Probably because I was not a success as a professional footballer, it is better for me to remember the game with irony. And so it is this week, from a great distance now, that I recall something about Lance Franklin that I consider an informative event, not about myself but about celebrity, and the enigmatic Sydney hero, Buddy.
It was during round three of the 2008 season, during an ignominious match against North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium, as most of them tend to be when its roof is open. The sun cut a giant rectangle in the shade, which was panning gently from one side of the structure to the other. The Hawthorn forward line was occupied by Lance Franklin, then galloping toward the zenith of his most audacious year in football, a wonderfully fit Jarryd Roughead, and myself.
We were in that year playing a kind of rolling structure that required a lot of hard back-leading and working to create space for each other. It was highly effective for sharing opportunities, and for variety in attack. And despite the gravity that Buddy imparts on a ball carrier, and the effortless class of Roughead, I, as the lesser player, was still able to score and contribute.
Sometime in the third quarter, when I was getting that sick feeling a player is inclined to get when a match is going poorly for him, Clinton Young popped out of a crowd with the ball, and this time in our moving forward line, I was his man. Young is a beautiful, long kick, so I knew I could run back toward goal, angling toward his left boot, confident that he could carry the distance, and that Buddy and Roughead would not be there when I arrived.
North Melbourne player Michael Firrito was running with me, and when he turned to look for the ball, I stepped around him and reached up toward the ball as it fell spinning neatly, just as I had planned. I don’t remember seeing or hearing Buddy and his man coming, and I’ve never watched a replay, but the pair of them seemed to materialise like a train through a country crossing at dusk, and obliterated my plan.
Buddy had managed to somehow take me from my feet, turn my hips square to the grass, and land on the point of my hip with the full fury of his effort. Naturally, I was angry with him for interrupting my moment, but when I stood up to tell him this he was already running away, and a sharp stab shot through my pubic bone. That stab turned out to be curious cracking of the pubic symphysis bone from which I did not manage to properly recover during the season.
The irony, as I think of it now, is that Buddy went blithely on and kicked several goals in the match, 100 goals in the season, and played in a premiership, while I hobbled into the shadows and heard through a radio in the rooms that perhaps I was a little soft for going off with a corked thigh.
This story, unimportant as it is, is one of my fondest memories of football. It reminds me of why the game can be so difficult for an individual to negotiate, and how it is that we always place ourselves at the centre of events and memories. Buddy places himself at the centre of things too, but he does it with more panache than others.
What Buddy does, he does, and he lets the football world move around him. Partly by his talent, and partly via the mystique of his quiet, smiling celebrity, he has become the brightest burning star in the football galaxy.
A writer at The Age recently conveyed to me a story about Buddy at the draft camp. Entirely sure of himself, Buddy was apparently watching a film at the time he was due to be interviewed by several AFL clubs, and had to be retrieved by an official. Before he was ever famous, the AFL was moving about Buddy’s schedule.
This week in a Sydney newspaper there appeared a photo of Lance Franklin, in which he sunbathed and swam with two young women. The article was a little gossip thing, boring and probably harmless, but it asked what Buddy’s girlfriend would think about him swimming alone with two babes. Franklin, I’ve been told by a friend at the Swans, was actually on the beach with teammates, and one of the girls was a player’s cousin.
The photos were clipped to include Buddy and the girls, without any reference and without the other players. Even in a still picture, the peripheral characters in Lance Franklin’s world disappear in a vortex.
Buddy was a friendly man when I knew him. He called me cuz, and we laughed about trivialities, about bad kicks and bad jokes. It always made me feel better as a player to know, and to tell him, that he couldn’t even handball, couldn’t kick with his opposite foot and apparently had no tactics on the field. But Buddy ran at the ball, and with it, in a manic and glorious fashion that made me, and everyone else, laugh because we knew we were incapable of doing it.
In those flashes of athleticism, we were peripheral characters who remember where Buddy was at any given moment, and fully expect that he does not remember us.