Nobody who knows me well imagines that I am an avid follower of Aussie Rules Football. Yes, I was born and bred in Melbourne where Aussie Rules is close to being ‘religion’. Yes, I was born into a family of avid Carlton supporters. I can even sing ‘We’re the Mighty Blues’ word for word. As a young child I went with the family and shouted my lungs out for Chooka Howell. But I must admit that I can no longer name a Carlton player. Years ago, a good friend stamped her foot in exasperation when I pruned the rose bushes while Carlton played in a final. ‘You don’t deserve such a good team’, she said.

However, I do have a footy story or two.

The first story, an encounter with Jim Stynes. goes like this:

Jim’s First Game

Late in 1997 I am not quite finished the work I was asked to do in Cambodia, but I am progressively accepting responsibilities in Melbourne. On November 18th there is an evening function at Xavier College Kew. ‘Three Personal Stories’.  Jim Stynes, Vicki Walker and I are invited as a panel to speak and to respond to questions.

I am asked to speak first, then Jim, then Vicki.

As Jim takes the microphone from me, he nods at me and says to everyone, ‘I have to say first that I couldn’t take my eyes off Joan. She’s the dead spit of my dear mother in Ireland’. Jim was 28 at the time. After that I of course listened intently to his story and the details of the life of this young Irishman. He had been playing Aussie Rules for just 10 years but was a star already.

I must acknowledge that my genes are predominately Irish.

Jim Stynes was born in 1966, the son of Brian and Teresa, in Dublin. As a nine-year-old he started playing Gaelic football with his local club. As an eighteen-year-old he answered an advertisement from Melbourne Football Club seeking talented, tall Gaelic footballers as possible recruits. He and another Irish young man were selected. As a 20-year-old he made his AFL/VFL debut.

He studied for a bachelor’s in education and developed a program called Reach to help disadvantaged young people to reach their full potential. ‘Failure is never final’, he said. ‘It’s not what life does to you, but what you do to life that counts.’ 

Jim brought his mother and father to live in Australia. When died at too young an age Jim Stynes was widely mourned and well-remembered. His widow wrote that after Jim’s death she turned to Jim’s mother for advice and support.

The second story, an encounter with Majak Daw, goes like this:

It is October 2010. The city of Melbourne and the media of Australia is abuzz with the news of the first Australian born Catholic to be officially canonised as a Saint. Most of our Sisters who are confident with media are in Rome for the occasion. I am dealing with media requests in Melbourne.

There is a press conference in the Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre in East Melbourne.  

I am asked to speak; beside me and ready to say a few words is a young North Melbourne Football Team rookie Majak Daw. As the first South Sudanese person to be drafted to an AFL team there has already been an inordinate amount of media hype around Majak. He has recently graduated from MacKillop College in Werribee where he was educated and introduced to Aussie Rules. In only seven years since arriving in Australia he has learned to speak English fluently and has completed his secondary education. At the heritage Centre in 2010, a year after he has been drafted to North, he speaks with ease of his time at MacKillop College.

This week I am reading Majak Daw’s book, the story of his rise to fame in AFL football. The story of the tragic aftermath. Majak Daw was a front-page story from the moment he was first listed with North Melbourne Football Club. A camera crew was in his family’s home as the results of the draw were announced. Though the club planned to shield him from media everything he did made news. The physical and social challenges he faced, his growing despair that left him attempting to take his own life, then his struggle to the surface once more.

After horrendous hip and pelvic injuries, he fought through the pain of repairing his shattered body, then trained for selection again. He rivetted media attention internationally as he managed a triumphal return to the football field.  

He recently wrote a book in which he tells of the suicide attempt that shattered his hips and pelvis, the events that built up to it, the steps he ought to have taken. He was interviewed by Waleed Ali who considers that this book could save many lives. The interview on The Project was well worth watching.

If Jim Stynes had lived to follow Majak’s story I believe he would have said, ‘Failure is never final. It’s not what life does to you, but what you do to life that counts.’