It’s pretty exhausting being a footballer. Or any professional athlete for that matter, I’m guessing.
I’ve been told by people who hold down ”proper” jobs that we athletes can be pretty exhausting to be around. So often, we are consumed by ourselves. It’s not vanity – not always, anyway – but there is a kind of obsession with constantly evaluating whether we’re hungry, tired, in form, out of form, thirsty, anxious, last week’s game, next week’s game, sore, fit, tight, hurt, in pain. It never stops.
Thankfully, once the game starts in front of all those people, the self-obsessive chatter of your thoughts begins to dull. If the game lifts and becomes ferocious and you’re up to your eyeballs in that contest, it vanishes altogether. These moments are strangely peaceful. The chaos on the field all around you only fuels your absolute need for a singular focus. Play.
It’s basically the same principles as meditation, the repetitive mantra allowing you to stay in the moment. Being in the moment is when all the good stuff happens on the field. This meditative peace is often what past players mean when they describe playing footy at the top level as a drug.
Occasionally though, things happen that take me out of my world for a few brief moments. Just long enough to stare and wonder.
On the weekend, it happened with Luke Hodge’s smother, gather and torpedo goal from inside the centre square. I was only a few metres away, and each act seemed more brilliant than the last. When you put them all together, you got the very best of Hodge (the footballer) in a nutshell.
Of course, I was disappointed at the time, that an opposition player had added six points to his team’s lead over my Bulldogs. But when a single act is that good you owe it to yourself and the game to take a moment to appreciate just how tough and skilful the very best players in our game are.
Perspective is a funny thing in sport. From the comfort of level two at Etihad Stadium, the game can look like battleships. You can see where the ball needs to go and where the players need to run. ”Why did he kick it there?”
For the players out there, of course, that perspective is a lot less calm and sterile. With ball in hand, you can feel a bit like Simba when the stampede came charging at him in The Lion King.
The Age’s Martin Flanagan told me once he only likes to watch football from the fence. The further away he gets, the less connected he feels to the game. There’s no doubt the closer you are to the play the more you can appreciate the speed and brutal physicality.
I’m a lucky sod. For nearly 14 years I’ve had the best seat in the house. It’s a shame I can’t take more time to enjoy the skills of those around me as I’m usually trying to get a kick myself, or stop others from getting an easy one.
One thing that still remains a mystery to me is how some players on TV differ when you get up close in the flesh. In 2002, when I first crossed paths with Matthew Primus on the field, I expected to see a big, tall ruckman. But I was still shocked. He was like a block of flats. Perhaps it was because he was their captain, too, but his presence stayed with me.
The same thing happened with Dustin Martin last year. He jogged down to full-forward where I was going to meet him, and as he got closer I had to blink. He seemed a foot taller and two stone heavier. Angry, too. Like a rhinoceros.
A player who is just as good on TV as he is up close is Gary Ablett jnr, but it’s his ability to produce momentum that is a source of fascination for me. His cat-like balance must help him to maintain speed while swerving through traffic or hunched over the ball.
There have been so many others over the years – Max Hudghton’s competitive spirit, Scott Pendlebury’s upright poise and creativity, James Hird’s thoughtfulness with the ball, Ryan O’Keefe’s work ethic, Nick Riewoldt’s warm-up.
Strange to think a warm-up could leave an impression, but when Nick gets out onto Etihad two hours before a game and does stride after stride after stride along the wing, it does just that. It’s an aerobic intimidation, like the haka.
Most of the time though, you are left to wonder at the efforts of the blokes in your own team colours. Lately, Ryan Griffen has transported me somewhere else, not with a high mark or a freakish goal, but the fact that he tries so hard.
Griff’s efforts at the moment are above and beyond the norm in a ruthless environment. He’s not as big as Matty Primus, but his presence just keeps growing.
Watching someone try so bloody hard from a few yards away holds up a mirror to me and my teammates. If he’s doing that, maybe I could try a bit harder myself. It’s not a bad place to start.
This article originally appeared in The Age. View the original article here