though, are they?
In the months and years after 2014, I'd already begun reflecting differently on Ryan Griffen, who said he'd lost the love of the game. Now, I began to remember him looking stooped and burdened by the captaincy, no longer bouncing the ball and running down the wing, struggling with form, a heaviness in his demeanour. He didn't get that premiership with the Giants; Tom Boyd, to all intents and purposes, was the 'winner' of that controversial and fateful player exchange. There were so many meanings that could be constructed around the ways their careers intersected, including the fact that it was the Dogs, not the Giants, who got to the grand final first. There's an irony in the fact, though, that Tom Boyd, who did achieve the ultimate reward, has reached a similar turning point to Ryan Griffen and lost the joy of the game.
In 2017 we were initially bewildered, a little puzzled, then fiercely protective, when Tom announced he would stand aside from footy due to mental health concerns. When he was further down the path of recovery, he spoke, in a podcast with Bob Murphy, about how easily everything had come to him earlier in life, leaving him ill-equipped to deal with times of adversity. Tom became an ambassador for the mental health organisation for young people, Headspace; he spoke with beautiful eloquence of times that were dark, said that the apparent fairytale premiership performance had only papered over the cracks in his well-being. He talked of not sleeping for weeks, panic attacks, an inability to concentrate. I felt proud, as a mother of sons myself, that this sensitive, sincere young man was so open; hopeful that he would help others realise that they were not alone in their struggles, that fortune and talent and a so-called perfect life from the outside doesn't immunise you from depression, maybe makes the battle even harder because it is so at odds with what's within.
But over the next few weeks, when I saw trams and buses trundle through the city, with Tom's face emblazoned on the side in his ambassador role, I felt uneasy. It was somehow disconcerting. Did Tom have to be perfect, upfront and visible, in this role too?
Now at 23, and having played just 61 games, Tom has walked away from a substantial amount of money, and a game with which he was disenchanted. He did not attend a press conference, explaining his decision to us, the fans, or the media that have focused on him with a mean-spirited relentless. Nor should he have to.
But the debate about his retirement soon encapsulated everything that is at the heart of Tom Boyd's story. Sympathy and compassion are mixed with confusion; he is labelled (this riled me) an 'unfulfilled talent', and with indecent haste, discussion moves onto how this will free up the Bulldogs' salary cap.
And, again and again, the question of the value of the 2014 trade gets picked over. Even the well-meaning view expressed by many Bulldogs' fans, that Tom Boyd 'was worth every cent', made me wince; it seemed an answer to the wrong question. He was again, being measured as a commodity, an investment, a stock that had paid dividends.
Because it is actually Tom that has paid the price, for us.
There will be no motorcade to farewell Tom Boyd. We won't be able to clap him, as he's hefted on his team-mates shoulders, carried from the ground; there will be no space for a farewell. Meanwhile, there's a game to be played tomorrow. We will lose, or we will win, but for the moment, there's just apathy in my mind about the result. Instead, I prefer to think that, down the road from the Geelong stadium, Tom Boyd who loves to surf, will be chasing waves at Bells Beach, at peace, because in the saddest part of a sad day, his mood after retiring was said to be 'relief.'
Many of Tom's team-mates, who'd played alongside him, sat in boring strategy meetings, sweated through arduous pre-seasons, seen a different Tom Boyd than the one we will never know, posted on social media. It was restrained, but heartfelt. Just photos of him, few words, and the symbol of a heart. It felt like they were building a circle of kindness around him. And kindness was one of the things rarely extended to Tom Boyd.
Whenever I see a new player with the X factor emerge - Bont, and recently Aaron Naughton - beneath my delight, and the selfish hope that they will bring my club success -I find myself uttering a silent prayer.
Please remember what it feels like right now, the pure pleasure of flying for a mark, the fun when you sing the song in the rooms.
Please let the game not be too hard on you.
Please never leave our club.
Please make us proud.
Now there is something else I'll be muttering like a chant under my breath, to all of our players... including Tom Boyd, player of 61 games, number one draft pick, son, brother, mental health ambassador, surfer, photographer, and the bringer of so much joy to thousands of Bulldogs fans on that one unforgettable day.
Please just stay well.
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.