JIM STYNES, 1966-2012
JAMES "JIM" STYNES, OAM
Footballer, youth worker, philanthropist
23/04/1966 — 20/03/2012
JIM Stynes once described his mother Teresa as an incurable optimist who believed all things were possible through faith and prayer. His father, Brian, a former Gaelic footballer of note and his son's first coach, taught his boy that a little pain would never hurt him.
Brian Stynes played for a club called Civil Service — basically, a club for government employees working in Dublin who were from the country. From an early age, young Stynes, who was born in Dublin, "knew what it was to be around a bunch of men".
Jim Stynes: a proud career
Jim Stynes portrait. Photo: Robert Banks
Historically, Irish football, the Irish language revival, and the Irish Republican Army all spring from a common source, and an uncle, Joe Stynes, fought for the IRA with Michael Collins against the British.
Stynes's school years, by his own admission, were not happy ones. He had to work hard to do well scholastically and was derided for it. He felt "the pressure to be someone other than I was". The turning point in his life were the camps he attended in his teens on the west coast of Ireland — the part of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht where the Irish language is still spoken. The camps were about physical education, but the only language spoken was Irish.
He went to his first camp with little knowledge of, or interest in, the native language of his country. What influenced him was the philosophy of the camp's founder, Donal O'Lubhlai, who believed in life education. Stynes would point out that the word education comes from the Latin word ''educo'', meaning to draw out from within, to express what is otherwise dormant. He studied for, and obtained, a bachelor of education degree after he came to Australia.
Stynes arrived in Australia at the age of 18 as part of the Melbourne Football Club's "Irish Experiment". In Dublin, a hot day is 26 degrees. When he arrived in Melbourne, it was 35 degrees. His first training run coincided with bushfires. The day was intensely hot, the sky was dark with ash and the coach, a small man with an obscene tongue (Slug Jordan), refused to let his young charges have a sip of water or take off their woollen guernseys.
He was then sent to a football clinic at Woodend. The car trip seemed to take hours. Back in Melbourne, he looked at a map of Australia and realised, for the first time, the vastness of the continent.
Stynes made it as a regular at Melbourne mid-way through 1987, in time for the rush of excitement that surrounded the club's first tilt at finals glory in 24 years. In successive finals, the Dees demolished North and Sydney to meet Hawthorn, the team of the decade, in the preliminary final at Waverley Park. Stynes' parents were flown out from Ireland, and Melbourne led by 22 points at the final change. With Hawthorn trailing by four points, the Hawks' Gary Buckenara marked with seconds to go. Stynes, seeking to cover his man, ran across the mark. The 15-metre penalty, or so the mythology goes, brought Buckenara within range. He goaled, Melbourne lost.
There isn't a sadder photo in footy (above) than Big Jim trudging back into the Melbourne rooms, head lowered, eyes opaque and empty, and coach John Northey, some metres away, finger raised and pointing. In the end, Stynes went to Europe to get away from the shame and disappointment, but on a crowded train in Paris a voice said to him: ''Aren't you the bloke who ran across the mark in the preliminary final?'', and he knew there was no escape.
Four years later, Stynes won the game's highest individual honour, the Brownlow medal. A strong believer in destiny, he would say the 1987 preliminary final made him as an Australian footballer. Before then, the game had been a challenge, an adventure. After, it was his passion, something that had the power to shape and define him.
Stynes regarded his Brownlow as his "reward" for the 1987 preliminary final. Every defeat, he believed, carries within it the imprint of the next victory and the essential requirement in life is faith. He won four best and fairests with Melbourne, equalling the club record, played an AFL record of 244 consecutive games, and twice gained all-Australian selection.
In 1993, after a collision with teammate, David Neitz, he was left without the capacity to breathe, in fear for his life, and with ribs lifting the surface of his skin ''like a tent''. The first diagnosis was broken ribs, the second a severed cartilage in the sternum; either way, it meant missing six weeks.
The following Friday, Stynes arrived at training and declared himself fit to play. Coach Neil Balme devised a series of exercises where his ruckman was matched against the club's three hard men — Rod Grinter, Martin Pike and Greg Doyle. The session ended with punches being thrown. ''I don't believe it,'' said Balme, ''but you're in.''
Around the same time, with actor Peter Currie, Stynes set up the Reach Foundation, which basically sought to do what the Irish language camps he attended as a teen had done — teach life skills, to help kids glimpse new possibilities and start moving towards them. When I interviewed him in 1997, he said, "What's happening in this society is scary. We're splitting into the haves and have-nots and a growing number of kids are getting caught in dark places". He had recently joined the board of Youth Suicide Task Force.
In that interview, he said he would not return to Ireland when his footy was finished. "Not now." He described his work with Reach as his "calling".
Stynes was twice named Victorian of the Year (2001 and 2003) and, in 2007, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his work with youth and contribution to Australian football.
Stynes, who has died, aged 45, after battling cancer that was first diagnosed in mid-2009, was also a family man. He and his brave, spirited wife, Samantha, had a daughter, Matisse, and a son, Tiernan, and, one by one, his five siblings and finally his parents, joined him in Melbourne.
In 2008, Stynes returned to his old AFL club, Melbourne, which appeared to be facing terminal problems, as president. Under Stynes, the culture of the club was transformed and invigorated. The first Melbourne Football Club Christmas party he attended as president, he felt immediately that something was wrong. There were no players present, only staff. He made inquiries. He found that the players had only a superficial knowledge of the staff and, in some cases, none at all of the board. "That's not a club," he said. "That's just people doing lots of different jobs".
Stynes had a meeting with then-club captain, James McDonald. He said to McDonald, "If we're going to have a great culture, everyone has to buy in". At his second Christmas Party, the players helped provide entertainment.
As poignant as any moment in Stynes's presidency was when, in keeping with a promise and notwithstanding his battle with cancer, he visited Melbourne footballer Liam Jurrah's community, Yuendumu, on the Warlpiri tribal lands north of Alice Spring.
Anyone with any familiarity with the Reach Foundation will know that the work of the organisation is based on the notion that everyone has it within them to behave in a heroic way and probably has done so already, if the true nature of their lives were known. The work of the foundation is based on the writings of an American, Joseph Campbell, who believed the story of the hero is common to all cultures. It is particularly strong in traditional Irish culture which means areas such as the Gaeltacht. Jim Stynes lived the heroic ideal to the end and, in that way and for that reason, he will be remembered.
His autobiography, Whatever It Takes, was published in 1996.
He is survived by his wife, Samantha, children Matisse and Tiernan, parents Tess and Brian, and siblings Brian jnr, David, Terri-Ann, Dearbhla and Sharon.
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