Bulldog Tragician, June 27, in the leadup to our match vs Melbourne.
I’m certainly not one to heap undue pressure on an 18-year-old kid, in only his eighth game and his first season.
But when future Bulldog premiership captain, Brownlow medallist and All-Australian Marcus Bontempelli kicked the 2014 goal of the year, I knew I had my unforgettable gem for not just the match but the year.
Before he even kicked it, I was in awe, amazed by his first, second, third and fourth efforts just to keep the ball in play with those octopus arms and unbelievable basketball-style reflexes. When he swung it onto his non-preferred foot, it felt as though everyone in the whole stadium held their collective breath. There was that milli-second of silence, then a building hum of sound as we watched its trajectory, hoping, yet hardly daring to hope. But when you look at the replay (which I may have done, once or twice) I reckon it was actually never going anywhere but straight through the middle.
I love so many things about this goal. I love the way, like the great players, The Bont conjured up possibilities, space and opportunities in the tightest of places, unseen by mere mortals, within a tiny little canvas where he is about to weave his magic. I love seeing debutant Mitch Honeychurch raise his arms almost as soon as The Bont lets fly, knowing it will go through (what a brilliant memory for him to savour forever in his first match). I love the looks on the faces of the spectators in the background, their expressions, dazed, unbelieving, laughing in that slightly crazy way that you do when you’ve seen something that really is that over-used word, "special".
As they begin to rise, as we all did, almost hypnotised, to our feet.
The roar as the ball sailed through was not simply jubilation - even though it was a goal that put us back in front and ultimately won us the match, after we seemed to have lost our way. It was the simultaneous, collective realisation from thousands of people (even, I dare say, the Melbourne fans too) that they’d seen one for the ages. We all knew instantly that this was no fluky goal, not just a lucky, blind, panicked kick. Straight away we sensed that the freakish skills - and the fact that they were produced at such a perilous point of the match - were signs that this could be a player with a charismatic ‘X’ quality. A player with that certain will and drive to produce his very best when it matters most, in the very hottest point of the furnace in a match. A player that could get the turnstiles clicking. A player who just may be the one to nail that clutch goal at the right moment and not seem overawed by the responsibility, as so many of our players have struggled with in the past, even great ones like Brad Johnson, Chris Grant and Daniel Giansiracusa.
Once the euphoria of the ‘Bonti-ful’ goal began to fade (actually, it still hasn't, but for the purposes of this story, bear with me) we walked out of the ground, untroubled by the driving rain, hail, sleet (and I still maintain there were a few snowflakes). And we were still marvelling. Still talking about that goal.
But I began remembering many other contributions throughout the match, not as spectacular but still worthy, and how these too shaped the outcome and formed the backdrop for The Bont's dramatic entrance on the stage. The ever selfless and always heroic Dale Morris flinging himself onto a Melbourne boot in the goal square, saving a certain goal. Liam Picken performing an almost insanely suicidal act in the third quarter when the Dees were launching their fiercest challenge, putting his head down, risking life and limb to wrest away the ball into his keeping. There were 20 ‘moments’ from Matthew Boyd, 20 contested balls won by the 32 year old leader of our precocious midfield, stepping up in the absence of Griffen. There were the composure and smarts of Honeychurch who only needed half a second to snap a goal in his first match, Lachlan Hunter's deft touches and 'specky'. The bullocking work of Jake Stringer, who should have finished with six goals in his best game for the club. The tireless leading and strong marking of our Carey-esque center half forward – ummm, Luke Dalhaus?? The ungainly but somehow beautiful snap on goal by the man who was apparently christened William Minson but is forever known as Big Will.
Let's leave these efforts aside, though, and return to The Bont and what his emergence could mean for our club. If he does become the superstar we hope he will be (I'm sick of being low key and judicious in my expectations - the lid is OFF!), how much excitement, magic and sheer entertainment could be bring and how much could he bring sparkle to the image of our battling club. And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I'm imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I'm all set to get one myself).
Some time soon, I guess it's possible The Bont may experience a natural form slump, and even play a shocker. Not yet 19, his body may soon cry out for a rest. As the years roll on, The Bont will experience (PLEASE, PLEASE let it be at our club for his whole career) the natural ebbs and flows of a footballing life. Disappointments, tough days at the office, and heartbreaking losses. Fickle fans. Injuries, maybe even lonely stints in rehabilitation. Times when footy does not seem as easy, joyous and carefree as it must at the moment.
Fans from other clubs often jeer at the Bulldogs for our lack of premiership success, ridiculing our solitary flag. They don't get it: that there are so many other reasons to love and follow a club, and one of those is our connection with our players. As we watch The Bont's career begin to unfold, right now full of limitless potential and wonder, I like to think about the fact that we will be there alongside him in all the steps of his journey. Just as every time Dale Morris backs courageously into a pack, it's more precious because we have been there for his debut as a mature-aged rookie who refused to give up, watching with hearts in mouths as he was carried off from a horrific broken leg, celebrating his hard-fought return; and one day, in sorrow, we know we will bid him farewell and thank him with overflowing hearts. Just as we shared Chris Grant's rise from spindly 17 year old to elegant power forward, his heartbreak at the missed Brownlow, the devastation of the missed Grand Finals, and transition to respected club elder statesman.
Now we're there for the ride as new careers begin in the red, white and blue, new fresh faces carry forward our dreams, and none right now seems more exciting and promising than the kid called The Bont.
Last year on Grand Final Day I penned a rose-coloured prediction of our 2016 premiership (Tomozz). There have been many times this year that my optimism seemed every bit insane as a Liam Picken sacrificial lunge over a loose balll. But right now I'm thinking if I wrote it again, I'd need to find a place in my daydream for The Bont. Marcus Bontempelli, Norm Smith medallist? It sounds pretty damn good to me.