Lesson #10 – “Give it your best”

by | Jul 22, 2022

“What is a club in any case.

Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.

It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.

It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at the hallowed stretch of turf beneath him, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

Sir Bobby Robson. An English football legend who transcended the game.

——————-

I fell in love with the game. No, that’s not entirely correct. I fell in love with the Tigers – the Richmond Football Club.

I fell in love with the Tigers before I fell in love with anything else in my life.

I fell in love with the game, and the Tigers, holding my father’s hand.

I am seven years old.

Walking up the steps of the old Olympic Stand at the MCG, hand-in-hand with my dad.

“It’s in colour”, I say aloud.

Dad laughs and pulls me closer. Until that day, I’d only seen the game in black and white on our small TV at home. He’d tell that story for years.

Alan Schwab with coach Tom Hafey in the player race of the Punt Road Oval. Home of the Mighty Tigers.

My father isn’t any dad taking his kid to the footy for the first time. He is Alan Schwab, Secretary of the Richmond Football Club. If he was doing the job now, he’d be the CEO. The boss.

He wore a black blazer with silver buttons, a lying growling tiger and RFC embroidered on the pocket, a mum-ironed pale-yellow Pelaco shirt, and a skinny black and yellow tie. Even though he wasn’t a big man, he stood out. He looked official. Neat and clean, bearing just a slight air of influence.

The crowd seemed to part for him when we walked into the ground and along the concourse below the stands. People would recognise him and say, “G’day Schwabby, how will we go today? Can’t drop this one.”

Awake or asleep, I never lost the experience of my first game of football. Images, moments and people remain vivid and prevailing, the colour, sound and smell.

The details.

Yes, I loved the details of football and still do.

It might be the idiosyncratic demeanour, mannerisms or behaviour of a player, expressions of individuality inside a team ethos. They bring personality to the team by drawing attention to themselves, all whilst strengthening the culture, often a fine line, with the possibility of it all going terribly wrong at any moment.

All the great teams have at least one player like this. They get under the skin of the opposition players and their supporters. You love them if they’re yours, but rile you when they wear the colours of any other team. As you read this, a player will be coming to mind.

As I was growing up with the game, I watched it change. The individual expression and fashions of the seventies were creeping into the sport, a little bit of Carnaby Street and Rock’ n Roll. They were the first generation of players to break clear of the short-back-and-sides expectations of their predecessors.

The Tigers seemed to lead the way. Their big, take-no-prisoners forward/ruckman Neil Balme looked more like a bass guitarist from ‘Status Quo’ than footballer. Then there was the tattooed angry defender, Robbie ‘Bones’ McGhie, with his menacing rat’s tail ‘sharpie’ cut, more roadie than centre half back.

Richmond defender Robbie ‘Bones’ McGhie after winning the 1973 Grand Final

For the first time, the player’s boots offered an opportunity for expression.

In those days, the plain black boots worn for the best part of a century now had white stripes, flashes or diamonds. As one of the first clubs to embrace the sports sciences through coach and fitness fanatic Tommy Hafey’s relationship with champion athlete Herb Elliott and his eccentric coach Percy Cerruty, boots were now crafted for performance, more akin to a runner’s spike than a labourer’s Blundstone.

For this generation, hair, boots, and a smattering of ink formed the limited palette players had to work with when it came to personal expression. Not much has changed, a lot more ink perhaps, but the regression back to the ironic mullet gives a sense that we have seen this movie before.

But there was one item that set the Tigers apart from all other clubs, and while its reason and function was pure performance, it soon became a much bigger statement.

It was known simply as the ‘lace-up’ jumper.

I had first seen them in the Richmond changerooms I visited after that first game, unlaced and open at the front, draped across the shoulders of my childhood hero, the champion Richmond Centre Half Forward, Royce Hart.

Champion Tiger Royce Hart in his lace-up jumper, with legendary coach Tom Hafey 

A select few of the Richmond players wore the lace-up jumper.

Made by a company, Vic Hill, in Adelaide, Richmond was the first and, for at least a few years, the only club to wear the lace-up in the league.

The lace-up jumpers looked like a throw-back to the pioneering time of the game but were now being worn for very calculated reasons.

Handmade from a fine canvas-like material, more like a waistcoat than a jumper, they were measured and customised to the precise proportions of the player. Laced at the front, they had no ‘give’ unlike the woollen jumpers of that time, nothing to grab onto, and made the wearer very difficult to tackle.

But they also played to the Ruthless Richmond mindset of that era. Yes, ruthless at a performance level, but also the capacity to reduce the opposition by injuring would-be tacklers. They would be banned a few years later when champion Melbourne wingman Robbie Flower, a loved and universally respected player, would badly break and dislocate a finger, having caught it in the arm hole of the jumper.

The lace-up jumper, idiosyncratic and gladiatorial, and giving the perception of unfair advantage, played to the Tiger’s reputation and soon became the metaphor for this mood.

You could not buy the lace-up jumper at the local sports store, which only stocked the traditional heavy woollen jumpers worn by all other teams. The only time they were sighted was in the field of battle, worn not by all the players, but seemingly reserved for those who had ‘earned the right’, or this is how I perceived it.

As a now ten-year-old boy, well aware of the status of my father at the Richmond Football Club, I set my sights on obtaining a lace-up jumper. But not just any lace-up, one with the number 4 on the back, Royce Hart, the number also having a significance as Dad and I shared the same birthday, 4 December.

I posed the question to Dad, only to be disappointed when he explained that they were made for the league players only.

And that was that.

Dad’s role at the club meant he would not get home until after our bedtime most nights. He would leave in the morning at the same time as most other dads, often dropping us off at our local primary school, Essex Heights in Mt Waverley. His day would effectively restart when the coaches, players and trainers would turn up when most other workers finished their workday. It was a rhythm that I would become familiar with when I started working in football only eight years later.

Lying in bed at night in the room I shared with my younger brother Brendan, I’d will myself to stay awake, mostly by reading whatever football-oriented publication I could get my hands on. Often this would be the previous game’s Football Record, memorising player guernsey numbers.

I’d wait for the Dad’s Holden Kingswood to come up the driveway of our suburban home, car lights spotlighting across the walls of our small bedroom ‘Great Escape’ style as he turned into the carport. The car engine would silence, the sound of the car door opening and slamming shut, and I’d see his silhouette as he walked up our front porch. I could almost count the steps as he made his way to the front door, listening for the fumble of keys as he let himself into our home.

Dad would carry a cardboard box around with him. The waxy kind you get from the grocer. In it would be his portable typewriter, manilla folders, foolscap pads, a heap of biros, and the daily newspapers, including the afternoon paper, ‘The Herald’, and a couple of times per week, a pink newspaper called ‘The Sporting Globe’. But by far the most fascinating item in the box was his ‘teledex’, a plastic gizmo that kept the phone numbers of his network, including the players. I would click on the letter H, push a button, and the lid would flip open, and there it was, Royce Hart’s name with two phone numbers, home and work. I’d work through the whole Richmond list, and every player would be there, and I would also see names like Tom Hafey, Jack Dyer, Norm Smith and Ron Barassi, the icons of the game who I’d see on the TV or hear on the radio.

Sometimes I’d come across the phone number of a famous player from another club. I remember seeing Carlton superstar Alex Jesaulenko’s name and immediately wondered what plan Dad might be hatching for the mercurial Jezza.

When he arrived home, he’d drop the box on the kitchen bench and say a quick hello to Mum and my older sister Jennie, but soon he’d need to use the toilet in the bathroom next to our bedroom after the long drive from the Punt Road Oval, Richmond, the ‘Home of the Tigers’.

I’d wait for the toilet to flush, and soon, a crack of light came into my bedroom from the hallway as Dad opened the bedroom door.

“G’day Dad”, I’d whisper.

It was like my voice had given him permission to enter, and he’d come into our room quietly. I’d smell him before I could see him. End of day ‘man-smells’ as he leant forward to kiss my forehead – stale Brut 33 deodorant, Old Spice aftershave, and on his breath, a mix of Quikeeze, Alpine cigarettes and Scotch. But it also seemed like a little bit of the Punt Road Oval had come home with him.

I’d make room for him on my bed, and he’d sit close to me, and we’d talk quietly so as not to wake Brendan.

He called me ‘China’, as in ‘China Plate’, rhyming slang for ‘mate’.

“How was school today China?” he’d ask me.

We’d talk about the happenings in my life – school, mates and how training went at the local footy club I played for, also called Essex Heights, but I’d want to know about the latest on the Tigers. He’d confide in me the up-to-the-minute news on player injuries, Royce Hart’s problematic knees always causing the greatest concern. I was part of his ‘inner sanctum’ he’d tell me, and I’d promise not to tell anyone what we spoke about.

He’d share stories about his recruiting trips to the country or interstate to find the next generation of Tiger players. I could sense his excitement when he’d seen a player who he thought was a bit ‘special’, painting word pictures so detailed I could almost see the player in my mind, not playing for his current club, but donning the Richmond jumper and running out on the MCG.

He’d tell me funny stories about some of the characters around the club, trying not to laugh out loud. Tears would come to his eyes talking about the latest deeds of people with nicknames like ‘Captain Blood’, ‘The Whale’, ‘Chalky Bones’, and ‘Hungry’, and I’d know exactly who he was talking about.

Sometimes I’d catch him falling asleep as we spoke, his head rolling and speech slowing. He would jolt, my kid bed shaking, look slightly embarrassed, and we’d smile at each other. He’d lean over, kiss me on the forehead and playfully brush his whiskery chin against my cheek with a smile, a ‘whiskers kiss’ we called them. He’d then lean over Brendan and do likewise, sans the whiskers, my brother having slept through what was the best ten minutes of my day.

“Goodnight China. Love you.”

“Goodnight Dad. Love you too.”

I’d then lay back in bed, and rather than counting sheep, I’d work my way through the Richmond jumper numbers, never getting much further than …. #7 Wayne Walsh #8 Dicky Clay #9 Craig McKellar #10 Kevin Sheedy #11 Laurie Fowler….ZZZZZzzzz….

Then one night, as the crack of light entered our bedroom, it revealed that Dad was nursing two cardboard boxes. He lay them on our dressing table and whispered in my ear to wake Brendan, which I gently did. Dad then switched on our bedside lamp.

While four years younger, Bren had fallen for the Tigers as I had. Sitting up and bleary-eyed, Dad handed him one of the boxes. It had his name scribbled on the top in Dad’s unmistakable left-handed scrawl. Bren opened it, and I peered over. In the box was a football jumper, and my heart skipped a beat. Bren lifted the jumper out, holding it up. It was a perfect ‘mini-me’ Richmond lace-up guernsey. He turned it around, and there it was, a gleaming white number 4 positioned precisely where it should be.

He got out of bed, taking off his winter pyjama top. Dad threaded his arms through the arm holes of his jumper, lacing it down the middle the same way as the Richmond players.

Here was Bren, standing in his pyjama bottoms, his skinny, spaghetti arms hanging out of his lace-up jumper, turning around to show off the number 4, with his wonderful smile that mandates you to do likewise.

Bren jumped on my bed. It was my turn. I looked at my name scribbled on the top of the box and slowly lifted the lid. There it was. My lace-up. The black was really black, and the yellow was almost a golden orange. I realised the jumpers my heroes wear had suffered at the hands of the property steward Charlie Callander and his industrial washing machine, tasked with removing the MCG’s Merri Creek mud.

I lifted it out of the box. It was still laced. It felt heavy and stiff, and I brought it up to feel its texture against my face. It was rough, like the brush of my dad’s chin. I looked at it again, the most wondrous thing I’d ever seen, taking me straight back into the Richmond changerooms a couple of years earlier when I first saw the lace-up jumpers on the game-weary players.

I held it up, taking in all of its beauty, looking at Dad, who was beaming ear-to-ear.

I then turned it over to see my number 4.

But it is not number 4 on the back of my lace-up.

It is number 30.

I let the jumper fall to my lap, and my head went down.

It must be an error, I thought, a stuff-up. Somehow, I’d been given the wrong jumper, but I knew Dad could not possibly make that kind of mistake. I felt bewildered, almost disoriented, and was doing my best to stop the tears welling in my eyes.

“Don’t cry Cameron, don’t cry Cameron”, I thought to myself, desperately trying to hide my disappointment, to feel appreciative.

Then Dad, as if prepared for this moment, gently lifted up my chin, and my eyes met his.

“You know who number 30 is, don’t you China?” Dad asked.

He knew I knew.

“Francis Bourke,” I answered, now sobbing, then adding. “…he is sitting next to you in the 1969 Premiership photo.”

Then he pointed to some writing on the number. At the bottom of the 3 in the number 30 was some writing. In simple biro, it read:

“Cameron, Give it your best. Francis Bourke”

He then asked, “What is Francis Bourke famous for?”

Again, I knew the answer.

“He once played with a broken leg,” I responded.

He smiled.

“Let’s put your jumper on.”

I felt the construct of the garment. It was like nothing I’d ever owned. In reality, my old woollen footy jumper was just another type of jumper, familiar in every way other than what it represented. The lace-up was built for purpose, unapologetic in function and intent. I carefully unlaced it, learnedly, so I understood how it would be re-laced. I took off my pyjama top and fed my arms through the arm-holes, feeling the warmth and softness of its white felt lining. I lined up its edges and started threading the lace as I’d seen the players do in Richmond rooms on match-day.

I stood up, and quick as a flash, Bren was by my side. Smiling.

Bren and I stood in front of Dad. He made us pump our chests out and fold our arms, teaching us how to put fists under the inside of our biceps to give the impression of muscles, and we looked at each other and our reflection in the dressing table mirror and burst out laughing. We took off down the hallway and into the family room like we were running onto the MCG to show Mum and Jen our lace-up jumpers.

We ran around the room with Dad commentating…

“Francis Bourke lays a strong tackle, wins back the ball, brushes off Robert Walls, his Carlton opponent, somehow manages to get boot to ball with three Carlton players hanging off him. He slams it forward in the Royce Hart direction. Did you see that! Hart just soared over the pack to take the mark of the year. Well played Tigers. Too good again.”

I’d hear this commentary over and over as we played imaginary games in our family room, a play wrestle with me, and I’d wriggle free. He would then pick Bren up and thrust him towards the ceiling, Bren’s arms outstretched, grabbing for an invisible football. Bren in his number 4, me in my number 30.

I would wear the lace-up everywhere, including training at Essex Heights. I also trained for a few weeks with the Richmond Little League, playing just one game, against Carlton at the MCG, and I didn’t touch the ball. I still have the team photo. I am sitting in the middle row, smiling, wearing my lace-up next to my best mate, Craig Cameron.

In the Richmond Little League. I am the blond kid in the short-sleeved lace-up seated fifth from the right.

Mum would wash the jumper only after I’d reluctantly concede the need after a muddy training session.

I feared that the wash would remove the Francis Bourke signature and message. As soon as the wash cycle finished, I’d take the jumper out and carefully draw over the faded writing on the plastic number in my hand, trying to replicate Francis’ handwriting.

Handsome and humble, with dark hair and a Superman curl on his forehead, Francis Bourke was selfless and fierce, not resting until the ball was cleared from his area by whatever means, immediately preparing for its possible return. He played football in the moment and without pretence, with unwavering belief, but seemed almost self-conscious, embarrassed by his growing list of admirers, amongst them the game’s most influential voices, and a ten-year-old boy in Mt Waverley.

He would soon be known universally as ‘St Francis’, and that said it all.

He stood for everything great about the sport.

My father Alan Schwab, seated next to Francis Bourke in the 1969 Premiership photo.

“I never asked Dad why he chose to get me number 30 and not the number 4. I have thought about it often in recent years.

My father died suddenly and shockingly when I was still in my 20s. He was 52. He got drunk and made a wrong choice, as he often had, but this one cost him his life. There is a gaping and gnawing sadness that has never left me. A hole that refuses to be filled.

A few years ago, I started to make a list of the conversations I never got to have with Dad, trying to fill the hole, a mostly forlorn effort to shift my immovable and embedded grief.

The conversations never got to happen when Dad was alive, not because he was a distant father, he was, in fact, more available to me in my young adult life than he was in my childhood because I also worked in football from the time I left high-school. They say that by the time your children are eighteen, you have spent 80% of the time you will ever spend with them. The game extended our time. We would see each other often, he in his role as Executive Commissioner of the AFL, me in my various roles in football.

I had a daily custom of ringing him on my way home from work, maintaining the bedtime ritual of my childhood. I was now the 24-year-old CEO of the Richmond Football Club, often feeling out of my depth but able to take comfort from his reassurance, belief and bias.

He would try and make sense of the complexity of my situation, often of my own making, but amplified by the desperate state the club was in at the time. Richmond was broken, badly, and nothing in my life, either capability or experience, had prepared me for this assignment.

He would ask questions rather than give answers, something like, “What would you do if you were running the Essex Heights Football Club?” an effort to make the problem smaller and accessible, shift the weight just a little, but never allowing me to surrender responsibility.

When he died, it was like a part of me had broken off and shattered into a million little pieces.

For some time after he died, as I drove home from a long day in my office, the same office I’d spend with Dad during the school holidays as a kid, what seemed like yesterday, I’d call his number on my mobile. I’d be driving up Bridge Road, Richmond, and the number would ring and keep ringing, and I would listen to it until I arrived home in Camberwell fifteen minutes later. I’d sit in the car in the garage, still listening, knowing I’d have to hang up and go inside at some point. Then one day, it stopped ringing. There was nothing. It never rang again. No disconnected message, just empty space. Still, I rang the number and listened to nothing, then one day, I stopped doing it, but still, my subconscious mind kept telling me to ring Dad, but by now, my conscious mind would remind me he had died.

When I thought about the conversations we never had, at the top of the page, I wrote:

“Dad, we still had a lot of talking to do”.

I started writing down the conversations we never got to have.

“What do I do now I am a father?”
“What do I do now I have been sacked from my job?”
“What do I do now my marriage has broken up?”
“What do I do now I have cancer?”
“What do I do now I don’t know what to do?”

To find answers, I imagine that somehow, I am allowed to meet him one more time to ask him just one question from the long list of conversations we never got to have.

In my imagination, it goes like this.

Dad, I imagine you are sitting in the loungeroom of our home you never got to visit. It is Daylesford, in the country, opposite the football ground, the home of the Daylesford Football Club. The Bulldogs. The floodlights are on for training, and you can just make out the muffled sounds of players and coaches in the chill night.

“That’s where Chris Grant came from”, you say, pointing in the direction of the ground. I imagine you have probably watched games there, searching for the next Tiger hero. You have a glint in your eye. An old recruiter. I remember that Chris Grant was a young key-position star for the Western Bulldogs when you died.

There is a big fireplace in the room, and it is blazing. There are also wall-to-ceiling bookshelves, which we call the library, which take your eye. I have hundreds of books. Many of them were gifts from you, and in fact, a few of them were yours. Most of your books are with Brendan, who has named his study the ‘Alan Schwab Library’. We had a family event to officially open it. All the grandkids were there, at least those who were born. I think there were seven, of which you only got to meet two, Jennie’s oldest. They never called you Grandpa or Grandad. They called you Al.

Richmond let us borrow the 1973 Premiership Cup for the occasion. On your greatest day, the Tigers won four Premierships. One after the other. The Under 17s, the Under 19s, the Reserves, and then the Seniors beat the old enemy, Carlton. It was payback after they kicked our bums the year before. Our sweetest victory.

I explain that I have remarried and introduce you to my wife, Cecily. You stand up to meet her, and she takes both of your hands in hers. The two of you chat for a few minutes, still holding hands and facing each other.

She leaves us to it, smiling at you and then me, knowing we have some catching up to do.

When Cec leaves, you look at me. I could tell he thought she was a bit special. You flash your trademark cheeky grin that says: “You’ve done well China.” I mirror your smile, proud as punch, knowing the person she is, but also thinking, “If only you knew.” Cec has lived this journey and all of its desperate sadness.

You then meet my daughter Evie. Evie explains how she was born a boy five years after you died, Lachlan Stewart Schwab, the Stewart being the middle name the three of us shared.

Alan Stewart Schwab
Cameron Stewart Schwab
Lachlan Stewart Schwab

But when she changed gender at sixteen, choosing the name she would have been had she been born a girl.

Evie.

“Evie let your hair hang down”, you say.

She smiles, and you shake your head with pride and, just a little wonderment, your first granddaughter.

I look at Evie now, having found her voice, remaking herself, and forging her own path, and as much as the future is unknown and unknowable, she is built for it.

Evie leaves us to let us talk.

I look at you. Your hair is still dark, almost black, not one grey hair. I had never thought of us as looking like each other, but now that I am six years older than you were when you died, I see some mannerisms and wonder about nature and nurture.

It’s your hands. We have similar hands. I’d never noticed before.

It is now time for my one question.

You are nervous, almost anxious, as you wait. I have seen you this way before. We’ve had some hard conversations. Mostly about your drinking. The choices which brought pain and anguish to your family and why you died in the way you did.

“Dad, I have a question about the lace-up jumper you gave me when I was a kid”, I said.

I can tell you know exactly what I am talking about. You smile, the tension leaving your face.

“You remember?” you ask.

“I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but a few years ago, it struck me as a bold call. The thought has stayed with me since. I now think about it all the time.” I respond.

“But you love Francis,” you say.

“I do now, but then it was all about Royce and the number 4, our birthdays. He was such a star. I was obsessed”.

“You were,” you say, remembering. “He was all you talked about”.

Then you ask, “Are you sure this is the conversation you want?”

“Yes,” I reply.

“Perhaps I’m reading too much into it”, I continue. “Maybe you didn’t give it a lot of thought. Perhaps you just wanted your two boys wearing the jumper numbers of two of your favourite players.”

“Is that what you think?” you ask.

“No, it’s not”, I reply.

“What do you think now?”,

“I think it has something to do with heroes. Choose them wisely, that sort of thing. You knew what made Francis a special person. His work ethic, humility and courage.”

You nod slowly.

I continued, “You were saying ‘love Royce for his beautiful talent, but also love Francis for different reasons. Life reasons. The reasons that count most’.”

“You were saying, ‘There is more to the game than you are seeing’. You could do your best fathering through the game because of my obvious love of it.”

I can see tears forming in your eyes, and you look down.

After a few moments, you put your head up and say, “I love that you think that way”.

“I’m wrong?” I ask.

“No, you’re right,” you say slowly, sniffing. “That was my thinking right up to the time I gave you the jumper. I then saw how you responded to it, how quickly you overcame your disappointment and how immediately you believed in me and the choice I’d made.”

“I then realised it had come from a much deeper part of me. I knew how you idolised and idealised me. I was your real hero, Royce, Francis and the Tigers were just an extension of me, and I loved being your hero. But I also knew I would disappoint you, and it’d be the worst thing to ever happen to you. I knew because I knew me, and you would soon see that, and not only would that hurt you, it would damage us, you and me, and you’d be left with nothing but sadness, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself”.

You continue, “Perhaps Francis could be a symbol for you. I knew when you got to know the man, not just the footballer, he would be an even better person than you imagined. He’d restore your faith, help you recover from whatever I put you through.”

“I still love Francis Bourke,” I said.

“I know you do,” you reply.

“I know you do.”

We both understand that our one conversation is now over. We stand and leave the room. You open the front door of our country home. It is dark outside, but a crack of light from the floodlights of the footy ground enters the room.

You turn towards me, your hand reaching out, not to shake mine, but to reach behind my head.

You are a lot shorter than I am, and it takes some effort, but somehow, I sense what you are trying to do.

I lean my head forward, you kiss my forehead, and then I feel the brush of your whiskers chin.

“Goodnight China. Love you.”

“Goodnight Dad. Love you too.”

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