Footy. The game of heartache
Eighteen weeks ago our season began. I drove to our first match along the Great Ocean Road, past people revelling in the autumn sunshine, swimming and paddling in the aquamarine water.
We cheered our players onto the field, eager to start the much-anticipated 2016 season. Beneath the rarity of an open roof, we were ready to test our mettle against Fremantle, a team that had won the minor premiership the previous season, and played off for a grand final the year before that.
Our boys were tanned, fit, brimming with hope, confidence, desire and self-belief. We rattled on seven first quarter goals, with Jake the Lair at his explosive best. There was kamikaze, men-of-mayhem footy, daring dashes into the forward line at breakneck speed. Bob Murphy cut elegant swathes up and down the field, leading a posse of attacking half backs that reduced the Fremantle opposition to a measly five goals.
We basked, not only in the mellow warmth of the day, but in an overwhelming conviction that our surprise emergence as a 2015 finalist would not be a one-off. Not with this much talent. Not with this much hunger for success, the passion and commitment of our young group, the boys who were daring to dream.
Footy, the beautiful game, had us in its magical thrall. And all things were still possible.
That crisp and sunny day in March could not have felt further away as we arrived on Saturday night at the stadium to confront a team that has so often given us pain, the Saints. The roof was closed; even so, we were rugged up against the biting cold winds, the bleakness of a grey and drizzly Melbourne winter.
Since our bright, dazzling start to 2016, there have been more wonderful wins, mixed in with mundane 'get the job done' wins; some, even in this short timeframe, blurring into one. (Do you remember our Round 5 clash against Brisbane? Me neither).
There have been losses - but only a couple - that stung. Mounting injuries that we somehow overcame. Stirring victories in close matches, coming from behind, or holding off fast finishing opponents. Gritty wins on the road.
Despite a testing run with injuries and the loss of our talisman Bob, our Dogs, against the odds, sit in the top four. Yes, we're playing one of our bogey teams, yet surely, given what's at stake, our boys will meet yet another stern challenge and rack up the crucial four points.
When we walk out of the stadium, having lost the match and so much more, it feels like footy's version of the winter solstice has arrived. The darkest day, the point where hope seems to shrivel, where one too many obstacles are flung in our face.
At this point we don't know the full extent of Mitch Wallis' injury. Just that it's bad, real bad. We're pretty sure that Jack Redpath has done his knee, for the third time. No one can say why Dale Morris, our warrior brave-heart in the backline, was unable to take the field for the second half. But even the rare sight of him in his tracksuit top had brought shivers of unease. We knew well, and it was soon confirmed, that we would miss him badly, his braveness, his selflessness, his composure, his unobtrusive but essential leadership.
My mother, who's been barracking for the Dogs for 62 years, has stayed up in Cairns after the Dogs' win against Gold Coast last week. She sends a text imbued with Irish fatalism.
God doesn't like the Bulldogs very much.
My feet never thawed out the whole game. There hadn't been much jumping up and down with excitement, few inspirational passages to get us off our seats and get the circulation flowing. Not many moments where the stadium rocked with the Bulldogs' chant and chilblain-infested toes could do the stamp. Just a few instants when the Bont threatened, with a quarter of awe-inspiring individual brilliance, to single-handedly wrest the game back in our direction.
The Dogs lost by 15 points. We didn't score in the last quarter. Literally. We couldn't even scrounge a rushed behind.
There's a heaviness among the fans, mirroring what unfolded on the field. Doubts, never far away when you're a Bulldogs' fan, creep in. Our dysfunctional forward line. The calibre of our second tier players. The fatigue of the players, the missing dare and spark. The skills, or mystifying lack thereof, the wrong options taken time and again.
Footy. It's a stupid game after all.
I arrive home and with sinking heart begin reading about Wally's injury. He has broken both bones in his leg.
I listen to the harrowing description of the scenes in the room from an ABC reporter whose voice trembles on the verge of tears as he depicts the terrible scene. Mitch's screams in agony, heard and witnessed by his team-mates, friends and family. Shell-shocked players in tears. Bob Murphy breaking down, sobbing uncontrollably.
In the rooms with Mitch are men for whom this agony is all too real. Dale Morris and Jake Stringer know what it's like to fracture a leg. I recall a poignant article where Dale's wife talked about the dreary, awful details that an injury like this entails, of Dale in a wheelchair, needing help to be showered - yet only every second day because it was too difficult - and toileted.
Dale, aged over 30 at the time, the premiership window that he'd been part of seemingly slammed firmly shut, wondered if he would ever play again.
Jake Stringer broke his leg in the same almost ridiculous way as Mitch, somehow kicking into the back of his leg; he was 17 years old, touted as a number one draft pick. With the horrible injury he was suddenly hovering on the precipice of the footy scrapheap. Jake has spoken of what it is like to watch elderly neighbours lap him as he limped slowly around the footy oval in those tedious slow months of recuperation and rehabilitation.
In the rooms, too are Clay Smith, who at 23 has endured three knee reconstructions; and Tom Liberatore, who missed all of last year with one; and Bob who is recovering from his second and has resolved to play on, but must be shaken to the core as he hears Mitch's excruciating screams and sees his desolate team-mates.
We the fans can't know the pain, physical and emotional, that these players endure. The fear that they must experience every time they go out there, that this time it could be them, stretchered off to the polite but apprehensive applause of the subdued fans.
At times like this I have the feeling of the players inside their own bubble, a world that only they know - because to them, the club and their team-mates are home, workplace, friendship group and family all at once. Only they can truly appreciate Bob's grim humour when he tweeted about donning hospital-issued undies and hairnets before being wheeled into surgery. The indignities of needing help from a wife or girlfriend (worse still, a parent) whenever they need to use the toilet. The loneliness at 3 a.m.when you're racked with pain, or as Nathan Brown described, lying drenched in sweat from the painkillers and the agony that even a sheet over your injured leg can spark.
And the doubts, of whether you'll come back as good. Come back - full stop.
And now, our footy season lies in the balance. In Saturday night's performance even before the injuries, we saw a team whose resilience had begun to crack, who looked weary of the effort, who've seen one too many team-mates go down, who couldn't muster yet again the urgency, the intense approach of a must-win game.
The headiness of Round One, the joy of a new season with its tantalising horizon still ahead, seem like a technicolour dream. Now all things are monochrome. We're stranded in the bleakest and toughest stretch of a long and arduous season. The goal that kept them focused as they trained on 40 degree days or endured marathon sessions in the gym - the dream of spring days, finals footy and more - is, right now, so very far away.
For the fans, there is of course the pragmatic realisation that these new body blows make our 2016 dream that much harder. We know that not just these injuries but the cumulative effect of the unusually heavy toll this year could be starting to wear us down. Yet even as we try to turn our minds to the question of how we will regroup and who needs to step up, there is a sorrow at what has befallen our injured players that is more than just a calculation of the impact on our premiership hopes.
Quaint as it may seem in an era of fans re-badged as stakeholders, and ham-fisted gimmicks to enhance our 'match-day experience', the club and the players are so much a part of our lives that we too have our own sense of loss and sadness at what they're enduring.
While as fans we are outside the inner sanctum, it's not far-fetched to say that watching the pain of those injured and close to them - their pain both physical and mental - brings us our own measure of grief and mourning. Because as the carriers of our dream, the living representatives of our 130+ -year old club, we are connected and invested in them - even though we may have never spoken a word to any of them, or our contact might never have extended beyond a high five along the boundary line.
We start to bond with them as awkward spotty draftees, look forward with over-the-top enthusiasm to their first games, build stories around them based on a few stilted interviews, delight in their progress, and hope (and pray) for them to succeed.
Our knowledge of them is sketchy and incomplete, snippets based on how they present on the field and the carefully crafted images that clubs put forward.
But some of them we feel - we are sure - are special from the outset. Mitch Wallis has occupied a special place in our imaginings, the boy who grew up to wear the colours of his dad's footy club. A future captain, many who know him say, born to lead; he proudly wears the most famous Bulldog jumper of all: the number three of EJ and Chris Grant. There is no more romantic fable than the dream that he, and Lachie Hunter, and Tom Liberatore, will stand on that premiership dais one day, redeeming the heartache of their father's generations, and of course ours as well.
So we share just a little of the pain of Mitch, and that of fan favourite Big Jack Redpath, and become more than a tad misty-eyed whenever Clay The Beast Smith shows that after almost three years in total on the sidelines, his appetite for a crunching ferocious tackle has not diminished.
As I've tried to shrug off the Tragician persona built on too many years of under-achievement and disappointment, so too have I tried to rid myself of the feeling, so common among many of us, that our club is cursed. It's hard not to lapse back into that mindset as we ask why we could be so unlucky again - why when the future is as bright as we've ever imagined, so many have been randomly struck down. You could hear it in the voices of so many on Saturday night as we grappled with this new challenge, when we've had to weather too many. My mum indeed captured the mood. God doesn't like the Bulldogs very much.
Of course we will all begin to claw back optimism. As dogs do, we will retreat to lick our wounds, before slowly, painfully moving on. We'll start to talk about who'll come in for the injured players, how we can regain our mojo, how much of the season there still is to play. The holy grail is still there to be won.
The Cats at the Cattery? Jake will be back, and maybe even Dahl. Bevo Our Saviour's bound to have a few tricks up his sleeve. We've won 12, lost five; still a great season by anyone's standards. We're not done yet, we say, defiantly.
Photos begin appearing on Instagram: Wally in his hospital bed, looking pale, but giving a thumbs up.
The image makes me go searching for that article about Dale Morris. I need to read again about how, after almost 18 months on the sidelines, he made his way back to take his place alongside his club, his team-mates, and us the fans. Dale described those awful few hours after he broke his leg, moments that Mitch will be living his own version of now too:
"I'd had the x-rays and I was lying there with a million things going through my head and in walked Matty Boyd. He'd come straight from the game.
"I don't even think he'd had a shower, and he just sat with me. We had a little bit of a chat, but he didn't even have to say anything."
Another team-mate, the injury-plagued Tom Williams, brought over a laptop loaded with dozens of movies - "he knew what was ahead of me" - and Daniel Cross's wife Sam dropped off some containers of home-made pasta sauce at the Morris home.
Although Morris faced months on the sidelines, that weekend confirmed what he had always known: that Whitten Oval was and would remain his second home.
"If anything it really felt like I was even more a part of a team," Dale said. "That's the beauty of the Bulldogs."
Footy. The game of heartache.
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.