Phil Keenan reminisces the simplicity of being a young sports fan, when he received his first jersey and football.
In my old bedroom, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh as big as a small child sits in the saddle of a wooden rocking horse. The rocking horse is on top of a wardrobe. Pooh squints down out of the gloom, his eyes narrow, looking along his nose into the half-light. He wears a Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs rugby league jersey, which just happens to be exactly the right size for him, as it was purchased for me when I was about eight years old.
Memory fails as I attempt to recall the detail of how this birthday present came into my possession. For some reason I was given it, a gift, I think, from my uncle, who didn’t always give birthday and Christmas presents on time (if at all), or at the same time as my mum and dad and sister gave me things on my birthday morning. It wasn’t my birthday morning when I was given my first Bulldogs jersey. It wasn’t morning at all. It was a winter’s evening, in front of the open fire in the lounge room, a fire burning bright with coals glowing in the grate, radiating steady heat even as it began declining into embers.
There were two presents that night: the jersey and a football. A rugby league football—my first. A ball from made from leather, as they were in those days, with the manufacturer and official logos and badges printed on it. I wore my jersey in front of the warm fire and clutched my ball, and held the ball away from me, turning it over in my hands and running a finger along the stitching, examining the laces which tied the whole thing together just at the point where the rubber inflation valve protruded. There were laces on a football then. That’s not made up. And then I clutched my ball close to my chest again, like a second-rower going for a slashing run, aiming to scatter some defenders before looking for an offload.
The jersey and the ball arrived on the wrong day. From this remove it seems they were unexpected, not just because I didn’t think I would be given these things, but unexpected because it wasn’t my actual birthday and so I could not have anticipated being given anything. But it was my birthday time of year, and I certainly didn’t want to remove my new football garment or put down my ball. Bed time must have intervened though, and my new items must have been carefully rested, until the next time I could play with them.
I recall gazing at my jersey, carefully arranged on a bed, to look its best, so I could clearly see all the correct badges—manufacturer, club, and competition—which had been sewn onto it. I marveled at the deepness of the blue stripes and the whiteness of the white parts. It was blue and white. It was almost too good to wear. But then I would put in on, and look at myself in the mirror, and that seemed a reasonable compromise until I took it off and displayed it on the bed again.
Getting my jersey wet or, worse, dirty was something I tried very hard to avoid. My memory is of it being consistently clean—but as a little boy I was partial, as most little boys are, to the odd unhygienic and even occasionally disgusting practice, and so it was probably grubby in places. And it also probably smelled a bit. But it was my special jersey, and I wore it on momentous occasions, like when there was a very big game. I wore it for added luck, when I felt the Bulldogs could do with assistance in that area. I still wear my adult jersey during some Bulldogs games, but perhaps momentous occasions of that sort seemed more frequent when I was eight.
The ball was thrown around a bit at home, and as I grew and became more skilled with it, I attempted more of the things I used to do in the backyard when I was inside the house. Squib kicks, or as they call them in rugby league, grubbers, rolled along the carpet, bobbling, typically followed by a diving grab and crash over in the corner for a try. I would run towards the dog, acting as a defender, and step past him with dextrous footwork. Then he would start barking and chase me, and I’d have to stop and calm him down before the game could begin again. I tackled him a few times, and I used to jump over him with the ball tucked under one arm, wearing the jersey, imagining I was a first-grade rugby league player when in fact I was a boy playing with his dog. Unsurprisingly miscalculations were sometimes made, and there were breakages, although these were few.
I began to take my football—my old football, as it had become—to school from about the age of 16, as it was just the right size, this ball made for boys, to play with at lunchtime. It was perfect, in fact. Until the day someone put up a towering kick, which seemed to keep rising. The park where we played was under the north side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the ball became lodged in a walkway of the steelwork above. It was gone. Just like that. It was sad. Not tears sad, but a phase of my life had ended. My jersey was already far too small and Winnie the Pooh was wearing it, and now the ball was gone as well. A gift which seemed to arrive from nowhere at not quite the right time suddenly departed without warning.