THERE was a time, not that long ago, that I joked with Jim Stynes that he needed to put me on retainer as his "tribute" man. There was the Brownlow Medal tribute, the 244 consecutive games tribute, the retirement tribute (that seemed to last almost as long as his career), his Australian of the Year tribute, his battle against cancer tribute.
As with most things when it came to our relationship, I tackled all these tasks with a perverse sense of humour, ensuring, in the great Australian way, that this extraordinary human being never got the sense that he was ever too big or perfect not to be brought down a peg or two.
The irony in that, of course, is that he was never in danger of getting caught up in his own self-importance, and that was clearly demonstrated in the way he selflessly went about his day-to-day life.
But that didn't stop me. I revelled in every opportunity to take the piss out of him whenever we caught up. He tried to counter with his own version of a cutting remark or a cheap shot, but the fact of the matter was, he was out of his league. Sledging came far easier and naturally to me, and I guess when it came down to it, he was too kind and had too generous a soul to really put his heart into it. Ultimately he would just look at me, shrug his shoulders and cop it on the chin and laugh along.
That was the basis on which a strong and profoundly respectful friendship developed over a 27-year period.
There were times, early on in his football career, when we clashed a bit and had differing opinions on the way we prepared and played, but as time passed, and our days as footballers came to an end, there was just a really comfortable understanding and acceptance between the two of us that I valued enormously.
And I loved the nature of our friendship. It wasn't demanding. It wasn't complicated. It was strong and loyal and comforting, knowing that our link to the past and the future would be preserved.
And even when he was first diagnosed with cancer, nothing really changed. Why would it have to? This was Big "Jimma" we're talking about. He was indestructible and this battle would just add another heroic chapter to an already heavily laden tome.
So I kept hanging shit on him, he kept laughing, and operation after operation, tumour after tumour, he would bounce back and we'd all shake our head and marvel at what we already knew — that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the fight, the more unyielding he became.
Until it became apparent that victory was not assured. And it was over the past four or five months that I got to know Jimmy on a whole new level.
To just sit and talk with someone for hours at a time is foreign to me. But that's what we've been doing for the past few months and it has provided me with some of the most memorable and uplifting moments of my life. It was a true privilege to have had the time with him.
Humour remained my strong suit and we laughed often. But I also cried, which I hadn't done with him before.
We relived former glories, reminisced about trips away, dissected the personalities of most of our former teammates, critiqued the current list of our football club and argued and fought over the merits of modern day football versus the old. Stuff I was really comfortable talking about. Stuff I thought I could educate him about.
But we also talked about family dynamics and relationships and children and marriage. And about vulnerability and honesty and affection and trust and self-awareness. Stuff he was really comfortable talking about. Stuff I knew he could educate me about.
We also fought and argued plenty. He had lost none of his competitiveness. His amazing wife, Sam, left me at the hospital one night to go home and check on the kids before returning later in the evening with the express instruction to make sure he was taking it easy.
Jimmy, in the meantime, wanted to stretch his legs, so we walked around the ward at 2am and stumbled across a mini pool table in the recreation area. Sam returned to find an empty hospital bed and, on hearing some yelling coming from down the corridor, went to investigate.
She walked in to find us in the middle of a heated argument over whether you could shoot backwards after receiving two free shots. Jimmy, connected to an IV machine, with his failing eyesight, having just got out of surgery less than 24 hours earlier, was refusing to give an inch. It was vintage Jim. And he beat me!
I was in awe of Jim, on so many levels. I was in awe of his capacity to spread himself around so generously. I was in awe of the unbelievable dignity he maintained while battling the most undignified of diseases. I was in awe of the relationship he grew and nurtured with his wife, Sam. I was in awe of the total lack of self-pity or victimisation he displayed when he had every right to feel such things.
I was simply in awe of the very, very good person Jim was.
A former coach once said to me you will make hundreds of mates out of football but only a very few truly great friends. It is so true.
I pay tribute to one of mine, Jim Stynes.