Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Remembering Jim

This morning I resolved to sit down and spend my evening writing what passes for a season preview around these parts. There are half written notes somewhere and I'll get to it eventually but a tweet that landed on my phone at 8.38am changed the plan entirely.

For the umpteenth time since I started using Twitter just over three years ago the news of a celebrity death came to me first via that medium, but this time it was different. Upon reading the first reports of the passings of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston I thought "well, that's no surprise" and when the first word came through about the amazing run and gun killing Osama Bin Laden there was shock, surprise and, let's be entirely fair, admiration but the simple message I saw in my mentions this morning chilled me to the core.

djkmordi @Demonblog RIP Jim. Died at 8.20am

Those few words said it all. The day we'd all feared since he was first diagnosed in July 2009, when he was supposedly given nine months to live. He lasted almost 34, battling with everything he had until the very end when he just couldn't give any more. And never once did he publicly give in to the battle, in fact he agreed to a none more warts and all documentary in the hope that it would help others. The man allowed himself to be filmed drinking his own urine and for it to be shown on prime time television while he was still very much alive as part of a larger attempt to raise awareness and show other sufferers that they weren't alone. That's a special man.

And of course somewhere in the middle of all this was his stewardship of a football club. It's hard to believe now that we were ever in the situation we were when he took over. We're not a great deal better off on-field than we were then but that's about the only thing he couldn't influence. The supporter base was still desperately divided, we were financially crocked and even a professional troublemaker like Jeff Kennett was taken seriously when he suggested that it was us, not North Melbourne, who should be shipped off to the Gold Coast for a fresh start.

Arguably all the warring factions of the club had to come back together in order to save us from a slow, drawn out extinction by a thousand cuts but can there have been a single man better for the job of uniting the tribes? In 2008 we were still feeling the distant ripples of the Gutnick vs Szondy factional battle royale and the place was going to rack and ruin while we dithered hoping things would eventually get better. It took a man as universally respected as our Jim to step up to the enormous job of righting the ship.

He didn't do it alone, and there are thousands of heroes of our financial salvation from the huge donors to the people who bought memberships for the first time and everybody - including Brock McLean and his famous $5000 donation - in between but could anybody else have coordinated such an effort? Another administration might have saved the club but they wouldn't have done it as quickly. It was Jim's leadership which pulled it all together, and for nearly three years he continued to give that small part of himself that wasn't busy fighting for life to further our interests. And in all that time only the filthiest and lowest of trolls could find even the slightest bad thing to say about him. He was as close to universally respected as any man can get, and in your lifetime you'll be lucky to come across more than a handful of people who achieve that status.

But that's enough of the tributes. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, and the reaction of everybody involved with the club and who knew him intimately will tell you everything you need to know about what an amazing human he was. I can't add anything to that and probably shouldn't have tried. Instead I'm going to tell you my Jim Stynes story. One where, much like the neighbour from Home Improvement, he never actually appears.

The year was 1989. I'd not properly discovered football yet, having only jumped on the Melbourne bandwagon courtesy of a fateful "whoever plays Hawthorn in the Grand Final" clause midway through '88. I was in Grade 2 and didn't go to my first live game until that year's Elimination Final victory over Collingwood, but from then on I was completely hooked.

Sadly the addiction ignited by that stirring win at Waverley was put on hold when we were knocked out of the finals the very next week but as we entered that traditionally tricky part of the year when the footy season ends but cricket hasn't started yet and so nobody knows what sport they're supposed to be playing at lunchtime I was still thinking about nothing but footy.

Heady times indeed at St Joseph's Primary School on Glenferrie Road, especially for the only Melbourne fan in the vicinity. Even as a newly minted Demon I was starting to feel what it was like to be lonely.

My immediate family (all one of them) had very little interest in religion, but as it turns out I was still required to go to catholic schools for most of my life. I think it was part of a clever scam to get the rest of the family – the rich ones - to chip in on the educational expenses.

It was also for the benefit of my late grandmother who maintained the faith until her last breath and was probably looking down disapprovingly at the rest of us when we didn't know which parts to stand up in during her very catholic funeral. She was an enthusiastic volunteer at the same church which we'd later disgrace her memory in and during a visit late that year casually mentioned that the school attached to the church had just taken on a league footballer as a teacher.

I'm not sure she could identify a solitary footballer of a more recent vintage than Ted Whitten and never professed the slightest interest in the game so it's likely that of about 500 names which she could have mentioned I'd never have heard of 95% of them. Never mind the fact that in that pre-Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers era Victoria was full of chancers claiming they'd played "a couple of games" in the 70's.

The closest I'd ever come to a footy player before was the reflected pride of my grade one teacher when she'd tell us about her husband playing for Camberwell in the VFA. It meant nothing to us at the time, and I was flat out showing an interest in the VFL at that point let alone a rapidly dying VFA club, but a couple of years later it dawned on me that they were actually the worst team in senior Australian Rules Football. Still, I always took a sick fascination with the Cobras after that. Strange kid.

I pressed grandma for more information. Who was this mystery player. An Irishman apparently. This was an interesting development, we're about five years into the 'experiment' at this point so there was a very small pool of potential candidates and almost all of them were somehow connected to the team I'd just fallen head over heels in love with.

Eventually by process of elimination I discovered that the man in question was none other than Jim Stynes who was allegedly employed there as a sports teacher. A real life footy player who I'd seen in person (just once, and from about 500m away high in the Waverley stands mind you) and therefore now idolised. Upon returning home I immediately demanded that my mother trade me to this school for the 1990 season.

In later years it turned out I'd switch schools at the drop of a hat anyway so this was just the start of a good decade of madness. Like a player entering the pre-season draft already committed to a club I'd been promised to yet another catholic joint for Grade Four anyway so it was strictly a one year deal on the table.

Maybe that's why my mother took it seriously, you wouldn't do much more than indulge it for a while and try to change the subject would you? Maybe if the kid was miserable but the fact of the matter was that I was doing quite nicely before coming up with the masterplan of shifting my life two suburbs over just to have an Irish ruckman as a sports teacher. Most parents would have yelled "you're kidding" and sent me to my room for six years. For some reason my mum, bless her, went along with it.

So, Grade 2 comes to an end and little Adam is quite the academic superstar. Didn't last. All went downhill roughly the time they started expecting you to do homework which interfered with my Sega Master System (and later Megadrive) playing. Still, it's not like other schools are bashing down the door to sign me so as we enter early 1990 and the first bounce approached the playing list still hadn't been finalised and I was in educational limbo.

It wasn't so much the ditching of the original school which was proving a problem, it was getting into what we'll refer to from here as St. Jimmy's for legal reasons. It should be noted at this point that I'm not sure anyone ever confirmed the existence of our Jim at this school. Surely it was double checked somewhere or the question was asked during a preliminary investigation but as far as I can remember the whole thing was being done without confirmation (that's not a catholic gag may I add) and might have been one great urban myth. He was definitely a teacher somewhere but whether it was there is anybody's guess.

In early January word came through that we had been summoned for an entrance interview with the head Monsignor of St Jimmy's. This was new. What's an 'interview' and more importantly what in the name of dutch buggery is a Monsignor? (Turns out that he was some kind of super-priest who came midway between the normal type and a bishop. Kind of like being in a catholic leadership group I suppose). It's not like it was some kind of selective school for high achievers either, I think he just like putting the acid on people. Because he was clearly an utter prick.

Even more distressingly for my mum the word had leaked out that this bloke was a stickler for only letting the holiest of the holy into his school. Unless you practically hovered off the floor with piety then you weren't getting near the joint. Had I been subjected to some sort of knowledge based quiz then I would have stormed it in, but proving a personal relationship with Jesus was going to be a bit harder.

For two Sundays before the big interview I dragged mum along to church in an attempt to come to grips with what was going on. In reality it wasn't my education that was going to be important, it was hers. I'm sure she tried to draw on nearly 40 years of catholic apathy to come up with the answers but given that we had no idea what the questions were going to be it was always going to be difficult. I'd paid scant interest in three years of religion classes so I wasn't going to be much help if he started firing out pop quiz questions about John 3:16. It was up to her to keep the Irish dream alive.

The big day came and we were ushered in for audience with his porkiness. He'd clearly been hooking into the body of Christ excessively for many a year and barely managed to raise himself out of the seat to greet us. In truth it all ended about twenty seconds in when he asked "Is your husband coming?" at which point my mum had to admit to there not then, nor ever, having had one. Well, there went my chance to play tee-ball with the future Brownlow Medal winner - or to be crushingly disappointed when it turned out he was not and never had been an employee there.

I think we'd made a tactical agreement beforehand not to mention the Stynes factor, but looking back it might have been worth a go as the interrogation rapidly started going south. Not only was he miffed at the concept of the spawn of an unmarried mother trying to get into his precious school, but when it turned out we didn't even go to his church then it was really on. It obviously didn't suit us to point out that we were highly unlikely to be seen at any church let alone this one.

All I remember from then on was him thundering "I want to see you in the front row on Sunday" and putting various religious based conditions on my entry into the school. I remember my mum just agreeing to anything at that point in order to get it over with and get out of there. By this point I'd forgotten about doing the long jump with Jimbo, I just wanted to get out before he started beating me.

It goes without saying we never went near the front row of his church that Sunday or any other. In fact the only time I've ever set foot in the place was for my grandmother's funeral. I'm not sure if mum issued a quiet withdrawal of application or whether we just let it lapse as I returned, by now quite willingly and scarred for life, to St. Joseph's. That was pretty much it for me and religion, making the next six years of schooling rather awkward.

It was a classic trade week drama. Disgruntled and looking for greener pastures I roped my agent into finding me a trade to the club of my choice. We negotiated with them and discovered they were complete bastards. I didn't like the offer on the table so I stuck with my old club and my path was not destined to cross until a brief meeting in the grounds of Xavier College during the 1998 MFC Family Day. Our third and last meeting, as brief as any, was a couple of words exchanged on the MCG during a photo shoot to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the club he was knee deep in saving from extinction.

Who knows what would have happened. Maybe I'd have been inspired by the great man to not chuck schooling - and indeed religion - in the bin soon after. Maybe he'd have given me a detention and caused me to become a Brisbane Bears fan. Maybe he didn't even work at the school at all and my grandmother was just losing it. We'll probably never know one way or the other. Either way Jim played his little part in one of the few genuine anecdotes belonging to our tiny branch of the family tree and I've lost count of the amount of times the story has been recounted during his battle.

When my unholy obsession with football comes up at family events it's not that I ditched an all hands on deck reunion to watch us play Sydney in a practice match, it's that I insisted with all my heart that I wanted to change schools just because I thought Jim Stynes taught there. Now 23 years later what would have been unthinkable for a fit young man in the prime of his life has happened and we'll never hear those words or see that Irish smile again. And for this we're poorer.

I'm not grim enough to suggest a group of young men should use this as motivation to try and win football matches. I'd suggest that if they simply attempted to live their lives the same way that Jim did then society would be a better place even if they lost every match and drove the rest of us mad.

It's tempting to come to a standstill, and many of us did today, but such is the way of the world the rest of us go on until it's our turn. There's still football to be played, and I don't think it's stretching too far to say that what Jim would have wanted most is for us to go on as normal. We will but there will forever be a place in our heart for him. On that day when we finally win that elusive premiership I will put aside my own lack of religious belief, look to the sky just in case he's gazing down on me and say "this one's for you Jim".

So boss, this is farewell from the desperately ugly 17-year-old who accosted you at the 1998 Family Day. You were a true influence on me and on everybody who entered your orbit.
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Jimbo, you magnificent bastard, we'll never forget you.

4 comments:

  1. Well played, sir. The finest Demon of this generation.
    Vale Jim.

    Also, well played Adam 1.0. Nice piece.

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  2. Well said Adam.

    A side note though - I thought the McLean donation was $10k?

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  3. Great stuff. Im the same age as you Adam so therefore have experienced the same "melbourne eras". Aewsome piece mate

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