Through the looking glass
We’re off to a flyer in the 2016 elimination final against the West Coast Eagles. Stunning the footy world and even ourselves, we are 22 points up. Despite being rank underdogs, our team are playing with that Men of Mayhem manic style. One of our best is 23-year-old Lin Jong, who has cemented his spot and played the last nine games of the season. But Lin gets buried in a heavy tackle. Our medical staff rush to his side.
Amid the euphoria of our unexpected and gallant performance, and sudden realisation that our finals campaign remains alive, we still have time for sorrow. Lin is in tears on the bench; his collarbone had cracked beneath the weight of Jeremy McGovern.
He will have surgery, and remarkably, recover enough to play in Footscray’s premiership, adopting the famed Charlie Sutton ploy of taping the wrong collarbone so it won’t be targeted by his opponents. Lin is one of our best. The Libba Sisters listen to the match as we drive back from Sydney, the day after our preliminary final victory.
The senior team had kept on winning, competition for spots is fierce, and Lin’s spot in the team has vanished. He will be an onlooker when his close mates run out on the ‘G; dressed in his suit and tie, not his number 46 guernsey; on the sidelines, as our team finally make history.
I was once asked which of the Bulldogs' players I'd most like to meet in person. Perhaps surprisingly for one who spends far too much time observing and worrying about them, I have little desire to do so. I fear it would throw an awkward light on the chasm between our very different perspectives on the game. Me the fan behind a fence, dependent on their decisions and mindset every week to secure my happiness, yet still removed from their struggles. The players with their own emotions, injury niggles, family worries: every mistake exposed out on the ground, every decision scrutinised and criticised by people just like me.
I fear I would be disappointed if our conversation was bland and cliched. I prefer, I suppose, to be able to project stories onto them, stories that are, if you get right down to it, more about me than them.
I've never met Lin Jong. He could be an exception though, someone with a tale I'd love to know more about. There’s his fascinating back story, the child of immigrants who arrived penniless, the Asian kid who’d never played competitive footy until he was 15. He's the first player of Timorese descent, receiving a phone call of congratulations from Xanana Gusmao when he was drafted as a rookie. There’s his loving and close family, including his mother, who’s become a social media hit for an intrepid dive off a pool and her quaint text messages to her amused son. (His mother, he says, has become such an enthusiastic convert, she goes to matches even if he's not playing).
There’s Lin himself. The 2016 injury, it turned out, wasn’t just a one-off unfortunate event. He’s missed 37 games since then; the word ‘luckless’ has become a permanent adjective attached to his name. It’s not even just one particular body part repeatedly letting him down: while he’s had another collarbone injury, he’s also suffered an ACL tear, a broken jaw, a ruptured appendix and an ankle injury that meant he only played three matches in 2020. He didn't even make it through the first quarter of his first match in almost a year on Friday night, before his hamstring gave way.
Again, cameras panned in on the poignant sight of him in tears on the bench.
Again, as he limped slowly, on crutches, into the team circle to join the song, we wondered just how much wretched luck one person could bear.
He’s approached it all with grace and wry humour. Lin is the first one to poke fun at his terrible run with injury and his fragile body. Though his resilience must be stretched to breaking point, he’s given no indication that he will give away this game which can be so cruel. After this latest setback, he posted: "Been through this before, can get through this again. Death, taxes, me injured... I have to go now, my planet needs me."
He’s taken time off in the past to deal with his mental health, and more importantly to speak honestly about what it means in a footballing context. He says he was reluctant to take the time out he needed: ‘“I put it off. I saw it as a selfish thing to do, given the team-first setting and culture I was in.”
He added: “It’s hard to hear from someone that you have depression, but the way I look at it is, it’s now a part of my identity. I’m male, I’m a footballer, I’m Asian, I am right footed, I have depression. None are more unusual than the other for me now. When I realised I didn’t have to hide away from that, and I didn’t have to be ashamed about what people would think, it all got a hell of a lot easier."
I’ve never met Lin’s close mate at the club, Jackson Macrae, either. He was close by on Friday night when, in the most innocuous of circumstances, Lin's hamstring gave way.
I came across a photo recently, of the two of them seated together in the Grand Final parade, one of them about to play (and be close to best on the ground) in a premiership; the other not knowing if he would ever get that opportunity again.
The words 'unassuming' and 'under-rated' are Jackson's adjectives just as 'luckless' is Lin's . He's been exceptionally durable: though he suffered a hamstring tear which kept him out of the last four matches of the 2016 season, it held up under finals pressure. I wonder if, seeing the bad luck of his mate, he'd played - surely all players do - with that gnawing fear, of how close injury always is, of how easily Lin's fate could have been his.
As I watch Jackson Macrae's outstanding 2021 season with ever-increasing awe, I'd also love to hear him talk about what drives him now, to get better and better – to have added to his repertoire the perfectly weighted kicks into the forward line that further complement his relentless work ethic and running. In unguarded moments, does he ever chafe at the lack of recognition from outside the club, somehow always mentioned second to The Bont, and even now overtaken to some degree by flashier new models like Adam Treloar?
I’ve never met Aaron Naughton either, but somehow I don’t think I need to meet him to understand everything about him. Unless I’m very much mistaken, footy is simple for the guy who loves to fly. I’m not sure Aaron would ever be weighed down by the expectations of fans; even after he misses those shots at goal, he doesn't seem to berate himself or have time to be more than mildly annoyed before he sees some pack forming 100 metres away, and thinks it might be fun to fly over the top of the whole lot of them and catch the ball.
I’ve never met Toby Greene either.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
I’d prefer to think about the good guys of footy, and one of them is, surely, Lin Jong. I remember, with some embarrassment, my own annoyance when he shanked his shot at goal in the first quarter. How trivial my petty irritation seems now when minutes later he fell to the ground clutching his hammy, compared to the enormous price he's continued to pay to be out there, while as an armchair critic I experience no hardship whatsoever.
My mind drifts into wondering how he really felt during the ‘TV moment’ when his team-mates insisted on bringing him into the circle to sing the song. Did he feel surrounded by warmth and care, or was his brave smile just for the cameras? I can’t fathom how he felt as he faced the later news of just how bad the injury is: he will undergo surgery and miss 12 weeks. He would have no illusions about the loneliness, self-doubt and sheer boredom of rehab that lies ahead. The love and care of his teammates as they wrapped their arms around him to sing the song, and the support of his devoted family, are the things that will sustain him, far more than the impotent but heartfelt sorrow of a Bulldog Tragician.
We’re off to a flyer in the 2016 elimination final against the West Coast Eagles. Stunning the footy world and even ourselves, we are 22 points up. Despite being rank underdogs, our team are playing with that Men of Mayhem manic style. One of our best is 23-year-old Lin Jong, who has cemented his spot and played the last nine games of the season. But Lin gets buried in a heavy tackle. Medical staff rush to his side.
Lin rises to his feet gingerly. After a quick check, Dr Gary Zimmerman gives the bench a quick thumbs-up. Fortunately, Lin Jong has escaped with just a bruised shoulder. Though a little hampered, he plays the match out.
Three weeks later Lin runs onto the MCG . He absorbs the huge wall of noise, the roar of the crowd, all of us with our desperate, desperate hopes for what he and his team-mates can do for us. In the crowd, his ecstatic parents are bursting with pride. When the match gets underway, their son is in the thick of everything, playing his part in our stirring win.
Lin jogs around the boundary holding the cup, side-by-side with Jackson Macrae. Our premiership captain Easton Wood lies on the turf like a snow angel, and the red, white and blue confetti falls all around.
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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.