The Bont Years
In 2014 a raw and gawky teenager named Marcus Bontempelli was a guest on one of the footy programs. He'd played a handful of immensely promising games.
Presenter Mark Robinson leaned in towards him, with a fake, oily air of intimacy and confidentiality designed to trip the young bloke up. What did you REALLY think when you were drafted by the sad and sorry Bulldogs? (You can trust me, just share with Robbo the truth?) Was your first thought : 'Oh no!'
Not for the first time, I nearly succumbed to the temptation to throw something at Mark Robinson's foolish face on the TV. But, looking slightly affronted, our new number four politely rebuffed Robinson's condescending assumption. With an air of composure, he spoke about the good things at the club and his enjoyment at being there.
This was the first, but by no means the last, time I would feel inordinately proud of Marcus, as I still quaintly called him. (For like a bashful suitor I felt it was too early to call him by a nickname. And I was maintaining an increasingly fragile posture, claiming that the legendary Daniel Cross would be, forever and always, my favourite player to wear number four).
Marcus had played in five losses - including a 45-point loss to Gold Coast, if you're wondering just how well our team was travelling - before he got the chance to sing the club song. Somehow his first victory was one of those that have somehow penetrated through the fog of too many seasons, too many matches, that is the fate of the long-term supporter.
It was June 2014. We were at rock bottom. (Again). We were a laughing stock. (Again). A smarmy article had been written that day questioning our very identity and calling us..."irrelevant". We were about to play a Collingwood team who were a premiership contender; it was the dead of winter. Even the Tragician didn't want to head to the match.
But if the fans couldn't show stoicism and grit, why should the players, I asked somewhat rhetorically, heading gloomily - yet sanctimoniously - out the door.
The blog that day was called: We came, we saw, we believed. It was worth being there, of course it was. The Dogs upset the Pies, and Marcus, who could perhaps (I was coming around) now be called Bont, or Bonti, earned a Rising Star nomination. He hugged his dad at the end of the match. It was a beautiful moment.
We knew - KNEW - he was going to be special.
Bont (oh, all right, I was throwing caution to the wind by now) played every game for the rest of the season, one in which the Dogs finished 14th. In one of these he kicked a stupendous goal that is remembered by all who saw it and which saw me feverishly anoint him as a future captain, Brownlow and Norm Smith medalist! (My understated, low-key blog was called: All about the Bont). I knew, we all knew, the hyperbole was justified. We saw greatness. We hoped, almost superstitiously feared, how far he could take us.
Somehow, improbably, The Bont is now 27 years old. He plays his 200th game this week. Less improbably, he is our captain, for this was always his destiny, and a premiership player. By his own will, and outsized talent, he made that his, and our, destiny.
As fans, we've been alongside him, sometimes raucously, sometimes silently, always with a sort of reverence, through all those years.
We were there in the 2015 final, when a chant of his name which I've never heard (before or since) for an individual Bulldog reverberated around the arena. (Bont missed gettable shots of goal that evening, and a jittery Tragician feared that the Bulldog Curse had somehow infiltrated even his sunny demeanour).
We were there in the moment that some North Fake Tough Guys roughed him up. The unflappable teenager smothered the kick of one of the chief antagonists and then did what I christened the Bontempelli Smirk.
We joined him in the unlikely fairytale ride of 2016, mystified, and yet enthralled when we heard his, and the team's, mantra was: 'Why not us?' Such an UnBulldog-like, carefree sentiment would normally have been treated with suspicion, and worse, embarrassment ... as if we didn't know, as if it wasn't burnt into our consciousness, all the reasons it was never us. But in the moment that Bont stretched out his arms and outbodied Luke Hodge, I became strangely calm. I entered a trance-like state from that point, somehow indoctrinated almost against my will in a 'Why not us?' cult.
Now, when I watch the goal Bont kicked in the suffocating last quarter against The Despised Acronyms, I'm awed by the degree of difficulty. The way he had to run full pelt onto an awkwardly bouncing ball. The skill with which he paddled it almost delicately into his outsized hands.
The smoothness with which he steadied. The laser-like contact from his left foot.
So many things could have gone wrong. Yet at the time I knew no other thought, but that because it was Bont, he would surely kick it.
We've seen him kick goals of outrageous flair. Time and again we've seen him burst from the centre with that unique blend of grace and power. We've seen his strong, yet soft hands bring down marks, seen him somehow there on the last defensive line in the urgent dying matches of moments, his fist coming over the top to save the day. The competitiveness burning beneath a genial demeanour.
I guess there has been less of the Bontempelli smirk. Because hard times come to champions too.
We saw the GWS thugs monster him, the scratches on his face, the punch to his gut outside play. We weren't with him though - we were so many many kilometres away - when he celebrated his third goal in the 2021 Grand Final. Apart, literally, from our team, isolated by COVID, we watched those awful moments that followed, as the match vanished from our keeping. We could only silently grieve, for all our team but Bont in particular, knowing how much he had done to get us to that final, an awe-inspiring individual season, and captaining in the most difficult and extraordinary of circumstances.
It seemed important to me to keep the TV on, to see Bont make the concession speech, such a hard, wrenching moment. He was dignified. Calm. Gracious. But hurting.
We could see, in those stunned, wretched minutes, how badly our champ was hurting.
There are still occasional moments - though it's probably inevitable there are fewer in the hard grind of what's now a nine-year career - when we see the young Marcus reappear. When our team made the finals last year as The Old Dark Navy Blues slipped out of the eight in the dying moments of the round (that's a Tragician smirk from me) and he leapt around wildly with his team-mates. When Bont jumped from the bench when Little Arty NEARLY kicked a goal.
We brim with pride on every single occasion we see him in his captain role: his gentle and beautiful manner as he shepherds children who run through the banner, his fierce comments about racism, his silent but powerful stand alongside Jamarra when he spoke about what he'd endured.
Last week Bont played one of his more majestic games. Perhaps it was his best ever, I felt it to be so, yet memories can be so imprecise. But every feature, every one of his amazing repertoire of skills, was present in cameo. The clearance work where he doesn't slow down as he takes the ball and lopes off, much quicker than a guy of his size has any right to be. The outrageous 30-metre handballs which anticipate, indeed command, where his team-mate must go. Marking befitting a power forward. A speckie!
He's learning new tricks. He's in his prime.
I admit he has flaws. He's had a few bad haircuts, for example. If I think of any others I'll get back to you.
We've often wished we could clone him. At various points of last week's match I thought such technology had actually come to fruition, because surely that couldn't be Bont taking a mark on the forward line when he'd been the one to win the clearance, or spoil an opposition's forward thrust half a second earlier?
There is a school of thought that our club's erratic and overall disappointing performances since 2016 have 'wasted the Bont years.' That with this once-in-a-generation (make that once-in-a -lifetime) talent at our disposal, we should have been more successful. Reaped more rewards. Consistently played finals. Jagged a premiership, maybe two.
I don't quite see it that way.
Maybe it's the legacy of too many years where our team were a rabble, and perhaps fans of the big successful clubs would heap scorn on this idea. Just seeing Bont play has been a privilege and a joy, and his feats, his brilliance, will always shine bright whether he adds another premiership to an already glittering resume.
Maybe it's unique to us as Bulldogs' fans, or maybe it's unique to me as a Bulldog Tragician. I've learnt, maybe I had to learn, to take solace in tiny moments, and savour the individual talents, stories and efforts. Because premiership glory comes along rarely, and there have to be other reasons to drag out the scarf when someone's written a supercilious article calling you irrelevant and another thrashing seems assured. I've still appreciated the artistry, the bravery, the gumption of all those - too many! - Bulldogs who played 200, 300 games for us and didn't even make one grand final. Their careers weren't a waste. Their efforts are still to be celebrated.
There will be another flag for Bont, though, a voice whispers insistently in my ear. I certainly won't need any extra prompting to drag out my scarf and head for the match on Saturday, to celebrate the player and even more the person. He's definitely been a worthy heir to the Daniel Cross guernsey, and if we're very lucky there might at some point be a trademark Bontempelli smirk.
Our Bulldogs Family
After the loss to St Kilda the reviews were brutal.
There was a lack of intensity, dare and passion all across the ground. Skills were deplorable. The team looked old, slow and even unfit. If there was a new game plan to address our defensive woes, as hinted at by club communications, it was nowhere in evidence. Unless leaving opposition players unattended 15 metres from goal was something we'd been practising.
We were headed for bottom four; with challenging games ahead, we could easily have zero wins in our first five matches. It was our worst loss under Bevo. It was maybe our worst loss, ever.
But, enough of what the Libba Sisters had to say.
Soon the football experts began a pile-on, scathing in their assessments of Luke Beveridge and our players, and writing us off for the season.
The effect on me was immediate. A 360-degree turnabout in my views almost gave me whiplash. How dare those idiotic morons sneer at my club, my Bulldogs FAMILY!! They were a bunch of know-nothing nincompoops, motivated by hatred of the western suburbs!! They had never forgiven us for the fact that in 2016 we'd won the GREATEST premiership of all time!!!
My lack of rationality (and Trump-ian exclamation marks and capitals) didn't concern me at all; in fact it was comforting in its extremity. Passion, rather than objectivity or even consistency, is part of the package; for our club more than most. If I'd only been interested in jumping on the Bulldogs' glory train when we were travelling well, I'd have seen less than a quarter of games in my lifetime. Whole seasons would have sailed fruitlessly by. The Western Bulldogs, nee Footscray Football Club, have always been family, not a mere sporting enterprise to me. Just like family, unconditional support was required, more than ever in difficult and testing times.
We drew on that clannish togetherness more than ever when news of the worst kind trickled through. Our young star in the making, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, had been racially abused by a spectator at the Saints match. My heart was heavy; the fact of our loss was now trivial, meaningless, in comparison. How can this happen in 2023? it is baffling, sickening.
There was barely controlled anger in the voice of The Bont, as he fronted the media to condemn the hatefulness. And Jamarra's mother Alice was eloquent, and heartbreaking with her words:
'Its venomous tone, a reflection of hate. A reminder of how far we still have to go, it’s our fate.
'We won’t give in, we won’t back down. We’ll stand up tall and never let our spirits drown. For we know that love will always triumph over hate.'
There was love aplenty when much better news was announced: another Indigenous boy, Arthur Jones, would make his debut. I'd been captivated by Arty since seeing his exuberantly over-the-top celebration with family and friends when he was drafted. Watching his team-mates celebrate the news of his inclusion, seeing Our Boys united and together after a tough week, I felt a sense of calm and optimism return. The fears earlier in the week - of a 10-goal thumping and a certain former premiership player of ours kissing his new Brisbane jumper as he ran into an open goal - faded into the background.
In fact by the time the Libba Sisters took our seats, sporting our brand new Arty Jones badges, belief in Our Boys was back.
We'd decided not to boo the player we now frostily called Josh Dunkley (nicknames such as "Dunks" are only for family members after all). Our connection to him had already waned two years earlier when he wanted out. He'd been professional while he played out the contract he wanted to break, I grudgingly conceded, but irrationally that was what annoyed me further - that every time he ran out for us, he was fulfilling a merely professional role. Or motivated by the need to build Brand Dunks.
Now Josh Dunkley has left our club where he'd become a premiership player, his mates and brothers, for a better business opportunity. Well, I wouldn't lower myself to boo him, but maybe I wouldn't exactly be sorry if he had a little hamstring tweak in the first minutes. Or was crunched just a little too hard in a fair but ferocious tackle. Or missed a simple shot at goal at a critical moment, to cost his new franchise, sorry, team, the game. Yes, welcome to the petty inner world of the Bulldog Tragician, concerned enough with worthy causes and social justice in her everyday life, but quite capable of harbouring such thoughts when there has been any slight against her Bulldogs Family.
The Thursday night crowd was sparse and disappointing, but you felt somehow the ones who were there were of a certain ilk and determination. Maybe they had been barracking for the Dogs long enough to know that with the footy world against us, Bevo Our Saviour and his - Our - Boys were likely to be at their best.
From the first centre bounce a different Bulldogs mindset was on display. The highly-rated Brisbane midfield were going to be harassed, niggled, outworked all night. And the crowd didn't seem that small once we realised that our team were up to the challenge.
We roared our approval when Arty Jones (advertised as 71 kg, but surely this is a misprint) effected a tackle that led to Jamarra's first goal. We stood, numbly trying to convey our love and support, when Jamarra lifted his guernsey to show his black skin to the crowd in a recreation of the famous Nicky Winmar gesture. And when Arty almost kicked a goal, we rose from our seats; it was endearing to see Bont, from the bench, also leap up in boyish celebration.
We marvelled at every action of our magnificent captain, who kept sweeping imperiously out of the centre and used his imposing frame to bring down Lions players foolish enough to dare to get past him.
It probably wasn't just the Tragician who noted with smug satisfaction that when in the third quarter Bont charged out of the centre bouncing the ball with breathtaking skill (Libba formed a human shield to give our hero space) ... the mere mortal flailing desperately behind attempting to catch him was Joshua Dunkley.
Our performance was gritty rather than polished, but when the match was in the balance in a tense last quarter, there were moments of brilliance which showed our 0-2 start hasn't represented what our team is capable of. Tim English soared on the last line of defence to steady our nerves, while Aaron Naughton, the best contested mark I've seen for the Dogs, floated above a scrum of players to cleanly grab a ball in a magnificent pack mark.
Gratifying though the win was, those of us there knew we'd been part of something bigger than four points banked. We'd seen a 20-year-old make an emphatic stand against the ugliness of racism. It's a moment that will reverberate for decades. Yet it was heart-rending, hearing Marra's voice shake with emotion as he spoke about the effect of the abuse; if he ever seemed to struggle, it must have helped that standing resolutely beside him was our skipper, his self-described 'older brother.'
Our players shared the photo of Marra which will become iconic on their social media accounts. None was more eloquent and poignant than that of reborn defender Josh Bruce. He simply said: "My f*ing boy."
We'd seen our Bulldogs family at its best, proud, fierce and united. Standing for something greater than football.
Our players were cordial towards their former teammate Josh Dunkley at the end of the match. Is he still family to them? a respected but distant former team-mate? just another opponent in the business of footy? I realise I'll never quite know, any more than I can really define what my own concept of a Bulldogs family means, in an era where contracts are easily discarded, where so many players are at their second and third clubs, and where 18-year-olds like Arty are sent 1000 kilometres away to begin their footballing journey.
Still, I'm proud when Marra says the support he'd received within the club had been incredible. We are not just a club, he says, but a family.
Meanwhile our team are having a hard time getting the baby of the family, Arty, off the arena. Like exasperated but fond older brothers, they stand by while he does a lengthy victory lap. Afterwards, he is interviewed by his housemate (can you imagine?) Cody Weightman, both of them fizzing with energy. Arty's still euphoric; he's living out his dream.
And then for no apparent reason except that footy is still about joy, Cody actually piggybacks Arty off the ground. (I guess those 71 kilograms make it an easy assignment).
My mind keeps turning back to Marra, who has now played 25 games. It doesn't seem that long ago that he made his debut. I feel emotional, sad, angry and proud when I remember the words I wrote back then in the euphoria of seeing his career begin, and which are now for Arty too:
'May you never encounter the ugliness of racism. May you make your family, community and our club proud. There's a whole army of us now walking beside you on your journey. I doubt the word 'workmanlike' will be ever used about you, and something tells me your career is likely to be more than enthralling.'
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.