Alumni Default

Pull the Strings

The AFL draft may be the start of an uplifting journey but, while the wind is fickle, the earth is patient…

If you were tied to a chair and placed in front of Fox Footy’s AFL draft coverage, you might have noticed that the draftees were being made to feel very important. They seemed prepared with business-speak and cropped hair, groomed for the furious, and brief, period of their playing lives.

It’s hard not to look upon these boys without an equal measure of concern and envy. The vibrancy of that period is singular, and unforgettable. There is, however, a lot at stake for the highly successful player, which he, in his striving to be celebrated, is probably unaware of.

At stake for him is a post-football future in which his past will forever be referenced. He might have fans in other professions offer him shortcuts and incentives when he looks for new work, but this will be unremarkable for such a man of pride.

He might spend a decade after retiring from football trying honestly to refashion his values, reissue his ambitions. He might even come to the sullen realisation that as a sportsperson, valued for his physicality, he was of the rare kind of professional whose dignity decreases with age.

It’s an irony that he can imagine only in retirement, because it’s against the nature of a young man to imagine being older.

Even for the less prosperous of draftees, the essential value of an AFL career is a slippery thing. Certainly teams have values. They make placards out of values, and parade draftees past them. But you can’t take a team with you into your 30s; you can’t lean on a team for affirmation when a cold wind hits your face on Saturday afternoon.

I’ve heard the AFL mocked as a period of extended adolescence, a kind of dorm-room dream the players don’t wake up from. Part of that impression is fair in my experience, but that part has more to do with the general psychology of competition, and the narrowness of football conversations, than any perversion on the AFL’s part.

In fact, if you spend time around AFL people who have stayed in that dream, you begin to notice a type of hardness in them, sometimes a deep stillness of character, that’s been distilled from a lifetime of competition. This is the most undervalued quality that the AFL offers its participants, and also the most difficult to articulate and sell in other work places.

In 2002, the year of my draft, the player’s names were read out over the internet. I sat around a PC speaker with a friend to listen, and when my name was announced he gave me a high-five and passed me a box of Arnotts shapes.

Later in the afternoon we watched The Big Lebowski, replaying over and over the scene in the bowling alley when John Goodman and Jeff Bridges watch “Jesus” bowl strikes. I felt without gravity.

In the month before this, Kevin Sheedy said something to me that made me forever cautious about apportioning value to football life.

We were both in Canberra at the AFL draft camp, where I’d been nervously wobbling about the AIS, testing below average at most stations.

Sheedy approached me from behind in the canteen while I was spooning mashed potatoes on to a plate, and said: “Have you ever hit anyone, Boyley?” I almost laughed, but even at 18 I could sense in his tone the sound of man who’d been made to feel very important by the football world. It was an underwhelming remark.

“Yes,” I said. “I punched a boy in grade four after he flicked me in the eye with a rubber band. I chipped his tooth.” That was the end of our conversation.

The truth is that a footballer’s life begins like the flight of a kite, rising because it can, and because the breeze is blowing it that way. You don’t have to think about accepting a spot on a playing list, because no one in the world with a sense of showmanship, or the desire to be challenged, would pass up on a chance to be elite, and be celebrated for it. You fly along.

And at the end of the football season next year, most of this year’s draftees will sit quietly before an older teammate while he sniffs and trembles, and delivers his retirement speech. They might hear him say something like what I heard a player say at the end of my first year at Hawthorn.

“Enjoy every moment, boys. These will be the best days of your life.”

But how could he have known this, you ask, when he hadn’t lived out the rest of his life? Was it a dramatic overstatement? Was it an egotistical lament? But how naturally it rolled from his tongue, how firm the conviction in his words.

It was an awfully sad statement, but it seemed as if he’d touched on something essential about the life of a sportsperson. He’d been a successful player, and now that was finished.

While he spoke he was looking at his feet, out the window, at the walls, not really looking at anything at all. Here was someone recalling moments of his career to share with us, but they were proving elusive. They were scenes from a fugitive dream.

Timothy Boyle, a former Hawthorn player, was pick 51 in the 2002 AFL draft.

This article originally appeared in The Age