‘You guys took a lot of big hits out there tonight.” – John Van Groningen
I drove out to Southern Cross Grammar in the western suburbs this week with my teammate Jarrad Grant, for a reading session with some grade prep children. This is unusual because generally we’re asked to head out to schools to take footy clinics and talk about healthy eating. I’m an expert on the food pyramid.
I told the little kids who were sat cross-legged on the floor that I had a son who was in grade prep, too. This was a mistake, because for the next two minutes they all looked around the room to see if he was sitting among them. To clear up confusion and regain control of my class, I started to read and a hushed silence fell over them.
Marngrook: The Long Ago Story of Aussie Rules begins with one of the elders, Wawi, coming across a possum, which he kills, skins, then ties up with rubbery tendon and stuffs with emu feathers to make the very first marngrook (or football).
Wawi gives the ball to the little ones, including Jaara. After taking off with the marngrook, young Jaara kicks it into the bush and promptly gets lost. He then finds himself in a mini coming-of-age tale.
It’s hard work getting prep kids to sit together and face the same direction, let alone have them carried away on the same story for too long. But that’s what the power of this story did for them, and for me, too.
My very first marngrook jumper was that of the Warragul Colts and I had the number seven on the back. I was a Tigers supporter but this was my tribute to Nicky Winmar. He was one of my heroes. The dashing runs, the high marking, the grace. He had it all. Strangely enough, my first day at the kennel was Nicky’s last.
Driving home to Warragul in the car with Mum and Dad, as I keenly inspected my new Bulldogs training gear, the announcement came over the radio that ”Winmar hadn’t shown for day one of pre-season and would not be playing on”.
This week it’s AFL indigenous round, as we pay tribute to the indigenous culture of footy and also reflect on the iconic photograph of Nicky at Victoria Park.
And the Bulldogs play the Saints – Nicky’s two AFL clubs.
My mate Paddy is a St Kilda supporter and runs a proper pub in Fitzroy. Hanging on the wall in the main bar is that photo of Nicky Winmar defiantly pointing to his stomach. The power of that photo tells you a lot about the pub and a lot about Paddy.
At AFL House there is a huge mural in the foyer with a montage of images capturing the spirit of footy. The image that jumps out at me is Nicky’s. Like the front bar of my local, it lays down a standard of behaviour, a set of values, an ambition for the future.
John Van Groningen grew up in California but found his way to Australia and was drawn to the outback.
John was many things to many people but among his accomplishments, he was the founder of the Red Dust charity that takes sports role models to indigenous communities.
John was also the chaplain at the Western Bulldogs for the best part of a decade. On a trip to Darwin last year I sat by the pool with John and we chatted about real things – life, death, family, love, community.
He told me of his plans for the future and how he was about to embark on a major study that would send him to the remote communities of Australia. In his work with Red Dust, John would take role models from different fields, many from sport, and embark on these epic trips into the desert.
This study he was embarking on had a different bent, though; what John told me that day will stay with me forever. He told me that ”people dream in their first language”.
John’s hope was that with his study he could go into the indigenous communities of the Northern Territory and find out what kids in those communities really wanted to be, what they dreamt of becoming.
Tragically, in the months after our conversation, John became very ill. Just before Christmas he died.
When John and I would talk about coming trips to the Tiwi or Alice, I’d make tentative plans to take my family up into the communities. But there was always a tinge of: ”Yeah, one day I’ll get up there with Justine and the kids … one day.”
Driving home from John’s funeral, I was overwhelmed with sadness and guilt at never going on one of those trips. My wife reminded me that the door wasn’t closed and that we owed it to John to get up there. These things are a bit like a developing side and the traps that lurk: ”One day we’ll be a good side … yeah, one day.”
At some point you have to make the decision to just go.
This article originally appeared in The Age.