About 15 years ago, I spoke at an education conference on the challenges facing young men today. When I finished, a man of moderate height with red hair strode out of the audience, marched up to me and said: ''Will you come to my school and speak to my kids?'' I'd met Bill Jennings.
Bill is an Essendon member and, apart from a spell overseas, has been since 1981. His first footy hero was Des Tuddenham (in his time as Essendon captain-coach), followed by Ron Andrews. Tuddy was as direct as a footballer can get, and Ronnie also had a straightforward approach to the game.
Bill is straightforward. He goes in like Tuddy did. On Monday night, at the Essendon Football Club's annual meeting, he stood up and said he remembered when the Bombers were a great club and that some of their recent ''behaviours'' had made the club look ''small''.
This is an edited version of his remarks: ''Through the '80s and '90s, I saw our club surge beyond its suburban name to be something large and good. In 2000, the school I was at was having a big year celebrating reconciliation. I rang then board member Beverly Knight and she helped me organise the first Welcome to Country in AFL history for the Essendon v St Kilda game on Sorry Day, May 26, 2000.''
It's a fact that a measure of public cynicism surrounds the subject of reconciliation. But it's also a fact that when moments of genuine reconciliation occur, people's lives can be deeply touched.
Bill went on: ''A kid from year 10 at my school took a package of information to his dad, who was the coach of St Kilda at the time. The kid's name was Jobe Watson. Kevin Sheedy also had a son in the same year level. Tim Watson rang me about the planned event; Kevin Sheedy spoke to me about it outside my office.
''So that night, Joy Murphy Wandin, a Wurundjeri elder, and her brother, Juby (Jimmy) Wandin - who played for the Saints in the 1950s - offered a gumleaf to Essendon captain James Hird and St Kilda's Nathan Burke. Essendon wasn't just a leader in the AFL, it was leading in a way that made Australia a better place.''
I agree. Through Essendon Football Club, particularly Michael Long and Sheedy, the culture of AFL football was transformed. That, in turn, significantly affected the larger culture surrounding the game.
Bill says he noticed Essendon start to change three or four years ago. He particularly recalls receiving in the post an ad for a gambling organisation the club had partnered with.
''Now I'm no wowser, but it was the sloppy wording that got me. It said 'Bombers Bet - You Can't Lose'.'' His point is - gamblers can lose.
Bill says the supplements saga came as no surprise to the Essendon supporters he sits with at the footy. He cited ''shifty letters in the shadows of 2011 squeezing Bronze members to become Silver. Inducements of petrol vouchers if they changed in 2012, but by this year, if they didn't change, they would be moving to an inferior seat''.
''My mate from Bendigo who sits next to me has a son who is on the autism spectrum. He runs a small business and he didn't need to be shelling out more money, but he wanted to stick with the club.
''Consider the recent donation procured from members for the 'Flight Plan' - members had to 'opt out' if they didn't want to donate.
''Consider the statements this month about James Hird's pay arrangements - our suspended coach is being paid $750,000 for a year in which he is not doing his job. How do you reckon that news was received last week by Essendon members who work at Holden?''
Hird was in the room when Bill spoke. The AGM, at the Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds, was packed. A voice behind him told him to get to the point when his speech went past four minutes. The woman beside him didn't speak when he sat down, but a few people approached him afterwards to say they agreed with what he had said. Bill will talk to anyone, and there are Essendon people who now want to talk to him.
Bill's suggestion, which he tabled at the meeting, was that board members forgo a chairman's lunch to come outside and talk to the members who follow the game from the seats around the ground. I doubt the practicality of his suggestion. You need to be Jimmy Stynes to be treated with respect by a footy crowd when these sorts of politics are swirling around. But if there's one Essendon person who could do it, it's newly appointed board member Simon Madden.
Bill has footy politics like everyone else. When I say he's genuine, I'm not saying others at the club aren't. But it's a fact - he is. He grew up with a certain image of the Essendon Football Club that was central to his view of Australia. He thought the Bombers were truly great. An Australian icon. And that's why he's trying to ignite a discussion about their present state.