Last week, a phone call to a radio station from a woman claiming to be the mother of an Essendon player offered a disturbing insight into the human cost of the drugs saga. On Saturday, a caller to a pre-match preview show gave a different perspective again.
The clearly emotional woman had been an Essendon supporter for more than 40 years, attending every week with her mother and daughter. But the other pair had pulled the pin on that evening's game against Carlton, and even she wasn't sure whether to go.
She was uncertain whether wearing red-and-black colours might make her the target for some of the flak that's been flying in the direction of Bomber fans lately, the off-field equivalent of what Jobe Watson has put up with most of this season, and publicly contemplated going in ''plain clothes''.
By the looks of things, she wasn't alone. Just 53,630 people were at the MCG on Saturday, the lowest crowd at a Carlton-Essendon clash for six years and a dozen meetings of these bitter rivals.
But those that did stick it out were at least reminded, however briefly, what it means to support a team through thick and thin. And they deserved it. Because they and the Essendon players are the two most innocent parties in this sorry saga, both pawns in a much bigger game.
If the spirit of the playing group had taken a pounding over the past month, its efforts in the final term of a game it really had no right to win proved it hasn't been completely broken. That they came against a backdrop of the likelihood of no material rewards for six months' sweat and toil, a 12-month suspension for their coach, and fears about potential sanctions still hanging over their heads, is remarkable. And almost perversely, Essendon's last-minute steal seemed all the purer for it.
Watson's captain's game, Brendon Goddard's efforts, Paddy Ryder's crucial goal with a bandaged and bleeding head wound, David Zaharakis shaking off a form slump with a monster last quarter, none of those examples were about finals preparation, a competitive edge, pushing the professional boundaries or raising their market value.
They were simply about a team of players, many of them good mates, rediscovering their football instincts, fight and love of a contest, with effectively no more on the line than did Koo Wee Rup thirds at the weekend.
That much was obvious when the siren sounded and in an emotional rendition of the club song in the rooms afterwards. And for the supporters in the stands, the feeling was similar.
As revered a figure as James Hird is at Essendon, he isn't the reason supporters follow the club, as even the legendary John Coleman wasn't 60 years ago. The Bombers will go on without him, the officials who've fallen on their swords or also face suspension, not to mention the misguided attempts to gain that competitive edge.
On this issue, Hird has been slow to come around, and reluctant to take responsibility for his role in the drama. But in the air of resignation that seemed to grip him post-match on Saturday night, perhaps it was sinking in. Or when he surveyed the Essendon hordes celebrating after the siren.
You don't need larger-than-life personalities to sustain your love of football and support for a club. You don't need the promise of ''whatever it takes'' in the lust for material success. You don't even necessarily need success.
What you do need is a sense of belonging. Of being part of the family. And that your support for whichever set of colours you follow means something. Essendon's supporters have done it tough this year, but for those couple of hours against a traditional and bitter rival , the joy returned again.
Monday's expected announcement that Essendon has lost its premiership points will test them again. No side has been docked similarly in nearly 120 years. The stigma will last some time, and for Essendon the club and its support base, so will the inevitable gibes.
It won't be easy. But Essendon has the advantage both of a compelling historical legacy, and a big support base. That's what drives this foundation club. And whatever penalties are handed out, perhaps that roar when Zaharakis ran into goal with 30 seconds left on the clock on Saturday night was already the start of the comeback.