The last thing I told my dad
My fondest memories are of growing up in Shepparton, and my Dad is at the centre of all of them. Mum wasn’t on the scene much, so Dad brought up me and my sister Paigan, who’s four years younger than me.
When I think of that time, all I can remember is happiness with my best mate. My greatest hero was always my old man.
My Dad was a very open and honest man who gave, gave, gave and never asked for anything in return. He always wanted the best for people. He was well respected and well known in the community, and he had this amazing bubble around him – people just wanted to be with him.
He was a builder – house-building, renovations, a bit of everything. He had his own business; as a single parent he needed to have the flexibility to always be taking us to and from school, driving me to footy training or whatever, so he had to make his own hours at work.
We were quite the outdoors family. We’d go fishing, camping, water skiing on the Murray River up at Echuca or Cobram behind Dad’s speed boat. Family friends have got a Malibu Wakesetter and we’d go cruising around on that too. Or we’d be riding motorbikes – we’d take them up tracks, to race circuits, or through the hills around Shepparton.
Our biggest thing was cars. Dad wasn’t a computers person, but he was really handy in so many ways. We were always going to car shows and tinkering with cars. When I was little, Dad’s first hotted-up car was a Chev truck ute, after that we had an EK Holden that we’d go to the local football in on the weekends.
Then we were lucky enough get a 1972 HQ GTS Monaro. When Dad got her she was a bare shell, all different colours, with no engine. What she started as compared to what she is now is quite remarkable. We did all the work in Dad’s mate’s shed – being car-heads we knew a lot of people in the industry, we had a lot of help. She’s fully restored now, painted silver and just beautiful.
Every Wednesday I go to a car garage and learn off a guy named Mick Webb, who does performance cars. I have a fair idea with engines now, but I’m still not where I want to be. It’s quite the hobby for me, a good way to get away from football, and it’s a nice connection to Dad as well.
The HQ got handed down to me. It’ll be nice to be able to tinker with her when anything’s wrong and know what to do. She’ll always be in the family, that’s for sure.
A proud yorta yorta man
My Aboriginality comes from my mother’s side. I’m a Yorta Yorta man, from the Murray River region that takes in Shepparton, Swan Hill, Echuca. To think Aboriginal people were the first culture on this planet amazes me and makes me very proud. I really think going out into the community and telling our stories is such a great part of being an AFL footballer.
I didn’t know a whole lot about being an Aboriginal person until I was drafted to Port Adelaide, who are a really strong club culturally. I learnt a lot while I was there; the things they do in the Indigenous space are just amazing. Chad Wingard was the main driver among the players, and Paul Vandenbergh was the Indigenous coordinator who brought it all together. They opened my eyes a lot, and I’m grateful.
Dad was very proud of that connection too. He had quite a few Aboriginal friends, and he could play the didgeridoo which is rare for a white man. He had the breathing down pat; I haven’t quite got that yet. It was just another thing about my Dad that amazed me, that he could play the didgeridoo so fluently. He was really proud of his connection with the brotherhood, as we called it. He just loved it.
Dad had played local footy around Shepp with his mates, and I think that’s what he most enjoyed about the game – getting around your mates and playing with them on the weekend, having a laugh with them on and off the field. That’s the person he was.
Everyone has a story, and our lives weren’t perfect, but Dad gave us everything he could and worked very hard to bring us up the way he did. We never felt like we’d missed out as kids, we were very, very lucky for the father we had. I don’t think we missed out on too much at all.
‘that’s enough, mate’
One day when I was 14, my uncle came to pick me up from school. That was unusual – Dad always collected us after school. He just said, ‘We’re going to the hospital’.
The memory is so clear of seeing Dad in there and hearing the news that he had cancer. He’d had some pain in his back – when he was an apprentice a wall fell on him and broke his back, and he’d thought it was just a few niggles from that. He’d been seeing a masseuse and kept saying how sore it was. He went and had some tests done, and that was when they found out it was cancer.
He had heavy treatment for about a year, lots of surgeries. It had originated in his testicles so they removed one of them, then they cut out a bit of his liver, a kidney, up through his stomach and into his chest. Then there was chemotherapy after that.
Dad had quite a few Aboriginal friends, and he could play the didgeridoo which is rare for a white man.
I guess you don’t realise as a 14-year-old how serious something like that is. Every adversity we’d faced growing up he was always like, ‘We’ll be right’. It was the same when he got sick.
Nanna moved in with us and became the mother of the house, cooking and cleaning, washing and ironing. We were so lucky. I guess it made me grow up a bit more, especially when I started getting into rep sides with footy and had to work out how to get to Melbourne for trial games and carnivals. I remember sitting in the back seat of cars going down the highway with families I didn’t know very well, feeling uncomfortable, not being able to be myself.
By the time I was drafted to Port Adelaide in 2013, Dad was in remission and everything was kind of back to normal. He was always super fit, he loved training hard and feeling strong, and he got back into that. I’d speak to Dad pretty much every day when I was in Adelaide, and when he was well he came to all my games.
At the end of the 2015 season I went to Bali with a few teammates. Dad picked me up from the airport when I flew home, and on the drive back up to Shepp he said, ‘I’ve got some news for you – it’s back’. Then he broke into tears. He’d known it had come back before I’d left for Bali but didn’t want to ruin my holiday. That’s the person he was.
He’d been in remission for about four-and-a-half years – they say that after five years cancer won’t come back, so to get that close was a shock. Even the doctors were surprised. It was really aggressive when it came back, but he did another round of chemo in the hope of getting a few more years. We’re very positive people, and I said to him, ‘You’ve beaten it once, you can beat it again’.
Port were very good to us. Dad used to take me and Paigan to the Gold Coast when we were kids and do all the theme parks, and when the cancer came back the footy club helped send us on a family holiday to Queensland to create some more special memories. It was a great family trip.
Even when he was sick again Dad was always trying to work, trying to help out. We had to tell him, ‘Relax mate, we’ll do the dishes, we’ll pack up’. The person, the character he was, he never gave up. He fought all his life – he’d worked for everything he had and everything we had.
We went to the doctor after the heavy chemo and he was pretty cut-throat. He said Dad had about four months. The look on everyone’s faces … how do you react when you’ve just been told your life is going to be taken from you?
The last three games of the 2016 season were really hard. Dad was there for all of them – the first two at Adelaide Oval, then the last one against Gold Coast at Carrara. It was a lot to take in, knowing it could be the last time your father got to watch you play. There was a lot of emotion going through me.
He’d known the cancer had come back before I’d left for Bali but didn’t want to ruin my holiday. That’s the person Dad was.
It wasn’t until the last month that we realised it wasn’t going to work out. We had a month where we started to plan things. He didn’t have to say too much to us, he’d brought us up so well in terms of respect, working hard for what you get. He’d set such a great example.
He could easily have thrown in the towel and let go when I was 14, and he lasted another six years. We were lucky, he was a fighter. That character is in me and Paigan. He didn’t have to tell us, ‘You must do this, you must do that’. We knew.
I was there with him until his very last breath. It was quite a special thing. I told him, ‘That’s enough, mate’. Then he left us.
playing the cards we were dealt
It was bred into us to show emotion, to show love. That was the person Dad was, and he was our role model, our leader. He was a very happy, loving person. One of the most important things in life is love, isn’t it? That’s what everyone looks for. It’s probably the strongest thing, and that’s what our family was about. Show your emotion, show that you care.
I was lucky that I was drafted to a good club in Port Adelaide, and I met a lot of close friends inside and outside the football club that I’ll cherish forever. Everyone had a great understanding of where we were at as a family, there was a lot of help there. That made changing clubs such a big thing, leaving good people behind.
But when Dad was gone, it was in my best interests to be closer to my home and the people I’d grown up with. Paigan is 18 now, a social worker in Shepp, giving back where she can. We’ve got a half-brother from my mum’s side, Joelden, who’s nine. I see him as much as I can when I have the weekends off, and I wanted to be closer to both of them. Even just the roads and houses I’d grown up around as a young fella, I missed that.
Part of what drew me to Hawthorn was Shauny Burgoyne’s influence. I chatted to him before I made the decision, and he’s taken me under his wing. He and Amy have me around to his place for dinner and I love mucking around with their kids. It’s pretty cool to have him alongside me.
The AFL’s Indigenous round is coming up and we play against Port Adelaide, which will be weird. Anytime you play against your old club is a bit awkward I’m sure, but I left on good terms. It’ll be great to see my old teammates on the field and catch up afterwards.
I’ve got my head around Dad no longer being here now. Obviously I think of him countless times every day, so many times it’s not funny. But I just keep bringing it back to how lucky we are that Dad brought us up in such a good manner, the person he was, the people he’s made us. That helps.
I don’t talk to him as such – I feel that having him in my thoughts is as close as I can get to him now. I guess he’d be proud, we’re doing okay. I’m proud too. We haven’t had the easiest life, but like Dad said, they’re the cards we were dealt.