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Bulldog Tom Williams retires amidst tears and laughter

Tom Williams: an always interrupted career.

Tom Williams: an always interrupted career. Photo: Getty Images

"Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well." - Jack London.

For a time in my life, all footy players smelt like bubblegum. When I was a kid, a packet of footy cards always included a piece of cheap, jaw-breaking pink gum, the smell of which lasted for years, even if the taste didn't. My footy cards were precious to me and I spent hours studying and obsessing over them.

Being from the country meant my access to AFL players was very limited. At our school fete in 1991 Craig Starcevich set up a handball competition in the school car park and I stood back and stared at him for too long. I wasn't sure if he was real. Sometimes my Dad would take us to Waverley Park to watch a game from the outer, but for the most part, my connection with the AFL was watching games or highlights at home on the television. Footy players were superheroes to me, they were from another place, and I would watch the marks they took and the goals they kicked in awe and wonder. They inspired me in the truest sense of the word.

It's hard to keep that sense of wonder as you get older, your perspective is forever altered, the smell of bubblegum fades a little. The thrill of witnessing a high pack mark is something that never leaves you, but I have found the things that inspire me have changed a bit since the '91 school fete. This game is brutal, both on the body and on the heart. In that regard, no one has walked a more painful football path in my time at the Bulldogs than Tom Williams. The pain he has put his body through has been immense, the anguish in his heart has been at times, hard to watch.

Playing at the highest level moves so fast and the constant pressure leaves little time to smell the roses, but this week my teammates and I paused for a little while to sit and listen to one of our own tell us that he could go no further. Just like a funeral, these times inside a football club are very emotional and you cannot help but reflect on football, on life.

Through countless surgeries on his feet and shoulders and dozens of cruel muscle tears, Tom had hardened himself emotionally, he'd always kept most of the pain to himself. When the time finally came to tell his club that he would retire, the walls came down and the tears flowed out of him like a tide. One of the things Tom said had poignancy in its simplicity: "I'm going to miss coming into this place everyday".

They say every Shakespeare play has a joker and Tom was ours, he composed himself long enough to thank the teammates who'd been with him for the whole journey, but also singled out first-year player Mitch Honeychurch who he claims "helped embezzle $3000 through our World Cup draw". Each of his 85 games may have been hard work, but Tom always got easy laughs from his mates.

When a player gets to the end of his career, I would imagine he asks himself two things. Am I fulfilled? Only Tom could answer that properly. The other question is, what did I leave behind? Tom left a big chunk of his soul at our club. Like Daniel Menzel at Geelong, when players endure such a wretched run of bad luck through injury, their resilience to keep coming back despite the hits, puts them in the hearts of everyone they played alongside.

Every effort to crawl their way out of the darkness and back onto the field has a weight of significance to it. Each lap of the swimming pool may have felt like a wasted, lonely journey, but their courage to keep going inspired those around them. That's what Tom leaves behind. He inspired me.

A few weeks ago The Age's Peter Hanlon asked me to sum up Tom in a single word, after two hours I still couldn't think of a word that captured the happy, manic, complicated man. I tried again this week, but tweaked the question slightly to my favour. If I close my eyes and think of Tom, what do I see? I see Tom laughing. After all he's been through, I think it says a bit.

5 comments

  • Poignant piece.

    Commenter
    Borissimo
    Location
    Perth
    Date and time
    July 10, 2014, 10:13AM
    • Tom, good luck with the next adventure. Thanks for showing up everyday and having a go. Us non-players will never understand the walls you have to run through to play at the top level. And Murph, it's always a pleasure to read your thoughtful, intelligent insights. Cheers!

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Date and time
      July 10, 2014, 12:59PM
      • I hope Robert Murphy keeps writing about footy and life after he retires. Tom Williams may not have been a champion footballer, but this piece reminds us that there is so much more to a person than their on field career.

        Commenter
        Patrick
        Location
        Somers
        Date and time
        July 10, 2014, 2:50PM
        • Not a Bulldog supporter but this is an impressive article Murph about an equally impressive personality who was all guts without too much glory. We hear precious little about players like Williams, we should hear more. Well done and well played.

          Commenter
          ian
          Date and time
          July 10, 2014, 6:24PM
          • I have a son who has always been enthralled with AFL and who would dearly love to be a senior AFL player. One of the things I always talk with him about is the fleeting nature of the career of many senior AFL players.
            Reading this piece about Tom reinforces those discussions but also explains some of the price that AFL players pay to be part of the game. It also leads directly to discussions about what do you do at 23, at 28, at 30 with rest of your life if your AFL career is over? As all consuming as AFL appears, it is a part of people lives not all of it.
            Rob as always your articles are insightful, intelligent and engaging.

            Commenter
            Parsimony
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            July 11, 2014, 6:55AM
            Comments are now closed
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