The game is already well lost. A valiant effort for three quarters has come to nothing. We’re a tired-looking mob and the margin has blown out, telling a tale that doesn’t reflect the spirit and energy with which we’ve played.
There’s no incentive whatsoever for a 30-year-old veteran, who’s had the indignity of wearing the sub vest today, in what could be his last season, to do anything overly heroic. No one would have blamed him if he’d put in some short steps, done a helpless flailing of arms to mimic an effort at a mark, and then done an ostentatious gesture of annoyance at the original kicker, reminding him to be more careful next time.
Instead, never losing sight of the ball, Daniel Cross launches himself backwards in an act of sacrificial insanity. He would know for an excruciating second or two that he’s about to be crunched – the only question is how bad it’s going to be.
I don’t know what goes through his mind at a moment like that, having never played the game myself. I’m in awe of his courage. He doesn't flinch for even a moment, his eyes so fixed on the ball that he ends up marking it almost horizontally. The pack converging on him cushions his fall and strangely enough, protects him as he comes down almost gently in the end, clutching the ball as though his life depends on it.
I can understand a player doing something like this in the in the blind desperation of a nail-biting finish where a lot is at stake – a premiership, a spot in the finals. I can imagine moments in crunch games where for the players, as for the fans, the atmosphere is so heightened, the prize so high, that time seems to suspend itself and everything develops the blurry unreality of a dream. But I’m not so sure what motivates Daniel Cross to do this in a nondescript game, in a season that’s already over for the Bulldogs.
Over the years there are many players that have become favourites to watch. For some their skills and extraordinary talents are the obvious reasons. The grace and class of Chris Grant (the best player I’ve ever seen for us), so aptly nicknamed ‘The Rolls Royce.’ The guy who bestowed that nickname, Doug Hawkins, gliding smoothly along ‘his’ wing at the Western Oval. The ‘smiling assassin’, Brad Johnson, an incredible, brave mark for his size, a lively zesty forward, a player who could and did run all day.
But there are players that we love for other reasons. The player that gets the most out of limited gifts, who will never feature on the highlight reel for breathtaking marks or dashing goals. They often come to occupy a special place in the affections of the fans.
Players like the ungainly and unheralded Matthew Croft, who week after week played his heart out against brilliant forwards like Wayne Carey, playing with resolve and commitment, doing his little unspectacular bit for the team. (Though to be honest, we often suspected Crofty, who was fond of a daring baulk, secretly saw himself as a different kind of player, perhaps even a long-lost Krakoeur brother. And in his last game he even lairised, kicking a torpedo from 15 metres out).
Then there was the littlest Bulldog of all, Tony Liberatore, who usually ended a game bandaged and bloodied and had no right whatsoever to play footy, except for the size of his heart and his unquenchable self belief.
Daniel Cross - the unobtrusive footballer who probably wouldn't even be recognised by opposition fans - is that kind of player too.
Did he launch himself suicidally at the ball this week because he can feel the march of time, knows that with the granting of the ominous red vest his career is perhaps on the line, and wants desperately to prove the doubters wrong and prolong the days when he too runs out there and hears the roar of the crowd?
Did he do it for his mates? He’s always struck me as the ultimate selfless player. Is he motivated now, not for individual accolades and glory, but by his ’21 best mates’ and his gallant desire to do set an example for the team? (This is the man who, when he suffered a bad injury last year, was pictured crying on the bench, and explained afterward that it was because he had 'let his team-mates down'.)
Or did he do it for the supporters — the loyal or fickle, patient or angry fans — who so often, quite ridiculously, feel that it’s all about us? We, who say we’ve been ‘let down’, ‘embarrassed’, or ‘ashamed’ by a dismal performance, and yet feel inspired, uplifted and somehow proud of acts of bravery like this. Acts that have nothing —and yet everything—to do with the fact that we’re there, watching. Or at this moment, jumping to our feet, applauding and celebrating him, even though we’re headed toward another galling defeat.
On the fan websites, his name is now being debated as one that could, maybe should, be delisted at season’s end. I don’t know if that’s right, but I realise, whether it’s this year or the next, the end is in sight. He’s never been gifted with pace, and now he’s downright slow. Our list is in big trouble, needing an overhaul. Daniel Cross, 30-year-old 200 game player with a big heart, will not be around for our next tilt at a flag.
As fans, we get to see the exhilaration of watching new talents make their debut, as I wrote recently about Jake Stringer. We follow the progress of kids that we think and hope will be stars (some of them even live up to our fevered expectations). But we also see, and are saddened by, the gradual, slow declines of our favourites, guys who’ve given their all, week in week out.
One day, maybe even at the end of this year, Daniel Cross will get chaired off the ground for the last time by his team-mates. He's not likely to be the only one shedding a tear when that day comes, and the highlight reel shows him, again and again, with head over the ball, doing what he can for our team.