Scene: Western Bulldogs medical rooms. Bandages, crutches, braces, wheelchairs – even a prosthetic leg – are strewn around the cluttered room.
Glum-faced medical gurus, Dr Zimmerman and Dr Landsberger, are in conversation with a pensive Luke Beveridge about the injury carnage.
On the whiteboard (make that two whiteboards) is a long list of those missing in action.
Bevo: So what exactly is a compound dislocation of the finger?
Dr Zimmerman: That’s what happened to Tom Boyd on the weekend, Bevo. The bone actually protruded out of his finger.
Bevo (wincing): Not so good for a bloke who’s our number one ruck then?
Dr Z: Nah, he’ll be right to go.
(Tom Boyd’s name gets moved into the ‘available’ column).
Bevo: It didn’t look great when Bont did that weird action with his knee. What’s the story?
Dr L: A hyper-extension is the term, Bevo, but nah, he’ll be right to go.
(Bont’s name gets moved into the ‘available’ column).
Bevo: Ok, what about an update on Dale Morris?
Dr Z pauses, shuffles papers, glances nervously at Dr L., and takes a deep breath. Well Bevo, as you know, in the past Dale has suffered a broken leg, a fracture in his back, and at the start of the season, a torn…
Bevo (testily): Yeah, we know all that. Ancient history. I’m asking about the CURRENT state of play.
Dr L: Let me handle this one, Zimma. Dale is 35 and his body’s taken a battering. Just this week he went in for surgery to clear out that knee. He had blood tests, and I have to be upfront about what we’ve just heard. He’s – well, he’s just been diagnosed with the Ebola virus.
Silence, and then all break into relieved chuckles. Bevo slaps Dr L on the back. The way Zimma was carrying on, I thought he must have had a career-threatening ailment or something. You old fox, Zimma! Okay, good news at last... Dale is right to go!
(The name of Dale Morris is moved to the ‘available’ column).
With the amount of footy I've watched over the years, I don’t always remember each individual player’s debut, even that of legends.
But I do vividly recall the first game played by Dale Morris. The year was 2005. Our new coach Rodney Eade pulled a surprise, selecting the mature age rookie for the tough role of shadowing Mark Ricciuto, then one of the most damaging players in the competition. Dale had never even played TAC Cup, had trained with us for four years just hoping for this opportunity. He ran out for the first time alongside captain Luke Darcy, and future captains Brad Johnson, Matthew Boyd, Ryan Griffen, and Bob Murphy. Legendary players Scott West, Rohan Smith and Chris Grant jogged with Dale down the race. He entered for the first time the brightly lit field of his dreams.
So superlative was the performance of this mystery debutant that the commentary team joked that he could be a smokey for the Brownlow, with Gerard Healy hamming it up further: "The All-Australian committee has already convened an emergency meeting."
Last week, 13 years later, Dale was a guest on Foxtel's On the Mark program. It almost shaped as an obituary on a stellar career apart from the fact there was no way that Dale saw himself that way. As the discussion roved around the injuries and heartaches, I had a poignant sense of all that he had been through, and how much his body had endured on our behalf. His young son, he said, was completely turned off football after watching his dad spend 18 months recuperating from a broken leg. He didn't want to play footy because "footy hurts dad."
When Dale finally returned from the arduous rehabilitation and all the setbacks, it was to a side that was a dismal rabble, further off a premiership - it seemed - than ever. The year was 2013.
And yet, Dale explained to the incredulous reporters, he never, ever, stopped visualising himself as a premiership player. What it would be like to run onto the ground. The roar of the crowd.
To stand on the premiership dais, collecting his precious medallion from an Auskicker wearing number 38.
In 2016 Dale achieved his dream. We didn’t know that his back was literally broken for the entirety of the finals series; the only inkling I had was a moment in the late stages of the second quarter when the momentum was with the Swans. As the ball got swept to the other end, I saw how slowly Dale got up from a contest. That was before he performed smothers, desperate lunges, the ultimate one-per-centers in a gruelling third quarter.
Before Lance Franklin wheeled imperiously through the centre of the G, about to make one more counter-attack to wrest the game from our keeping in the dying minutes of the game. Dale ended up almost horizontal as he launched himself at the competition’s star player. It may have been the most epic moment, of the most epic of matches.
I feel that gnawing fear, even through my pride and admiration, as I listen to Dale talk about the possibility of playing in a second premiership. The fear we feel when our players get near the end; the desperate wish that they do not play too long, that our club will not have to make the toughest of calls. For when would a man like Dale Morris ever concede that his body has had enough?
Dale takes the field for the 243rd time on Saturday night. It's only his second game in an injury-plagued season.
The nearest player in age to Dale is Jackson Trengove, a mere 27-years-old. Dale’s skipper for the evening is 22-year-old Marcus Bontempelli, who was aged 10 when Dale debuted. Yet even with the presence of our 35-year-old skewing the stats, we retain our dubious honour of presenting the youngest team to take the field as we have virtually each week.
It’s a frenetic, fast-paced match. Our Boys look switched, on, urgent, but they’ve shown this for a quarter here and there in all our heavy losses. Sustaining it, standing firm when the momentum shifts: this has been where our struggle has been.
Bevo has thrown all the cards up in the air. Defenders Naughton and Cordy are surprise figures in the forward line; even more surprisingly given the makeshift team, scoring doesn't seem quite as excruciatingly impossible as it has so often been this year.
North are a better team this year, and they are tenacious. One of their best, unfortunately for us, is Shaun Higgins. There is nothing so former as a former player, even though his departure at the time was amicable enough. Higgins thought that North were closer to premiership glory than the bedraggled, divided team that limped to the end of 2014. We on the other hand had grown frustrated about whether he would never get his injury-plagued body right, even though we knew the talent he possessed. Irrationally, it hurts that it's finally come together for him and we never got to benefit. More rationally, we're incensed to see he's adopted North's Fake Tough Guy Persona nurtured by Brad Scott (Foundation Member of the Tragician Hall of Infamy) as he executes cheap shots on our players if they're lying prone on the ground.
With him in brilliant form the Kangaroos begin winning more contests. Their forward line has a matchwinner that even the Bulldog Tragician struggles to hate, the guy who always reminds me of an over-eager puppy dog, Ben Brown. North gain a 10 point lead. Our Boys look weary; oh what we would give to have another of our injured players Jack Macrae, who always runs as hard in the last quarter as in the first, to be out there as North seem set to romp away with the match. But somehow, we find that elusive will to win. Somehow, an unlikely hero, Billy Gowers, runs into an open goal after a beautiful pass from Josh Schache. Somehow, our Bulldogs are ahead.
Such joy there is, at the thought of a win. Such a racket do we all make, rising to our feet. So loudly does the Bulldog chant go up, so hard do we stamp our feet on the concrete floors, urging our boys to hang on.
There are just two minutes to go. This was the scenario where we were at our best in 2016. Our structures, our decisions, our will, our desire, stood up, after all, in that fiery cauldron, the heart-stopping Preliminary Final. But too few of those warriors - just nine of the premiership team - are out there. A mistake is made, with only 40 seconds left. Ample time, it turns out, for the ball to be swept down the ground by North easily, so easily. It seems so cruel, it is so cruel. But the Dogs have lost.
We applaud them still, but Bevo is awaiting them with white hot fury and a scathing analysis of all the mistakes - ALL THE MISTAKES - that cost us the game.
Two 18-year-olds, Ed Richards and Aaron Naughton, played for us on Saturday. Maybe they'll tell their kids one day, about playing alongside Dale Morris, a gentle man in all senses and a legend to us all, even though he has never, to my recollection, taken a specky. He's never made an electric dash down a wing, bouncing the ball (has Dale EVER bounced the ball?) He kicked the most recent of his three career goals way back in 2011; the odds are against him adding to that tally. Remarkably for one who plays in defence, he's never been cited by the Tribunal, let alone been suspended. Dale has never been in the news, thrown out the worse for wear from a nightclub or disrespecting a woman. He has never walked the Brownlow red carpet. He's not going to appear in a HQ shoot. He will not adopt a man bun.
I like to think - perhaps I hope - that he chats to Ed and Aaron about all the things he knows and all the values he's lived in his time with us. He might tell them, too, of the low points. That, eight years before he wrapped his arms around Buddy and ensured that we won a flag, he was part of a Bulldog defence that was humiliatingly torn apart in a final by that same Buddy Franklin. The power forward destroyed us almost single-handed in that match, kicking eight goals. Dale was the first of his hapless, under-sized, defeated opponents.
But that didn't destroy Dale's dream, even when he went through three preliminary final failures, even when he got pitted against other forwards he had no right to be playing on like Nick Riewoldt, even when he spent time in with a plaster cast up to his hip and in a wheelchair. That dream carried him through to the premiership dais in October 2016, when some lucky Auskicker wearing number 38 got to present a premiership medallion to the great man Dale Morris.
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.