“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.”
– Jack London.
For a time in my life, all footy players smelt like bubblegum. When I was a kid, a packet of footy cards always included a piece of cheap, jaw-breaking pink gum, the smell of which lasted for years, even if the taste didn’t. My footy cards were precious to me and I spent hours studying and obsessing
Being from the country meant my access to AFL players was very limited. At our school fete in 1991 Craig Starcevich set up a handball competition in the school car park and I stood back and stared at him for too long. I wasn’t sure if he was real. Sometimes my Dad would take us to Waverley Park to watch a game from the outer, but for the most part, my connection with the AFL was watching games or highlights at home on the television. Footy players were superheroes to me, they were from another place, and I would watch the marks they took and the goals they kicked in awe and wonder. They inspired me in the truest sense of the word.
‘Just like a funeral, these times inside a football club are very emotional and you cannot help but reflect on football, on life.’
It’s hard to keep that sense of wonder as you get older, your perspective is forever altered, the smell of bubblegum fades a little. The thrill of witnessing a high pack mark is something that never leaves you, but I have found the things that inspire me have changed a bit since the ’91 school fete. This game is brutal, both on the body and on the heart. In that regard, no one has walked a more painful football path in my time at the Bulldogs than Tom Williams. The pain he has put his body through has been immense, the anguish in his heart has been at times, hard to watch.
Playing at the highest level moves so fast and the constant pressure leaves little time to smell the roses, but this week my teammates and I paused for a little while to sit and listen to one of our own tell us that he could go no further. Just like a funeral, these times inside a football club are very emotional and you cannot help but reflect on football, on life.
Through countless surgeries on his feet and shoulders and dozens of cruel muscle tears, Tom had hardened himself emotionally, he’d always kept most of the pain to himself. When the time finally came to tell his club that he would retire, the walls came down and the tears flowed out of him like a tide. One of the things Tom said had poignancy in its simplicity: “I’m going to miss coming into this place everyday”.
They say every Shakespeare play has a joker and Tom was ours, he composed himself long enough to thank the teammates who’d been with him for the whole journey, but also singled out first-year player Mitch Honeychurch who he claims “helped embezzle $3000 through our World Cup draw”. Each of his 85 games may have been hard work, but Tom always got easy laughs from his mates.
When a player gets to the end of his career, I would imagine he asks himself two things. Am I fulfilled? Only Tom could answer that properly. The other question is, what did I leave behind? Tom left a big chunk of his soul at our club. Like Daniel Menzel at Geelong, when players endure such a wretched run of bad luck through injury, their resilience to keep coming back despite the hits puts them in the hearts of everyone they played alongside.
Every effort to crawl their way out of the darkness and back onto the field has a weight of significance to it. Each lap of the swimming pool may have felt like a wasted, lonely journey, but their courage to keep going inspired those around them. That’s what Tom leaves behind. He inspired me.
A few weeks ago The Age‘s Peter Hanlon asked me to sum up Tom in a single word, after two hours I still couldn’t think of a word that captured the happy, manic, complicated man. I tried again this week, but tweaked the question slightly to my favour. If I close my eyes and think of Tom, what do I see? I see Tom laughing. After all he’s been through, I think it says a bit.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.