Recently I bent down to pick up my kids. My hip ached as I lowered myself and when I pushed upwards a sharp pain attacked the joint of my left big toe – it was arthritis caused by playing football.
I know because during a foot X-ray for a suspected break the doctor pointed out a small area he said was the first sign of the condition. It has been fifteen years but it’s now taking hold.
It should have been in the right foot – my preferred kicking one. But as I was long sighted in the left eye, blurring my peripheral vision on that side, I would often, in the helter-skelter of a contest near goal, swing the other way, on to my left foot; unwittingly damning it with the trauma of impact.
And then there is my back.
Some time ago my brother told me of an outing he made with some friends. They stopped the car on arriving at their destination but one of them, a recently retired Melbourne player, was so stiffened by the journey he couldn’t get out of the car. He was in his early thirties.
Aaron Moule retired from rugby league when he was only twenty six so he could be physically capable of playing with his kids when he was older. He began playing again shortly after, however, because it was the only way he could support those same children.
A professional footballer knows the harsh truth about the balance of nature. In order to look, feel and perform like a god he punishs his mortal body. And then later, after retirement, it reminds him what he put it through -a forty year old ex-footballer has the limited mobility and insistent pain of his seventy year old father.
Barry Humphries recently boasted that he had outlived most of the macho sporty types that attended Melbourne Grammar during his time there. As if a contact sport was a way of keeping healthy.
It’s the midweek excitement over the upcoming game that makes you forget the pain of the previous one. The adrenalin-induced feeling as you prepare to run out can’t be replicated in normal life.
But there is also a moral imperative that leads you to torture your body. Grasping his own chest the coach would scream: “You’re playing for the jumper!” And he was right, of course, whether you liked it or not. You weren’t just a sportsman or someone plying a trade, you were representing a club and its people.
There is a psychological legacy too. If you’re not an aggressive person to start with you soon become one. Often you would find yourself despising an opponent. Less skillful but stronger and more experienced defenders would give a you a quick elbow to the stomach if they thought you were going to lead.
A celebrated captain of a VFA club once held me down while play continued around us and hissed: “If you move I’ll kill you”
And most shocking of all, there can be your own teammates. I got to play alongside one of my idols in an AFL reserves match. He was returning from injury and keen on impressing. I was free on the half forward flank with a good chance of kicking a goal. He was about to be tackled so I called for the handball. “F*ck off!” he screamed before being tackled and giving away a free kick. I bent down towards him and found myself saying – to a Collingwood legend –
“And you f*ck off!”
Psychologically I was never quite the same again.
“You’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Do you want to play League football?”, Leigh Matthews asked the playing group after catching me smiling during a thrashing on a horrible day at an underwater VFL Park. He assumed I didn’t want to play but he was wrong. My smile had been an obliging response to a joke made by a more senior player (who would later play in the 1990 premiership team). Of course I wanted to play AFL football, if only a single game so I could be immortalised in the Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers.
I chose to walk because nothing about the place seemed right, and so I wasn’t immortalised. I have regretted it ever since… I think.
I’ll soon be crippled too.