You know you're getting old when you start talking glass eyes to sleep with stories of Gary Ablett senior. As the two Garys notch up 500 games between them, it almost seems unfair that an entire generation of footy fans never saw the original play live. They have, however, been spoilt in a very different way by his eldest son. In a sport where nothing is really certain any more, there is nothing surer than Gary jnr.
You could never say that about his dad. On any given Saturday, no one had any idea which Gary Ablett would turn up. Sometimes he was hungry. Sometimes he was the consummate team man. Sometimes he would inflict permanent internal damage. Sometimes he would spend the afternoon standing on shoulders. Sometimes there was murder in his eyes. Sometimes he was barely present.
Once described as a ''complex simple man'', there was certainly a touch of the drifter and the loner about Ablett. He was a peculiar-looking individual, with a hunched posture that would drive a Pilates instructor to drink. He had a massive arse and quads that could prop up a jetty. But he would surf the crest of a pack, land on his feet, prop, slither through half a back line and slot a goal on his wrong foot. He would then trot back to the goal square, patting guys he barely knew on the bum, giving every impression he didn't know what day it was.
He went missing for half a season. There were sightings of him trapping rabbits, in prayer meetings and at high sea. He lobbed back for a reserves game, conducted the most banal interview in the history of live television and began to reinvent himself. A year or so later, I met him. He was waiting in the MCG race to be honoured for his 1993 Coleman Medal, the sort of thing he normally avoided at all cost.
He stood on his own, sporting that blank, middle-distance, very Ablett stare. I leant over the fence.
''G'day Gary,'' I said.
He looked at me. I remember the Muttley the Dog moustache and the comb tracks through a haircut already two decades out of fashion. ''G'day mate,'' he said.
Several minutes later, for some reason, his mother turned up. ''G'day Gary.''
A peck on the cheek. ''G'day mum.''
That was about as much as he ever gave. The 1989 day he kicked 14 goals from the wing against Richmond (as you do) was one of the few times he deigned to field questions from the press. ''I was just concentrating on getting a kick,'' he said, while sipping a Mellow Yellow. His 1995 ghostwriter at The Sunday Age couldn't coax a single interesting thing out of him and had to punt the column. Gary never had the words and nor did we.
Years later, after one of the most brutal games of football ever played - the 2009 grand final - he was avoiding eyes in the MCG's underground car park. With his trilby and jaunty gait, he resembled one of the ne'er-do-wells in The Sting. His son had helped win the game and he was glowing. He hopped in his car, nearly mowed down about half-a-dozen spectators, and sped off, as unknowable as ever.
We were open-mouthed, the way we were as kids. But we no longer worshipped at the altar. By then, of course, there was only sadness and waste. There were the tortured police statements and the religious ramblings. There was a tragedy in a hotel room. For the more blinkered, there were the astonishing YouTube compilations and boozy reminiscences on the train home from Kardinia Park. And there was Gary jnr.
A famous sporting surname can be a crippling burden. Don Bradman's son, for one, escaped the asphyxiating pressure at the deed poll office. True to type, Gary complicated things as much as possible by naming his first-born son after himself. In 1996, ace Today Tonight reporter Ron Barassi sat down and chatted to the family Ablett. Dad shot pool, offered his views on gun control and showed off a stuffed wild hog in the corner of the living room. A 12-year-old Gary hopped on dad's knee, stared down the camera and espoused his love of basketball. The expectation was palpable. So too, the sense of a young boy determined to forge his own identity.
There are obvious similarities. Hunched over a bouncing ball or eyeing off a snap from the pocket, the comparisons are irresistible. But Gary jnr is everything his dad wasn't. He brings the consistency and reliability that eluded the old man. Whereas dad seemed to play in a fog, his son is all too conscious of what he is doing. He coaches his teammates while he has the ball. He reminds you of a basketball point guard - the sleight of hand, the sublime vision, the lateral movement, the ability to think several possessions ahead. Whereas dad would simply bulldoze any poor sap in his way, Gary jnr's game is death by a thousand cuts.
If you were building a club around one player, someone who would front up week after week and never let you down, you would have to choose the little bald man. For the hopeless footballing romantic, however, no one will ever touch Gary snr. No one offered the same sense of anticipation and possibility. No one could quicken your pulse and channel your inner child the way he could. No one better personified the spell this curious game can cast.
An accumulator par excellence, a relentless machine, the modern game's most complete and decorated player - they're all words that sum up Gary Ablett jnr. When it comes to his dad, there are no words that could do him justice.