Sport in general has always been a paradoxical attraction for me. I grew up on a farm where my father didn't believe in the value of sport - it was more important to be watching the sheep on a Saturday or chopping weeds in the back paddock or collecting the eggs than to be hitting a tennis ball back and forth, or chasing a red leather ball around the local oval. To be honest, I didn't even really know that orgnaised sports even existed until I was about eight or so. I went up to stay with my aunty up at the nearby town of Booleroo Centre, where my much older cousins played Aussie Rules for the Roosters. I remember her taking me to see the games on a Saturday afternoon. My memory is hazy but I think my older cousin Andrew played for the Seniors while my younger mid teen cousin, Timothy was playing Junior Colts. My aunty also told me that the A grade team used a brand new ball for every game. I couldn't believe that!
"What do they do with the ball after each game if they get a new one next week?" I asked in my isolated naivety.
"They use them for training or the B grade games, and sometimes they give the old training balls out to young kids if they want one," was her reply from memory. "I'll get Timothy to get you one."
She was as good as her word. I got a well used football and it was the first one that I had ever owned. The hide got roughened up pretty quickly in those days so the trick was to give it a coat of brown shoe polish to restore the leather back to a better feel.
I went to a small parish school for the first four years of primary school where the numbers peaked at about a dozen kids and dwindled down to six before it was decided that it needed to be closed. The school was run by an old fashioned disciplinarian who also was in on the traditional Lutheran headset that sport wasn't worth the bother. We won a brand new football when I was in Grade Three from the Savings Bank of South Australia for being the best small school in school banking participation or something like that, but we never got to play with it. No, it stood proudly (and pristinely) on display in all its red leather glory as a testament to our savings discipline. When the school's imminent closure was announced, the teacher relented and actually let me and other remaining boy in the school take it out for a kick.
So, the school closed and my sister and I then went to a new school in the nearby town of Appila. This school was not much bigger than the first and had thirteen students. I was the only Grade Five in the whole school but I did become friends with the local builder's son who asked me for the first time in my life, "Who do you barrack for?"
I didn't know what he meant but he patiently explained about the SANFL and how if you liked footy then you had to barrack for one of the big teams in Adelaide. My sister and I talked about this serious decision, and in the end I decided I would be a Port Adelaide Magpies supporter just like my friend. It turned out that he played mini-league for the local Jamestown-Appila Magpies who wore the same black and white prison bar jumpers as their elite counterparts in the big city. That's how he had made his choice. My sister, for reasons known only to her, chose Sturt, the Double Blues who were another popular team of the mid seventies era.
I still didn't get to play any organised sport right up until I was sent off to boarding school in Adelaide at the age of twelve. That was an intimidating experience and funnily enough when I got there, I was told that all boarding students were expected to participate in sport! What should have been a dream come true wasn't quite so easy though. I had acquired glasses and my parents had told me that playing football was too dangerous and besides, your glasses might get broken. So I opted for the less perilous choices of tennis in the summer and squash in the winter. My oldest son has had issues with low muscle tone and I suspect that I may have had undiagnosed issues like that growing up because I never really got the hang of doing sporty stuff. Probably not playing any organised sports growing up was another contributing factor.
But probably because of my lack of aptitude for sport, my interest and love of sport grew. I watched the school's footy games on Saturday mornings and went to some SANFL games with my fellow boarders. I really liked watching televised footy matches as well - the VFL Winners show was great on a late Saturday afternoon as they broadcasted the last quarter of the Game of the Day from Melbourne and showed highlights from the other games. Dr Geoffrey Edelestein had bought the South Melbourne Swans and moved them to Sydney and every second Sunday afternoon, the boarders could sit down in their common room and watch the onfield exploits of Mark Browning, Silvio Foschini and Paul Morwood.
When I was in Year 11 and 12, I volunteered to be the runner for the school's B Grade senior team. I had a few mates on the team, and the coach needed someone to run the water bottle and the messages out to the players. I felt important and close to the action. In an era where all of the best SANFL footballers ended up heading over to play with the best in the VFL, a friend wrote in my Year 12 Yearbook a message that gave me pride - "Weg, champion footy runner. Will he go to Vic. next year?"
I went off to teachers college and sport took a back seat to socialising and going out to live music venues instead of footy games. But a mate of mine had his own set of golf clubs and we would occasionally head out to North Adelaide public links for a hit instead of going to lectures. I bought a starter set so I wouldn't have to pay for hire clubs each time and I was hooked. Golf was a game where anyone could participate - you didn't need a team, there was no organised practice and no opponent except for the course. I remember going out with my friend one day and having the course to ourselves while the Australian Grand Prix (still in Adelaide in the mid-eighties) could be heard buzzing in the background. Golf then helped me break into the community when I got my first teaching contracts. I played at Port Broughton and got my first handicap of 36.
Then I got sent out to a little town on the Eyre Peninsula called Wirrulla and my sporting involvement bloomed to my greatest involvement ever. I played football for the first time ever (without my glasses) in the B grade because being involved was important, not if you were any good - they needed the numbers. I played golf, became club treasurer and kept a plastic bucket of change under my bed until I could get to the bank during the week. I played darts during the week, had a go at asphalt basketball in the summer, and played No 5 in the Wirrulla tennis team.
In 1990, I was given my first permanent job at Port Augusta, right at the top point of the Spencer Gulf. As well as getting heavily involved in the local golf club, I had a go at social volleyball and social basketball. One of the teachers at my school and our Aboriginal Education Worker were right into basketball and tuned me into checking out the NBA, which had games and highlight packages on late night ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). It was right in the middle of the Michael Jordan era and the Chicago Bulls were the team that everyone wanted to watch. I remember the New York Knicks being a pretty cool team and I liked watching John Starks, a no nonsense player whose style of play appealed to me. The basketball card craze hit Port Augusta schools pretty hard, and every upper primary kid had their big 3 ring folders with plastic card sleeves with their collection of cards. I had one child who was a particularly hard case in my class, who the police were constantly picking up in the streets late at night or finding him shoplifting down at Woolworths. He was hard to engage in class, and would just leave the school if it looked like I was going to pressure him into doing the learning that the rest of the class was doing. But he had a massive basketball card collection, and although I'd like to say it was a bridge for him to engaging with our learning, he would at least be content to thumb his way through his collection without doing a runner.
The ABC also featured a weekly American Football show hosted by an Australian TV icon, Don Lane. His American accent was just perfect to host this show which showed highlights from three games each week and showed the last quarter of the best one. He explained the important concepts to the curious Australian audience, and I loved it. He would have weekly prize giveaways - a Giants cap, a Raiders hoodie - all showcased with his catchphrase, "Who wouldn't want one of these?" He promoted a book called The Australian Guide To American Football which I bought along with the follow up book The Other Side Of American Football. Now I knew what a blitz was and that a tight end wasn't a bowel problem. I bought a Los Angeles Raider pennant as the team that I decided I liked but my girlfriend (now my wife) bought me a 49ers Starter cap which was pretty cool as well.
Eventually, the ABC took these shows off the air, I got married and moved back to Adelaide, and I lost my keenness for American sport. I still loved to watch Aussie Rules and as the VFL had become the AFL, started following the progress of first decent non-Victorian football team, the West Coast Eagles. I tried to like the new Adelaide team, the Crows, but there was something not quite right about them. When Port Adelaide finally got the chance to field an AFL team in 1997 as the Power, it was time to switch my loyalties full circle back to the team that answered that question back in primary school, "Who do you barrack for?"
Professional sport is a strange sort of beast. As a society, and generally as a worldwide phenomena, humans place sporting expertise on a very high pedestal and disproportionally reward these individuals. And when I decide to spend my time watching a team of multimillionaires play a game, or buy a team product like a cap or t-shirt, then I'm helping to bankroll the whole sideshow. Yet, does professional sport really contribute that much to the betterment of human existence on Earth? The flip side of that is that humans like entertainment (those of us in the luxurious position of being able to, as so many people on our planet are starving, living in poverty or facing a dire future. Why would they give a toss about Lebron James' latest colorway on his signature basketball shoe?) and professional sport is entertainment in a very primeval form. A pro athlete is only as good as his or her last game, one injury could end it all, and we so often see that total life dedication to becoming elite in sport leaves some unable to do anything else when it comes to life beyond their sporting expertise. There's certainly elements of gladiatorial Rome in any sporting arena.
It's also a form of classic escapism. Pretending for an hour that the next goal is the most important thing in the world and that your loud cheers (even from the edge of your lounge chair) could be the thing that pushes your team or favourite player to victory. Sports journalism has perfected the art of using an athlete's life journey as a metaphor for humankind's struggle for purpose, for redemption, for meaning.
So, me, I like sport. Having my youngest son play basketball has re-connected me to watching more of that on TV, and reading about it and caring about what is happening in that disconnected_from_everyday_humdrum_life. Getting pay TV last year has me watching NFL and NBA again even though I can't take to baseball or soccer. And now thanks to videogames, I'm enjoying watching the NHL which could turn out to be the most compelling one of them all for me. So the irony is that I am one of the least talented sports person around, but it doesn't take talent to appreciate the pure escapism and spectacle of sport at its highest level.