I’D dreamt of this day. Many have. A day when all eyes look upon you and you bathe
in such inspection. A winner. The athlete, the actor, the rock star or the bride.
This day was meant to be yours. Your time to shine. And yet I couldn’t have been more dull; the tarnished athlete sitting uncomfortably in a hard plastic seat digesting some inane halftime entertainment. My mind was fuelled with frustration. Anger.
How? Why? One untimely injury and now this. Excused from the big dance. A childhood dream dashed; this type of opportunity didn’t happen every year.
Anyway I cut it I missed out. Whichever team won I lost. One would get to hold the premiership cup, each individual wearing their premiership medallion, while the other got nothing.
Despite the fact that my team was competing, I was effectively with the other. Even if my teammates won I didn’t. I wanted no part of it. I had no interest. It was theirs not mine. I couldn’t justify a smile or a post-game celebration. What was I celebrating?
So I sat in a cocoon of petulance hoping the game’s second half would somehow accelerate and the misery would be over along with what remained of a wasted year. 1993.
Suddenly a large thick hand fell upon my shoulder. Startled, I looked up to see a foreign face. Before I could say a word the stranger spoke: “You’re a very good footballer.”
My chest swelled and the storm cloud about me began to rise. I was going to reply but he cut me off: “But you’re not that good.”
The cloud returned. And the anger rose. Who was this guy? Before I could return fire he pulled out a pen and a scrap of paper. He wrote his name and number on it then folded it carefully in half.
“Call me if you want to become a better footballer and a better person,” he said.
Shocked, I took the piece of paper and jammed it into the inside pocket of my blazer. When I looked up, he was gone.
I spent the second half oscillating between the game and that piece of paper. The bloke’s name was Alec. Alec Epis. And he called himself The Kookaburra. I wanted to throw the piece of paper on the ground to join the rest of the rubbish. But instead I kept it. I figured it could rot away quietly, forgotten along with the day.
The game was soon over. My team won. My teammates wore their medals proudly, boisterous in victory. Everyone held the premiership cup. Everyone except me.
As soon as I got home my father started asking questions I didn’t want to answer. It didn’t take long for me to rudely suggest that all I had to show for the day was a scrap of paper from some bloke who called himself The Kookaburra.
My father fell silent. “You met The Kookaburra?” he asked.
“You know him?”
“Well, who is he?”
Highly animated, my father quickly told me all about the former footy legend. Then he asked me, “What did he say to you?”
“He told me to call him if I wanted to be a better footballer. And a better person. What do I do?”
“Call him!” said my father. “Call him now.”
I turned to my mother who was quietly preparing dinner. “Should I?”
“Only if he has patience,” she said without losing focus.
The decision made, I picked up the receiver and dialled the Kookaburra’s number.
The process seemed to take forever as the mechanism spun backwards allowing the next number to be entered. His phone began to ring. Nervously I waited for my call to be answered.
I froze for a moment before saying my name and the reason for my call.
Within seconds I lost control of the conversation. I was told to meet on Wednesday at 7am at a local park. Clarinda Reserve at the bottom of Park Street. I knew it. I’d driven past it many times. It wasn’t far from home. I agreed.
“Great. I’ll see you there at 7am.” Click.
With the phone still at my ear I stood wondering what I had just done.
Wednesday seemed to take forever to arrive. With the thrill of playing each week gone, the off-season was boring. Dragging myself out of bed at 7am, I arrived at Clarinda Reserve at 7.15am and swaggered my way towards a barrel-chested Italian who leant upon a wheelie bin smack damn in the middle of the park. By the time I reached him it was 7.17am.
He looked angry. At me? It was too late to turn back. My feet were set.
He exploded. A combination of physical threats, saliva and every known expletive wrapped succinctly in a venomous tirade. I was told that should I ever choose to be late again never to come back. I thought that suggestion just fine as I had clearly engaged a psychopath. A nutter. Someone who was well beyond the spectrum.
The whole Kookaburra thing was a dead giveaway. How did I miss it?
For now though I was trapped. The equation was simple. Gut out this session. Return to my car. Drive home to the sanctuary of parents I already knew I couldn’t relate to and never spend another second with the Kookaburra.
I didn’t think things could get any worse. But they did. For two hours he verbally abused me and physically tested me, putting me through drill after drill with no respite. In the end I was completely spent.
The needle was on empty as I dragged myself back to my car. Slumping behind the steering wheel I promised never to spend another second with Alec Epis. Driving home I chanted the promise to myself. Over and over. Not another second. Not one.
My lower back tight, my hamstrings screaming, I was sore for days afterwards. Religiously I kept that chant going. But then something changed. Just like that.
I decided to go back. On Wednesday. Back to Clarinda Reserve at the bottom of Park Street. At 7am. I called Alec to confirm my attendance. This time I wasn’t late.
He flogged me again. Abusing me every step of the way. I promised never to go back. Again I changed my mind. And again he flogged me.
Alec and I met at 7am each Wednesday morning at Clarinda Reserve at the bottom of Park Street for the next nine years. We never missed a Wednesday. Not one.
I became a better footballer and a better person. His promise came true.
In 1995, I grasped the premiership cup while wearing a bright silver medallion around my neck.
In a moment of silence away from the bulls*** and bluster winners feel, I realised that the scrap of paper I’d received on the same date two years earlier was a far more valuable acquisition.