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The old pals routine

If I miss anything about the sport, it’s the camaraderie of old teammates – Bo Jackson.

Before every game, I’ll make my way over to meet him. He’s expecting me. We’ll pick up a couple of footys and the routine begins. Our waltzing ritual. No matter how nervous I am or how unfamiliar the place we’re playing is, once we start up I feel like I’m home.

I don’t know when we started this routine, but we’ve been doing it a long time, 12 years or so, and I always go first. Gia starts throwing both footys at me, one after the other, and I get them back to him as best I can with short, quick handballs.

‘I don’t know when we started this routine, but we’ve been doing it a long time, 12 years or so, and I always go first.’

After a little while he’ll start the countdown from 30 all the way back to one. We take a couple of steps back to give ourselves a bit more room and he’ll start kicking the ball into my hands. I wait until I’ve marked it 13 times; it’s a tip of the hat to my best mate who carries this number on his back, although I’ve never told him that.

From there we lengthen out and I lead at his stab passes, slowly retreating and surging again. After that I make a shorter lead, but this time the ball is rolled at my feet and I have to get low, watch for the bounce and take it cleanly in my hands. Once I’ve done half a dozen or so, I stand up straight to finish with 10 more kicks in the hands.

Then we swap. I become the thrower, kicker and roller. It’s just a warm-up, a simple one at that, but perhaps because we’ve been doing it for so long it’s become something else, something far more special.

There’s been many times this season when I’ve got to thinking about our time in footy together. He’s been my great mate through it all, but it’s only this week that I’ve come to see our little warm-up as a metaphor for what he’s given me. More than anyone else, Danny has taught me the importance of routine, of work ethic and attention to detail. He’s taught me how much it takes to play this game against the best. He’s taught a few others along the way too.

In the beginning we weren’t that fond of each other. Both of us arrived at Footscray on the same day, and watched from the old social club as the players started their pre-season time trials out on the Whitten Oval. We never had a falling out, no cross words were exchanged, but for the first half of our debut season we just didn’t click. In some ways, we are very different.

Thinking about my mate this week I wondered if our shaky start had something to do with the fact that we were always pitted against each other. Whether it was on the field or in the gym, our names were always next to each other and a competitive streak ran between us like a river on a map. I’ve never told him this, but there were times when we had testing in the gym that I’d find out how much he’d lifted and, with just a hint of spite, do one more.

I can’t say for sure, but there may still be some spite in Danny’s gut. Last year I started writing a column that was meant to be my version of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. A roaming stream of consciousness about an AFL road trip to Canberra.

‘Thinking about my mate this week I wondered if our shaky start had something to do with the fact that we were always pitted against each other.’

As I followed my muse I flippantly typed the words, “In all likelihood, this will be Gia’s last year.” It was not my place to say it, and by the time I realised that, it was in print and too late. Even though he never confronted me about it in any serious way, I think it pissed him off.

My bitter work in the gym all those years ago came back to haunt me when, at the end of last season, Danny said, “I’ll do one more”.

He’s a determined bastard. To not just survive, but thrive at AFL level on a forward flank for 265 games is testament to his skill and courage. He’s been a hugely influential person in our football club, far more than most people outside our club would realise I suspect.

On Sunday, Danny will run out in the red, white and blue for the very last time. I hope we can send him out the right way and make it a joyous celebration in front of our supporters. His wife Kelly and his children Ruby and Otis will be watching, along with his parents Joe and Jenny and his sisters Rachel and Sara. Family is everything to Danny.

This week when he got up to talk to his teammates about the end of his career and what it all meant, he described us as his “brothers”.

This time of the year is often emotional for sides who miss the finals. Football clubs inherently have an eye on the future, but this week we pause for a little while to say goodbye. On Sunday, one of the hardest parts of the day will come 10 minutes before our first warm-up when I wander over to meet my dear mate. Where once, for a short time, there was an embarrassing slither of spite, now there is a belly full of love and admiration for my Bulldog brother.

I know he’ll be expecting me. And I’m honoured that we’ll get to play, one more time.

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