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Oh captain, our captain

“But only in their dreams can men be truly free. It was always thus and always thus will be.”

– Robin Williams (as John Keating), Dead Poet’s Society

One of the first conversations I had with Ryan Griffen was in the showers at Whitten Oval after a hard day’s training in the hot summer sun.

Ryan had only just arrived at the Bulldogs a few days earlier and was still adjusting to life in the big league and the big city. At the time, I remember thinking he seemed so shy, and the sad eyes made me think he was pretty homesick already.

‘the singing of the team song, arm-in-arm, is one of the few things left in AFL footy that is exactly the same as it was when we played in the under 10s. It is pure.’

I, on the other hand, was an old hand at this AFL stuff. I’d been playing senior footy for four or five years, clocked up nearly 80 games and was brimming with self-importance.

I asked our young gun No. 3 draft pick a few generic questions about where he grew up and where he played his junior footy, that kind of thing. I was relishing my self-appointed role as “young veteran know-it-all” when Ryan politely asked me a question: “Have you played any games yet?”

He had no idea who I was. How could he not know who I was?!!!

I was crushed.

I now know that while Griff loves his footy and in his own way is a student of the game, he isn’t impressed by reputations or titles, nor does he seem interested in the white noise that surrounds AFL footy these days. In all likelihood, he will not even read this column. (How could he not read this column?!!!)

This week, Ryan plays his 200th game for our club. The shy kid from Goolwa is now the Bulldogs’ captain and a superstar of the game.

By chance this week, I was at a cafe in Footscray with Ryan and our good mate Shaun Higgins, and we got talking about things (coffee chats have almost made shower chats redundant). After a little while I asked my skipper what he most loved about playing footy.

Almost before I finished asking the question, he answered, “Singing the song with the boys after a win.” There’s nothing remarkable about the answer – I’m sure if you asked 100 league footballers what they most loved about playing they might say something similar. But when Griff says it, I get the feeling it’s more than the standard response.

I’ve always thought the singing of the team song, arm-in-arm, is one of the few things left in AFL footy that is exactly the same as it was when we played in the under 10s. It is pure.

For lads who grow up in the country, in particular, our first footy clubs are very special to us. I know there have been times in my football career where I’ve longed for a more simple life, a more simple game.

A day at the footy in the country is a most perfect thing. Mums, Dads, little kids, friends old and new, all gathered under tin roofs and in parked cars around the boundary line to watch their local boys take it up to “the other mob” from down the road. The players out on the park doing their bit, trying to get a win for their club, trying to get a kick.

One of the difficult things about a professional league footy career is that it’s so bloody hard to play in the moment all the time. Every action on the field is recorded, judged, critiqued and, more often than not, revisited. This eventually takes a toll on the pure enjoyment players can draw from playing the game. In country footy, the thrill of the contest burns brightly and briefly, only revisited over the bar in front of an open fire.

I’ve never asked Ryan this before, but I wonder if that’s something he has felt during his career. I’m curious as to how he found a way to overcome it. Because at his best, there is no more instinctive player going around. He finds a way to play in the moment more often than the rest of us, and I admire him for that alone.

Last year I wrote about what it’s like to see him at his best up close. The most striking thing is the blunt fact that he is blessed with supreme natural talent combined with a raging fire inside. Quite simply, he tries harder than everybody else around him. It’s a devastating combination.

Over coffee in Footscray I worked the conversation to a topic I know we both enjoy – the country life. He hinted that maybe one day he could see himself with a few acres down Gippsland way and having a kick for a local team on the weekend.

“Warragul?” I asked.

“Maybe,” came his reply.

I reckon the “Gulls” could squeeze him into their best 22. I might even join him.

Thankfully for Bulldogs fans, the quiet country life is still a few years off and we can all enjoy watching one of the best try harder than the rest for a while longer.

For now, all our captain wants this week is to sing the song with his mates, and that’s all his teammates want for him. Oh captain, our captain.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.