Jim Stynes’ name belongs among AFL’s greatest

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Before the media adopted Jim Stynes as their archetypal hero, he was already a champion. Now, as we reflect on his premature exit, he will be remembered as a legend.

Given what has taken place over the last four years, it’s easy to forget that Stynes was a champion footballer with a magical story.

Despite his initial unfamiliarity with the oval-shaped ball, Stynes would turn out to be one of the greatest Demons ever. He claimed a Brownlow Medal in the year of my birth, before adding four best-and-fairest trophies to his collection.

To this date he holds the record for the most consecutive AFL games, having not missed a beat for more than a decade.

Given the high injury rate of today’s game, I highly doubt anyone will ever get close to this tally.

As a late convert to the Demons, I only have fleeting memories of Stynes’ playing career. One of the earliest games I can remember – Melbourne’s 1998 preliminary final loss to North Melbourne – was his last.

On the few occasions that I did see him play, though, Stynes must have done something right. In 2002, four years after Stynes’ career was over, I was asked to research a hero for my high school’s Night of Notables night.

Most of my friends went with the traditional big names in world history – Churchill, Da Vinci, Einstein. I choose Jimmy. Teachers and students alike were baffled about my decision.

Few knew who he was. And those who were familiar with the name thought I was immature to dedicate my time and effort to a footballer, of all people.

But Stynes was never just a footballer. Outside of the game he was an influential role model and the co-founder of youth charity, Reach.

While I never participated in any Reach activity, I have only ever heard positive things about the organisation’s influence in shaping young lives for the better.

These days it seems almost commonplace for sporting legends to initiate charities and foundations. But Stynes was arguably the pioneer, and perhaps the most sincere of the lot.

It was actually at the Reach ‘factory’ in Collingwood that I met Stynes for the one and only time.

Eager to impress him I told the man mountain about my Year Seven tribute to him. I don’t know how I expected him to react, but the then-Melbourne President didn’t seem to take much interest in this news.

I won’t lie – I was disappointed by his failure to pretend to be interested. In saying that, though, I don’t think Jimmy deserves to be judged by that brief moment. Given what he contributed to the Melbourne Football Club in the years to follow, I was willing to forgive him.

While I’m not qualified to speak about Stynes on a personal level, I am well aware of the immense impact he had on the Melbourne Demons’ recovery from financial strife.

When Stynes took over the presidency in 2008, the club was in ruins. Rumours were rife that the world’s oldest football club was on the brink of folding and making way for a Greater Gold Western replacement.

The Dees may not have won too many AFL fixtures since then – indeed we have collected two wooden spoons – but the club is as strong as it has ever been off field.

Since the famous Debt Demolition campaign of 2007 – when $5 million worth of debt was eliminated – Melbourne has looked uncharacteristically healthy.

Stynes was largely responsible for that seemingly impossible turnaround. Given that it only took him a couple of years to reverse the fortunes of an infamously wayward organisation, who knows what he could have achieved had cancer not cut short his life.

The outpouring of emotion we observed yesterday is as beautiful as it is tragic; it is a shame that Stynes isn’t alive to appreciate the multitude of people paying tribute to him.

In saying that, though, Stynes was perhaps one of the lucky ones in this regard.

Ever since cancer struck him in 2009 he has been the subject of many tributes. He was alive to be recognised as the Victorian of the Year on three separate occasions (2001, 2003, 2011).

In 2007 he added the Medal of the Order of Australia to his list of accolades; last year he was recognised as Melbournian of the Year.

Stynes may continue to gain recognition posthumously, but for many others of his ilk that was the only credit they ever got.

Indeed, many of the notable men and women who were celebrated by my Year Seven classmates departed from this earth long ago. I guess, in a way, that makes me particularly lucky.

Sure, Jimmy may have not have been impressed by me that day. But I’ve been impressed with almost everything the Irishman has achieved with his life.

To have had the pleasure of his acquaintance even for a brief moment, surely I should be thankful.

R.I.P. Jim Stynes 1966-2012

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