Here, in full, is The Final Quarter, first published in The Big Issue (#570, 7 – 20 September 2018). Your local vendor may still have some back issues. (So to speak.)
Leonard Cohen probably never kicked an Australian Rules football but I know what he meant when he sang “I ache in the places where I used to play” in Tower of Song.
Bob Murphy, retired Western Bulldogs footballer (312 games), kicked many a footy, and I do know what he meant when he wrote that your last game is like the end of childhood.
I have been trying to stave off the end of my childhood all my life but now I ache in the hips and the back when I kick a footy.
Not that I ever played games for a club, unless you count Under 14s. And not that I even kick a full-size footy these days. It’s a size 3 Sherrin, Lyrebird brand. Better to kick a kid’s footy than no footy at all.
Nearing 60 years old, I’m pretty much playing the last quarter of my life. It is, of course, a quarter one hope never ends. No one wants to hear the final siren. No one wants the umpire to blow the whistle, raise the arms and signal game over.
So that’s why you’ll find me on a Sunday morning kicking a small footy with a few mates, some much younger, a few my age or a little older. Just half-a-dozen of us on a good day, barring injuries, family commitments, and the weather. We form a loose circle and move around within half the ground.
Sometimes there are only two of us, so it is strictly kick to kick, back and forth, back and forth.
And sometimes there’s just myself, bouncing the yellow footy into the green grass, walking to the centre circle, the firmest part of the ground. Then walking down to the goals, perhaps imagining a Saturday game here by the local amateurs, perhaps thinking of the week behind and the years ahead. Or the years behind and the weeks ahead. All the while bouncing air out of that ball.
We play all-year round because life is all-year round. The official season may be over but that’s when we’re starting to hit our stride. That’s when – October, November, early December – the weather is kinder to our bodies. Even if some of us can only kick a small footy 30 metres, not much beats the sun on your back under warm skies. (I’ve been known to occasionally play bare-chested on warm mornings.)
As we run (well, jog) toward an errant, mid-directed kick, it could be our childhood, and our mortality, that we’re chasing.
As we mark a perfectly directed and perfectly weighted kick – the right speed, the right height, the right distance – we thank our good fortune to be alive and relatively healthy.
We are not footballers. We do not play in a team or in a competition. We do not belong to a club. But we belong to each other for that hour of a Sunday morning. Small talk is saved for the end of the session. Even then, one of our best players – and we are players of a kind – hardly says a word.
Conversely, our oldest player – nearing 65 – has the gift of the gab. If the kicking and marking is getting sloppy, inevitable as the morning lengthens, he will encourage us by calling and cajoling and joking. And delivering some very accurate old-fashioned kicks. Anyone remember torpedoes, drop-kicks, stab-passes?
Or he may start ‘the count’, to see how many marks we can take collectively and successively. The idea is to keep the ball off the ground for as long as possible, for as many kicks as possible. This makes us play with more care. It turns that part of the morning into, perhaps, a numbered meditation. No one wants to break the chain. Eventually, of course, a kick goes awry or hands fumble or the sun gets in your eyes and the count is over. These days we don’t get anywhere near the century we managed 10 years back, but that’s just another sign of the times.
Soon enough our lungs and our limbs, our hips and our backs, tell us to head to the boundary to ‘warm down’ with shots at goal from all of 20 metres.
If we have not ached now, we may ache during the week. Sometimes players disappear for a month or more. Groin. Hammy. Hip.
But we come back. To re-live childhood. To stave off childhood. To find some wonder and some innocence before the final siren.
It’s the final quarter.