This was hard to write.  But I feel better for having done it.  

This is for hundreds of people but in particular the following -Ralph Steiner who knew there was something very wrong and tried to save me.  Sorry Ralph I’d pulled up the drawbridge.   For Danny Connolley – mate you knew the dice were loaded but you tried your guts out anyway.  For John Keane for treating me like a man when I needed desperately to be valued by somebody.   And for dozens of others who I either shut out completely (you know who you are) or just pushed away with complete ruthlessness.  This is a reason, not an excuse.   Finally its for all those that had the courage to speak up.

The moment has replayed in my head thousands of times.   There isn’t a week go by that I don’t remember it in minute detail.

The ball bounces high and seems to glisten in the morning sun’s rays as it reaches its apex.  I have read it perfectly off the pack  and am running on to it.  I know what I’m about to do, I will gather it in my right arm, sprint clear, steady and kick it to the advantage of the Centre Half Forward who has made good position.  It is a moment in time – a moment in thousands of moments of hundreds of games of football that I played.  It is a perfect moment.  I have read the play beautifully, I will deliver the ball well.  I belong to this team.

It is the last perfect moment on a football field that I can remember  clearly.

It was Under Fifteens, St Josephs Geelong.  I’d worked my butt off to make this side and this was my first full game.  I played a blinder, if I don’t mind saying so and everything was good.

I believe that I was born to play Australian Rules football.  People laugh when I say that.  I’m not big and I’m not lightning fast, but my head made up for those shortcomings.  I could read the play better than anybody I ever played with and my vision was better than most. I always knew who was free and where they were.  It’s a talent that you can’t teach and good coaches value.

Of course playing Under 15s was a step up in class.  I understood that and I was coming in to the squad from outside, but it was quickly apparent to me that I was in the best 18  and I could have filled any number of spots.  I wasn’t big enough to play up the spine but I could fit anywhere down the flanks.  It took four rounds to make the starting line up but I got in and I fitted well.

Two weeks later I was back on the bench and I stayed there.

I didn’t know why and yet I did.

I didn’t understand what I saw, I didn’t understand the implications and in any case I suppressed it.  Buried it and buried it deep.

Our coach was a teacher, popular with some students and he owned that team.  He had done so for years.  He coached unsupervised, he coached by decree and he brooked no argument.  In any case he had a dozen sycophantic players who hung on his every word, so there was very little argument.

I didn’t like that.  I thought it was weird.  I don’t care if a teacher is the duck’s guts and I’ve known quite a few who I’ve had healthy respect for, but I think a teacher student relationship demands a degree of distance as does a coach player relationship.  Our coach had no such reservations.  I heard of players spending the weekend at his house.  I thought it odd, but none of my business.

In any case, as long as I played well I didn’t care what anyone did.

You have to remember this was mid seventies.  It was a more innocent time. Today’s eight year olds would be worldlier than I was and then some.
So I was in the side and had played well.  Life looked good.

The next week I started on the wing again , but it was one of those days when the ball is played down the other side of the field -All half I held my position and made space, but the ball was trapped on the far wing.  I got dragged at half time which was fair enough I was having no impact.  We won the game comfortably.

The change rooms after were weird.  The coach didn’t come in immediately.  I was almost changed and ready to go when he made his appearance.  I can’t tell how long he’d been but it was long enough for me to get changed and have my bag packed.

He came in with his arms around two players.  I was sitting down, not talking to anyone when he came in.  From where I was I could see one player clearly.  He looked weird.  He appeared sleepy and really childish.  Armed with the benefit of hindsight, I would say he didn’t know where he was.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  I knew him well and I’d never seen him like this – so completely vulnerable.

I didn’t have a clue about what was going on but it felt bad.

Then the player did the most bizarre thing that I had ever seen anyone do in public.  He nuzzled into the coach in the most intimate manner, rubbing his face against the coach’s chest and up under his arm. His action reminded me of a newborn lamb looking to suckle its mother.  I didn’t believe my eyes.  Then the player caught my eye and smiled.  I felt sick.  I didn’t know why.  I looked away and caught the coach looking at me.  I don’t know what he saw in my eyes but I know what I saw in his.

He was off balance.  I’m guessing that something had happened that had made him bring the players in to the change rooms.  I don’t know what.  I know that it was a weird unnatural situation and I know that the coach was trying to hide something.  He hadn’t hidden it from me and he knew that.

I had to get out of there.  I snatched up my bag and pushed past the coach and out into the day. My parent’s car wasn’t far away.  I ran to it and got in.  I said nothing.

I knew what I’d seen, but I couldn’t process it.

In those days to a fourteen year old, the concept of homosexuality was real enough but a fourteen year old boy and a forty year old man?  I couldn’t get it.   Besides that, I knew the boy well.  He was just an average kid; I didn’t understand what he was doing. And he looked so comprehensively out of it.  I tried to tell myself that it was concussion.  It wasn’t.  I saw the game.  He didn’t get hurt.  I didn’t understand any of it.

What I did get was this.

Our coach had his favourites and his favourites were always going to get a game.

I was angry, I was hurt and I have to admit that part of me, the little boy part who just wanted to play footy was jealous.

What was so special about that player?

I didn’t think in sexual terms I just thought in terms of being accepted by the coach.  I still wanted his approval.  I wanted to play.  I didn’t have any idea of how much danger I was in.  I just didn’t know.

I lie awake some nights and think about it.  At fourteen years old back then we were still children, trying desperately to behave like we thought that men should.  We all came from respectable middle class homes; we had no life experience to speak of.  We were lambs to the slaughter. One very sick man and twenty four fourteen year old boys ripe for the plucking – he had his own personal smorgasbord every year.  What a sick filthy lying dog.

I think about that player often – did he ever file a complaint? Could I have said something to save him?  Did he ever ask anyone for help?  Whatever happened to him? I know what I saw and I’ll carry the look on his face to my grave.  Its enough to drive you completely bat shit.

I didn’t go to training that week and when the side was named I was on the bench.  I expected it but it still hurt.

The coach never asked where I was, he never spoke to me for the rest of the year other than to say “you’re on.”  He treated me like dirt.

But I loved footy.  I still wanted to play.  So after that first week I went to training every week, I went to every game throughout the home and away season and I played off the bench every week.  I got angrier and angrier and it’s an amazing thing to say, but I didn’t really know why.

The world that I thought existed had been turned upside down by witnessing an act that I didn’t understand.

My wife says that it’s good to ventilate your feelings.  I didn’t ventilate mine.  I suppressed them and tried to get on with life.  I made a series of very bad choices and  started to hang out with a rougher crowd out of school hours. I started hitting the bottle towards the end of that year and I lost interest in my schoolwork.  You don’t embrace darkness, you stumble into its welcoming arms, it gets you settled, then tightens its embrace, bares its fangs and starts to bite.  I didn’t know that then, I was trying to cope with something way bigger than me and I was lashing out blindly.  The only person I hurt was myself.

The football season rolled on, the coach played his favourites.  I heard about wild alcohol fuelled parties at the his place.  Part of me was insanely jealous – why wasn’t I asked? Part of me didn’t want to think about it at all.  I’m not stupid, but I was terribly innocent.  What is so bleeding obvious to an adult in this millennium may as well have been written in Braille to me.   I only knew one thing for sure – I was on the outer.    I blocked out the chatter and tried to focus on footy – surely he’d have to play me sooner or later.  I realised that I didn’t love the game anymore.  It had become a chore.

We got to the semi finals and something snapped inside me.  I didn’t go.

Nobody asked where I was.   I had become the invisible man.

Preliminary final day came.  We played Barwon – the team was made up of players from the Little League that I had played in the year before. I know if I had played for them I would have lined up in the middle either as centre or rover.  As it was, I watched them towel St Josephs up.  It came to the last quarter and our coach desperately started to swing changes.  He ignored me totally.

I felt totally humiliated.  I didn’t hang around for the after match speeches.  I just left, completely and utterly broken.

I hope he was satisfied.
I never spoke to him again, which was quite an achievement considering he was still a large presence within the school.

I played under seventeens the next year.  I desperately wanted to rediscover the magic that I knew football could bring.  John Keane was our coach for the new season and he was a fine one at that.  He treated everyone equally and rotated us all through the side.  Everyone got a fair go.

Despite Keane’s positive influence, I found that my love of footy was dying.  I found it difficult to attend training and I hated being in the change rooms.  I still hate sporting change rooms, they make me feel ill.  Keane kept me engaged and committed.  I found that I was no longer playing for me but for the coach.  He treated us as adults, he made us commit, and he played no favourites.

Towards the end of the season, he came to me and said, “You’re the smartest little bloke I’ve got, and I need someone smart and small to play in the back pocket.”   I thought he was humouring me at the time and he wanted to play two other little blokes on the ball, but I accepted what he wanted. To my surprise, I found that I liked playing there. I could see the game unfold before me and found it relatively easy to keep my opponent quiet while picking up a few possessions.

We made the Grand Final and I lined up in the back pocket.  We kicked a couple of early goals and we looked to be on the way.  Then the game changed and they had all the play.  I don’t know how many possessions I had, but it was a lot and every one went to the team’s advantage.  The last quarter went forever and we clung to a small lead.  I think in the last five minutes the ball seemed to be stuck deep in our backline and I did my best along with the other defenders to hold the opposition out.  I was so damn tired I couldn’t raise my feet  at the end, but we held on to win by a couple of points.

I didn’t care to celebrate much and felt strangely flat.  I just remember looking at Keane after the game and him nodding at me.  “I told you,” he said.

It was the vindication I needed. Not only had I proved to myself that I could play I had won the faith of a coach.

It was the last real game I played.  Keane wasn’t going to coach the next year, maybe I would have played if he did, but the love had gone.   Sure I pulled on the boots a couple of years later to play for some reserves sides but by then I was fat and horribly unfit.  Even then, I still managed to find the ball.

The truth is that that under fifteens year destroyed my youth and my love of football.  I lost all faith in authority and I got so deeply mistrustful of forming relationships that I pushed many good people away.  I became angry and resentful and something happened inside me that told me that good things happened to other people.  I became a chronic underachiever.

It was stupid, but that’s what happens when you lock things away and let them fester.  They grow into cancerous tumours that eat away at your very existence.

When I turned forty I started to play field hockey.  My stick skills were appalling, but I could still read the play better than anyone else and my vision was second to none.  Some things never change.

I’ve done the sums.

I think I could have played twelve senior seasons of good level football.  I know I was too small to play VFL/AFL but I would have been a very handy small forward/ on baller (maybe even a back pocket) for most senior metropolitan/country clubs.  I missed two hundred and forty games.

Two hundred and forty games where I may have experienced the perfect moment when  I have read the play beautifully off a pack;  when I sprint clear knowing that  I will deliver well; where I know I belong to my team.

The damage my coach did to me pales into insignificance compared to what he did to others, but he did damage me.  It took ten years of anger and stupidity before I started to behave like a normal person and much longer to face up to these issues.

I remember saying to my mate Chris one night that I drank to forget.  He laughed and said “forget what.” “I don’t know,” I said, “I forget.”

I remember now.

I was collateral damage.

Tomorrow when I wake up I will remember …..The ball bouncing high and seeming to glisten as the morning sun’s rays as it reaches its apex.  I have read it perfectly off the pack and am running on to it.  I know what I’m about to do, I will gather it in my right arm, sprint clear, steady and kick it to the advantage of the Centre Half Forward who is in good position.  It is a moment in time, a moment in thousands of moments of hundreds of games of football that I played.  It is a perfect moment.  I have read the play beautifully, I will deliver well.  I belong to this team.

And then I will remember other things.

They say time heals or wounds.  My latter teenage years  and early twenties were wasted years.  I could have self destructed, but I had my music.  There were some great underground songs coming out at the time.  On the Rocks  by Gillan had some great lines about once being a flying thing only to be left on the rocks with broken wings. Someone gets it I used to think……and played it repeatedly.

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By Mark