Lesson #07 – “Heroes are Human”

by | Jun 30, 2022

This story starts with a text from my oldest and closest friend, Craig Cameron.

The text was on the Saturday morning we woke to the news that Shane Warne had died. Unsurprisingly, It was the first I received. There would be many over the next few days, and no conversation would pass without a Warnie reflection. The shock, then the ripples and the layers, and it felt so deeply personal, and so it was for Craig and I.

Craig’s dad Barry and my father Alan, were also best mates. They met via the Richmond Football Club, where Barry played just under a hundred games and Alan was Secretary.

I never watched a live game of football with Dad growing up because of his match-day commitments. Each week I’d go with Barry and Craig and his grandfather Ken Bottomley, a beautiful, wise and generous man, a baker from Yorkshire who wore a ‘Peaky Blinders’ cap and would say “rooshed” when the ball was rushed through for a behind. We still call that style of headwear a ‘rooshed cap’.

After his career at Richmond finished in the mid-1960s, Barry coached Premierships at high-level district football, and he taught us the game. I owe him a lot. We never missed a match, travelling to all the inner-suburban grounds, standing in the outer, finding the big steel beer cans to form a platform to watch the action. And the Tigers were very watchable. They were known as “Ruthless Richmond” and were the power team of that era, and my father was a key person in their success.

Craig and I shared most of our growing up together, street and backyard football and cricket games, then club and school footy and cricket, until he improved to the point where he left me a level behind.

We both then worked in football. Craig has built a great track record and reputation as a recruiter, list manager and Football Manager, taking on tough gigs and building football teams and clubs. Awarded Life Membership of the Melbourne Football Club when he was the Recruiting Manager of the Neale Daniher coached Demons before heading to the Tigers as Football Manager. He was a guiding hand in most of the key decisions that helped set up a generation of success at Richmond, including the appointment of Damian Hardwick as Senior Coach and a Recruiting and List Management structure, the combination of which delivered three Premierships in four years.

He is now the List Manager at the Gold Coast Suns, a massive undertaking, unique at so many levels. Such a challenge requires innovative solutions, and the club is in safe hands with Craig. Experienced, highly intelligent and with a wonderful life compass, he will take the role very seriously but will not take himself too seriously.

Unsurprisingly, there is now light at the end of what has been a dark tunnel for the young club, which has done it hard since coming into the AFL competition a decade or so ago.

I only met Shane Warne a few times, and our conversations were mostly about football, including his junior football career.

I was Recruiting Manager at the Melbourne Football Club when Warnie was playing local club and school football at a time when clubs were allocated suburban ‘zones’ from which they would draw their players. The St Kilda and Melbourne recruiting zones were adjacent; therefore, if you watched a game in the district, you had to check the player’s address to see if he was zoned to your club.

Shane Warne lived in the southern beachside suburb of Black Rock, the St Kilda zone, so they had first ‘dibs’.

I remember assessing him as a teenage footballer playing in the district. He was a strongly built forward, noticeable with a mullet of blond hair. Warnie had strong hands and neat skills, was good around goal, but too small for a key position in the higher ranks, and lacked the speed, mobility and ‘engine’ to play other roles, or at least that was my opinion.

But he was considered promising enough to be invited down to the Saints to try out, and was good enough to play a season with their Under 19s, kicking seven goals in one match, as well as playing one game in their Reserves team, before being told he was ‘no longer required’.

When we met about eight years later, sitting at the same table at a football function, he asked me whether I agreed with the St Kilda decision to de-list him. I confirmed I did, and he wanted to learn more, so I explained my rationale. It wasn’t an off-the-cuff conversation; there was intent, holding my gaze with bright clear eyes, slowly nodding as I explained my position, and asking questions.

He was very interested in the recruiting processes, I went through the criteria by which we select players, and soon he was rating himself.

“Ball handling”, I asked.

“Yeh, good. No, very good”, he responded.

“Decision making”.

“Generally good, bit selfish around goal”, he laughed.

“Speed and endurance”.

“Couldn’t run out of sight on a dark night”, he replied, not with a smile but with understanding, the now knowledge and wisdom of a high-performance sportsman.

Throughout our exchange, it felt like he was still holding onto a possibility, unrequited hope, now gone.

This was not an unfamiliar conversation. Over the years, when you meet players who did not make the grade, who received the famous DCM (Don’t Come Monday), and you see them, sometimes decades later, middle-aged and life-lived, asking why they never made it. Something still burns inside, and our chance meeting brings these emotions to the surface. I have been in suburban shopping centres with men in their fifties, with tears in their eyes, asking if there was anything more they could have done to make it thirty years earlier.

I knew with Shane Warne, I was on safe ground, providing an unvarnished opinion because, by this point, he was the most famous cricketer in the world. He then explained the disappointment of that time had driven him at important times in his cricket career. Again, a familiar theme.

Each time I saw Shane, he would have a little dig. “This is one of the blokes who reckons I wasn’t good enough to play in the AFL”, he would say. He would pause for effect, then say, “He was right. I wasn’t good enough”, with a flashing smile across his broad, tanned face. It was at once friendly and familiar, and made for good conversation with whoever was in the group.

I found him generous, genuine and thoughtful, but I was also aware of his growing reputation for lacking the filter that could be the difference between a good decision and one likely to come back at him, with his rockstar fame and a determination to live life to the full and on his terms, things were bound to get complicated for him, and so it was.

But he also seemed like others I’d met in football, individuals in team environments, most likely to win you games with their rare talents and pure competitiveness, loved by their teammates, but whose behaviour would test their team ethos and standards, particularly the leaders who were required to uphold them.

As a sports administrator, when the phone rang at 4 am, you almost knew which player would be the subject of the conversation, needing help with an issue almost impossible to conceive, let alone explain in the late-night haze.

“Run that past me again”, you would find yourself saying.

Craig also had this experience, supporting young men, talented footballers who have trodden this line. Our club’s version of Shane Warne. Young men who fly too close to the sun, with sporting genius and charismatic personalities, everything magnified and amplified, struggling to ground themselves, until something goes so wrong, the grounding is done for them.

Warnie’s death hit me hard, as it did so many.

My generation got to see the whole Warnie story. We related to his suburban upbringing, and his effort to do something we understood to be really hard (bowl leg-spin) and get to play at this level. Then to be so good at it that our Australian cricket team is formidable, and he is a champ, a hero, the like we had never seen before – a mix of artistry and brute competitiveness. Then there were the stuff-ups only he could have invented, the injuries, the comebacks because he found a way, the retirement, the celebrity, all the time being Warnie, someone we felt we knew because he was like us in so many ways, but also so different, and he had conquered the world.

Every experience of Warnie had the potential to take you to extreme places, making him an enthralling character. On the cricket field, you could not take your eyes off him, with his capacity to exert his will and rare talent on the contest. You would also hear stories of his incredible generosity and care, told in the most heartfelt ways following his passing. But then there were the times when he would have tested the forbearance (and love) of those closest to him, his family, his teammates, and the administrators who were left to clean up his mess just to enable him to ply his trade.

He was a hero to so many people, but he also exposed what a vexed human concept having and being a hero represents.

But I think his death hit me hard for another reason.

I was at a Carbine Club sportsman’s dinner timed with the first day of the 1993 Ashes Tour in England held in the Betty Cuthbert Room at the MCG. The Carbine Club is a group of people well connected in sport. My father, who was now the Executive Commissioner of the AFL, was a member.

Dad loved the Carbine Club, and he mixed freely with the retired greats of sport, winners of Wimbledon, test cricketers, and Olympians, many of whom were Dad’s childhood heroes, most of whom loved their footy. They would engage in lively conversation, wonderful sporting banter, and the respect was mutual.

This Carbine Club event was ‘Mates Night’ with members having to bring a good mate, who they would stand up and publicly introduce to all the members.

Dad invited me, and stood up to introduce me. “This is my son Cameron. He is my best mate”. He then went on to say, “Cameron is the most honest person I have ever met”, and I knew I wasn’t, and I was just a little embarrassed, but loved that he felt this way, and knew how much I doubted myself despite my considerable effort to present otherwise. I had been CEO of Richmond Football Club for almost five years, but I was still growing up. I hadn’t yet turned thirty.

After the introductions, we all then watched the cricket, projected onto a screen at the end of the room. There was a lot of interest around Shane Warne, the blond mulleted Melbourne boy attempting to master the lost art of leg-spin. Then Warnie walks in to bowl his first ball in England in an Ashes Test, a delivery now known as the ‘Ball of the Century’ knocking over England skipper Mike Gatting’s stumps, and everyone knew the cricket world had changed.

Not unusually, Dad had too much to drink. He could get quite emotional, and he loved his cricket. He kept saying with wet eyes “Did you see that Cam?” complete with a slow-motion, back-of-the-hand, leg-spin bowling action.

My father was someone who also flew too close to the sun, and this night would be the last time we would be together.

He died two weeks later in a hotel room in Kings Cross, Sydney. He was 52, the same age as Warnie. He got drunk and made a bad choice, as he often had, but this one cost him his life. It was sudden and shocking, and part of me broke off and shattered into a million little pieces.

Our family asked his best mate Barry Cameron to deliver a eulogy to his mate ‘Al Pal’ as he called him. My younger brother Brendan and I also spoke. Because of Dad’s profile, the funeral, a full house at St Paul’s Cathedral with thousands attending, was the leading story on all news channels. When I look at the vision, I realise we were both boys.

To all of us, Alan Schwab was our hero.

“Everybody needs a hero”, I often say when talking to leaders trying to negotiate the complexities of their world. They cannot do it alone. They need mentors, people with the integrity and insight to help them find a way forward.

I knew my father’s foibles, his flaws, and in many ways, I bore witness to his descent, as alcohol played an increasingly influential part in his life and the inevitable damage it caused. I spoke to him about it, but not often enough, and wonder if I could have done more and desperately wished I had.

But our heroes are human, which might be the biggest lesson he taught me. I grew up and then worked with these larger-than-life people. High achievers, household names who couldn’t walk down the street without being stopped by someone wanting an autograph. But then I also saw their struggles, doubts, the weight they carried, their world heightened, and the sometimes poor behaviours when they couldn’t cope, and the disappointment and dismay this would cause.

I am now six years older than Dad when he died. He missed out on so much, and I still miss him, but sometimes I wonder which part I miss most – the father or the hero, so intertwined.

I do know one thing. We still had a lot of talking to do.

The story finishes with a text from my oldest and closest friend Craig Cameron. We don’t see or speak to each other that often because we don’t need to. But he is the hero of this story, understanding better than anyone that life would never be the same for me. He couldn’t put the million little pieces back together, and he never tried to, but always recognised a brave face didn’t mean I was doing ok.

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