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Mindful Saint Maverick talks war heroes

Maverick Weller is clear on two things when it comes to his connection to a famous war story: he’s immensely proud, but he’d never dream of comparing what he does to the sort of commitment and sacrifice that will be remembered on Saturday.

His three years at Gold Coast weren’t chock full of fond memories, but one thing former coach Guy McKenna said has stuck: football’s penchant for using language like “going to war” and “into battle” is nonsense.

“That resonated with me,” Weller says. “We’re going out there to compete, but out of respect for what they did, there’s no comparison. I see it as a privilege that I’m able to do these things, that it’s a free country. I know I’ve got opportunities because of what these people gave.”

People like his great-great-great-uncle Alfred Gaby, whose story Weller had been aware of since primary school but only explored to a depth that genuinely moved him during a St Kilda leadership excursion to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in the off-season.

“We’re going out there to compete, but out of respect for what they did, there’s no comparison. I see it as a privilege that I’m able to do these things, that it’s a free country. I know I’ve got opportunities because of what these people gave.” – Maverick Weller

At Villers-Bretonneux, during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, Lieutenant Gaby was in charge of the 28th Battalion’s D company. This would become known to Germany as the “Black Day” and a diary entry from one of Gaby’s men sketches the chilling scene moments before battle.

“It was utterly still … the silence played on our nerves a bit … you could hear drivers whispering to their horses and men muttering curses under their breath, and still the silence persisted, broken only by the whine of a stray bullet or a long-range shell passing high overhead.”

When they attacked, Gaby’s men encountered barbed wire strung between them and the enemy trench. Under heavy fire, Gaby found a gap in the wire, skirted around the enemy and, armed only with a revolver that was soon empty, captured 50 men who boasted four machine guns between them.

“He bluffed them,” Weller says. “He had a pistol with no bullets in the clip. He jumped the wire fence in a ditch, the enemy had higher ground, he flanked them and surprised them from behind. With a pistol.”

Three days later, again leading his men from the front under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, Gaby was killed at Lihons. He was 26, three years older than Weller is now.

Weller’s mother Judith says the story was never really mentioned when she was a girl, but appreciation has grown in accord with the legend of the Anzacs. Her learnings of wartime centred around her father talking about he and his young siblings milking 100 cows, chopping wood and running a northern Tasmanian farm while their father was away for two years during World War II, moving around Australia waiting for the call to arms.

AFL 2015 Rd 02 - Gold Coast v St Kilda

Weller and his brother Lachie, drafted last November by Fremantle, grew up on a hobby farm in Tasmania’s north west, but he knows their bucolic life was very different to that experienced by Alfred Gaby and his seven siblings at Scottsdale. Turning the pages of a diary reveals constant toil: “Cuttin’ wood … cuttin’ wood … wood cuttin’.”

Judith says Mav has inherited her father’s calves and thighs; Weller calls his pop a card, someone who has people in stitches within seconds. He likes the Gaby traits that have filtered down the generations – straightforwardness, a liking for hard work, toughness with a soft centre. Judith says her family’s motto was, “Don’t come home if you lose”. Weller was born a competitor; he can’t split who hates losing more out of Judith and his father Darren.

A growing awareness of Gaby’s heroics has left Judith wondering how many other stories remain untold, lost over time as the people at their heart grew old and died without ever being able to revisit their personal hell. It was 1956 before Alfred Gaby was awarded a Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for military valour, which in itself produced another window on the family’s spirit.

“Alfred’s brother Reginald – my great-great-grandfather, who was 16 years older than Alfred – got on the boat, left Australia for the first time and went to England to receive his medal from the Queen,” Judith says. “He was 80-odd, but off he went on his own to Westminster Abbey, tea in the hall, a garden party that night at Marlborough House.”

Fewer than 100 Australians have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Weller was moved to see his relative among them in a room at the war museum, a photo and his story taking their place in such company. Alfred Gaby’s medal is displayed at the Tasmanian Museum in Hobart.

At a club building towards a bright future, Weller has emerged as a young leader. He doesn’t dwell on the recognition, says football clubs always have people who find it easier to speak up and take a lead than others. “I’m just one of them.” He describes himself as “a believer”. Meditation and affirmation have become integral tools of his preparation.

He thinks war is sad, but military service has elements he can relate to. “Being a part of something that involves leadership, everyone’s on the same page trying to get to a common goal … that’s an attraction for me.

“But in terms of taking what my great uncle did out onto the field, I can’t do that, couldn’t compare them. But I’m very proud.”

This story was first published in The Age and can be accessed here