“People, I present to you a truly useless bastard. He fooled three clubs 137 times over 11 years … I literally cannot believe my eyes as I read those numbers. How did we all let this weak, no-talent prick get a game beyond his rookie contract?”
Uproar. The mob was loving it, the beers not hurting, coach working the room like a veteran comedian, all but twirling the mic.
He acted baffled, motioning for the media / stats kids to check the clearly incorrect facts of my career.
“As a player? I would sum him up as …”
Coach motioned to his assistant Scotty, and made a show of conferring with him.
“Scotty says he was ‘serviceable’ … I take that to mean he did fuck-all. I sure don’t remember seeing him do anything of note. I can barely remember the bastard. Was he a right-footer, lads? Did he have any tricks? Where did he play?”
My soon-to-be ex-teammates helped out, describing me as a back pocket scrubber, a reliable benchwarmer, a March champion, a frontrunner, a bit of a squib …
“Oh yeah, he’s that dickhead who lived on the masseur’s table in the trainer’s room. I don’t think I have ever seen him stand up. Do his legs work?”
No, came the roared reply. Johnno and Brads picked me up to display the evidence for the prosecution – my newly operated-upon left leg encased in the cyborg strapping from hip to ankle. They weren’t too delicate, knowing I would never again use that leg in the AFL.
Coach resumed above the crude parliament of the playing group, all grinning and yelling.
“I think I saw him once at recovery in the bay. It was the coldest day of the year and he went in there happily. I don’t think he had any brass monkeys to shrink. Just nothing there at all.”
This was some of Coach’s finest work. I was not just reprehensible and invisible, but literally lacking balls. He hadn’t exactly missed his calling, but when the sack beckoned, he would be able to fall back on working blue at RSLs.
“He was soft, weak, gutless, disloyal … a role model for everything not to do in football and life. I hope none of you younger guys ever paid him a moment’s notice. He’s ugly, smells bad – the rooms will be so much more hygienic when he’s gone …”
- Hasn’t he left yet?
- Piss off scumbag!
“Let’s see if the impostor has anything to say in his defence before we fuck him off out of this building for good and ask for his swipe pass. A truly worthless footballer and an even worse human being … good riddance and fuck off …”
It was the nicest words anyone had ever said about me.
“I give you …”
Coach made a show of struggling with my name.
“… er ‘Justin Proverse’ it says here, is that right?”
The room erupted. (He had my name right, but currently I was known around the boys as ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘Jeez’ for short.)
I was buffeted as I limped to the podium, head and shoulders gripped and ruffled. Johnno of course got me in a headlock and escorted me most of the way. He couldn’t go five minutes without a wrestle, hug, or high-five. The room was ridiculously loud, the boys were using my retirement as an opportunity to unleash. I limped up defenceless, getting drenched by forty fizzing beers. They chanted JEEZUS! JEEZUS! JEEZUS! We could have been mistaken for a particularly fervent cult, which is a fair description of most successful sports teams.
It wasn’t an easy act to follow and they had really got to me. Love expressed as abuse, the Aussie male way, was perfected in footy clubs. Despite my current nickname, I was not as much of a cleanskin son-of-god as someone like Scotty – a food-weigher who ran ten clicks before breakfast - and my identity within the group was long since sealed, so I had to come back with something.
“Well, I am truly thankful that Corey Johnson totally fucked my knee and ended my career,” I began, trying to frown.
“Because I can’t wait to get the fuck away from you bunch of braindead, overgrown children.”
They loved that. I had never cursed out of turn, and had always avoided calling anyone out unless completely necessary.
“This whole caper is overrated, you’re all a pack of arseholes and my life improves the minute I step out that door.”
I had decided this speech, in front of my teammates, the coaches and staff and a few close friends, was it for me. I was going to resist any other fanfare, any media, not that the departure of a player of my stature would have lit up the airwaves.
The abuse, the laughs. Now I was going to hit this room between the eyes with sincerity. In footy, sincerity is a carefully rationed vital essence that footballers live for, even the ones that didn’t know it, because as I told them, contact sports like footy are about character – testing your own and later, when you grew up a bit, becoming interested in that of others. Seeing what people were made of. If you weren’t curious about human nature, the whole thing really was just a business.
So I told them that championships and trophies and awards didn’t mean anything if you didn’t have the respect of your teammates, even some opponents. They got told all the time that they were amongst the luckiest people alive to get paid to play a game they loved, and I told them this cliché was true, despite all the bullshit. I told them I would never forget the people who had helped me get through the bullshit – media bullshit, tribunal bullshit, injury bullshit, envious and abusive public and media and even teammate and coach bullshit, personal relationship bullshit. And I would never forget getting the opportunity to help out other people through their bullshit.
I told them I cherished all the unexpected benefits footy provided – people you would never have met, experiences you would never have had, tests of your character you would never have experienced. I told the younger ones that even though the footy scene was probably overwhelming them, they should try to wring the most out of the experience, because it was unique and you couldn’t go back to it when you were older. I thanked them all.
Yes, I cried a bit. It was like shedding a skin, my childhood, in public. Try doing that without the waterworks.
Then Johnno and Moritz hoisted me atop a table and I was happily trapped, holding court with staff, teammates and coaches past and present. Well, all past now.
It was time for a few beers together. So rarely was this a sanctioned part of pro sport anymore. I was liquid, covered in tears and beer. It was great, full-on, the bittersweet buzz I thought it would be. Such hours in team sports are always the best. No winning or losing attached, everyone freed to talk from the heart. There were some very emotional and earnest things said to me, some really flattering things said about my leadership, my loyalty, my wisdom – the exact opposite of all the things the speeches had announced.
When the current players were shooed out by old Billy, playing bouncer way early – the worst of them might have snuck in three cans, a major allowance mid-week ahead of a game - I was stuck with my agent Tully, the club psych Enrico, McMullin from the player’s union, and my ‘Real World’ mate Rex.
Tully had used up all of his arguments to keep me playing and was focused on getting me an assistant coaching role. He had been wording up Coach. It was assumed I would seamlessly move into an off-field role as I had spent so much time with the coaching staff as a player and, despite my low profile, I had been in the leadership group for years.
Enrico and I had talked sport and life for years, since he had been welfare officer at the Hawks at the start of my career. He was pretty torn up. McMullin was a good bloke and tough negotiator. It was professional courtesy and maybe a job offer that brought him to this gathering uninvited; I was considered foreman material.
Only Rex got it.
The insincere part of my speech was spot on. I was grateful that my leg was wrecked and I was not going to come back into this room I so loved. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I didn’t know why I felt like this, but at 28, I was certain.
Inside this room, I was a learned veteran. Outside its doors I was an unqualified nobody, jobless and adrift. I had no idea what to do next. But I wanted to be outside.