'Let's be brutally honest, all I really do is play football. I, for one, am still unable to see why I'd be viewed as anything other than a footballer. Yes, footballers are viewed as role models by young kids but unless the kids know the player personally, this to me is silly." Chris Judd, 2005.
I wasn't all that surprised when this somewhat cold and aloof statement was made, not being at all a fan of the person who made it. Though it was perfectly in accord with the history of his actions and choices during his football career (Visy 'ambassadorship', anyone?).
However I vehemently disagreed. As a smarmy politician might say, "I don't accept the premise of the question."
It's always been just as important to me that our players are people whose public profile makes us proud as that they are good players. I've remained blindly convinced that we have more than our fair share of men of great character, filtering out anything that doesn't fit the narrative. I admit that this has sometimes involved some head-in-the-sand moments. I've been known to perform increasingly desperate contortions to find likeability in those with blemishes (normally, of course, these have been imported to our club, so their bona fides are already in question). I had to take this to ridiculous extremes when Jason Akermanis, - who I'd always detested - came to our club. I was forced into the most feeble of attempts to find a reason to cheer for him.: 'Apparently he learnt sign language to communicate with his wife's deaf parents.'
He was never 'one of us' all the same.
Around the time that Judd made his statement panning the notion of players as role models, our captain was Luke Darcy. Six rounds into the 2005 season, he injured his knee, requiring a full reconstruction. It is part of Western Bulldogs folklore that footy heartbreak struck him down again; in the last training run of the pre-season, days before Christamas, Darce re-injured that knee, and missed that season as well.I have several treasured memories of Darce which are separate from his exploits on the field (though as a 200-gamer, Sutton medal winner, and leader of our goalkicking one year, these were substantial). The first was of on a day when I was at the club's Barkly Street home to pick up tickets and spotted our spindly new recruit. I smiled when I saw his extremely tall frame somehow awkwardly wedged into a suzuki-style car; endearingly, young Darcy was still driving on P-plates.
There was another occasion, 2003, when the Dogs were having a wretched season.. We were playing Fremantle at Docklands and in the first half our team was putting on one of those embarrassingly bad efforts that makes you question exactly why you bother. (That's before I started this blog to try and find out). Though I wasn't exactly enjoying the display, I began noticing with horror, a noise building from the fans as the dejected players trudged off at half-time. It was a noise fortunately rare from our fans, but excruciating nonetheless: the unmistakable and ugly sound of booing. I saw Luke looking up in puzzlement perhaps expecting that the wrath of the fans was, more traditionally, directed at the umpires or some unpopular member of the opposition. Recognition slowly dawned: it was condemnation of himself and his team-mates.
I'm afraid this didn't prove to be some sort of galvanising turning point for the year. It maybe (I've blanked a lot of it out) wasn't even the low point of the season, considering the Dogs won just three games for the year, and added to our wooden spoon collection.
Such miserable moments added a layer of poignancy in Luke Darcy's famous words in 2016. He was then a commentator and it was the final seconds of our match against the Acronyms: Throwing aside any pretence of objectivity, his voice wobbly with emotion; he spoke for all the fans, all the unfulfilled players, as he said: 'I've been waiting all my life to say this: the Bulldogs are into a Grand Final!.' Darce had ,played in only two finals wins in his long and celebrated career. He was there for The Preliminary Final that (still) Must not be Named. And the Other Preliminary That Wasn't Very Good Either.
However my strongest memory of Darce is from an encounter off field. Our family arrived for a match, for some reason we had access to underground parking. Luke Darcy was still recuperating from one of those knee injuries; he parked near us (needless to say, in a more salubrious vehicle than that long-ago clown-sized car). As we gathered our assorted scarves and possessions from the car, we saw a family, decked out in Bulldog paraphernalia, shyly approach Luke as he got out of his car. Their young son was in a wheelchair; his gaunt frame and bald head told a tale, of serious illness borne. Our captain reached out to shake the boy's hand; the parents hurriedly explained that their young son could no longer see. Luke, visibly moved, bent down to speak to the lad at his level, while the boy beamed with delight to hear from his hero. My pride at witnessing this moment of kindness - away from any cameras, no contrived media event - could not have been any greater if Luke Darcy had been - but he of course never was - standing on the MCG dais as a premiership winning captain.
Last week we saw the retirement of one of those who did get to stand on that dais while the red, white and blue confetti rained down. Jordan Roughead rucked that day, as he did in each of our four finals. His participation in the grand final was in doubt right to the day, after he sustained bleeding to the eye in the epic preliminary final win and spent the week in a darkened room awaiting the go-ahead from the medical experts.
He was one of those less celebrated Bulldogs who was important at key moments: wheeling around and roosting a 50-metre plus goal to thwart a threatened Eagles comeback in the third quarter of the elimination final. In the Grand Final, in those frantic moments when a goal from Jason Johanisen was overruled, and we all gulped with that 'this-could-only-happen-to-us' panicky terror; the kickout from the point was marked, in a calm and composed way, by Roughie. We were safe.
It was not just these achievements, though, for which we give thanks to Roughie. He has also been known for his community leadership, his support for legalising gay marriage, and his stances against racism.
And in 2017, Jordan turned up to the Brownlow with an unexpected guest. He brought along a young man called (I'm not making this up) Darcy, who had found himself homeless as a teenager. While the likes of Chris Judd's wife Rebecca preened themselves in readiness of the red carpet, Darcy was being taken by his mentor to the fitting of his first ever suit.
The Tragician loves to bask in the memory of such beautiful moments. You may have noticed, however, my efforts to airbrush out the fact that Roughie finished his career as a Magpie. That for reasons still untold, he asked to leave our club, the one that he'd barracked for as a boy. Troublingly, only a short while after the fabled premiership, he said he was 'stale' and no longer enjoyed that trip over the Westgate to arrive at his home - or had it become just his workplace, and an unpleasant one at that - at the Whitten Oval.
It doesn't really fit with my rosy fantasy of men whose character is on a par with their talent, where brotherhood and loyalty reign in a wholesome and enlightened club environment, where nasty individuals are instantly expelled rather than tolerated because of their ability. (At this point I would also like to strongly deny any "alleged" occasions where I may have risen to my feet and applauded the wizardry of Akermanis..and not just because he learnt sign language to communicate with his in-laws).
Roughie will soon be a dad for the first time - maybe I'll get to see a son or daughter play in our colours one day. Luke Darcy is barely remembered for his playing career any more now that he is a prominent and successful media personality - rumours that he will stand for election by the Liberal Party are hastily dismissed by the Tragician as a likely - make that definite - Herald-Sun beat up. I'd prefer to look forward to the day his son Sam, who towers over even his ruckman dad, makes his debut. Because there's one thing more romantic and exciting than seeing a father-son story unfold, it's the prospect of seeing a third generation Bulldog in our colours.
On Saturday the latest reincarnation of Our Boys - the club of Darcy and Roughead - triumphed over the Eagles. Sam Darcy's future team-mates run amok against the club where Chris Judd won one of his Brownlows, and a premiership. No wonder Judd disavowed being a role model; the West Coast Eagles was a club of far-from-nice guys at the time.
At the ground where last year we tasted the bitterness of Grand Final defeat, goals reined down with remarkable ease. Even defender Alex Keath scored two. More improbably the stern-faced 'Chief', cracked a smile (though not when his exuberant team-mate Aaron Naughton headbutted him in celebration). The Dogs didn't even really miss excitement machine and regular 40-possession accumulator Bailey Smith . (Mothers around Australia could have told him he'd catch a cold if he kept going out without a singlet on).
Courage, commitment and skill were on display; our footy was dazzling and ferocious. Though the opposition (which still have more than a few recent premiership players) were poor, our performance was nonetheless complete. As we racked up a 100-point victory, I remembered what, this year, has not always been apparent. our very best footy is fearsome and when (if) injuries finally abate, we could be challengers again this year.
Yet long after the footies were packed away and Bevo's Travelling All-Stars jetted out of Perth I was treasuring something that was greater than just a percentage boosting win. I know it will last longer in my memory. Two little girls with serious disabilities and their family who have a passion for the Dogs got to meet the team while they were in Perth. I often think how challenging it can be for young men to handle these situations; after all, many in the community struggle to relate to, or be natural and comfortable around, illness and disability, especially in children. But Bont led his team out in more ways than one. They took to the field where the little girls, one of them bouncing for joy in her red, white and blue frilled skirt, were waiting; Bont broke into a big smile before leaning down to speak to her. Moments earlier these guys had been revving each other up in the rooms, bumping and yelling and snarling, preparing for the ferocity of 'battle'; yet now they paused to greet the little girls, to speak gently and kindly to them. They waited, and then these big strong young men carefully lifted the edge of the banner as one so Leah and Abby and their family could go through, precious members of our Bulldog family.
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.