A friend asked me yesterday: “What’s your saddest memory?” Without really thinking about it I said: “September 24, 1989.”
To understand why, you need to keep everything in this context: I was ten.
I was a Balmain Tigers fanatic – I loved every player like they were gods, and so much greater than gods, because if people asked me how many tries Jesus scored in 1989, I wouldn’t know.
I’d guess twelve, but that’s probably Alan McIndoe’s try count for the Panthers that year – I always confused those two guys. I think because they both were tradesman and both retired in Tumut.
I also had all of the footy cards and had bought so many packets of the cards, I’d convinced myself the stick of gum was actually good chewy.
Even players from other clubs like Gary Belcher, Michael Speechley, Greg Florimo, Gavin Miller, Phil Blake, Cliff Lyons and Dean Schifilliti are all forever etched into my memory as they appeared on the 1989 footy cards.
It was my religion.
The Balmain Tigers: Garry Jack, Tim Brasher, James Grant, Steve Roach, Benny Elias, Sironen and Wayne Pearce – they were the superstars.
But the side was also teeming with workhorses like Mick Neil, Steve Edmed and Bruce McGuire – John Lennon was right, the working class heroes were something to be.
But there was something else that ensured my complete devotion: My Nanna and Uncle Bob were both massive Tigers fans.
When my Nanna would ring me, she would tell me about the 1969 grand final, Balmain’s last premiership. I’d cherish our chats about how Steve Roach, Paul Sironen and Wayne Pearce were the best, chuck out the rest.
Infinity Ever After, Amen. I wished and wished that the Tigers would win not just for me, but for my Nanna and for Laurie Nichols.
We had all been heart-broken the year before as The Tigers had lost to Canterbury-Bankstown (robbed of course), but the year of taunts from Bulldogs fans would forever be washed away.
There was no doubt in my mind or my Nan’s mind: 1989 was the Tiger’s year. Nothing would stop them from going all the way – especially not the Raiders.
In my mind the teams were light years apart. With 20-20 hindsight its hard to see how I could think that so unwaveringly, the Raiders had: Mal Meninga, Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Gary Belcher, Brad Clyde, Glenn Lazarus, Steve Walters, Dean Lance and John “Chicka Ferguson.
Chicka bloody Ferguson!
I haven’t re-watched the game to this day, but I can imagine that try in slow motion anytime I want to when I close my eyes – it’s like what I imagine Vietnam flashbacks to be.
It’s brilliant play, but it still hurts.
Even now, I think if I ever got to meet the legendary “Chicka” Ferguson, I would have to try and tackle him!
Then again, if all of my childhood heroes can’t – what chance would I have?
By the end of the extra time and the full score is 19-14.
My concept of belief was shattered. Wishing no longer mattered.
The idea that if you worked really hard, you could achieve anything: gone.
Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless!
In a cruel twist: the players I had loved the most had made mistakes one after the other, after the other. Wayne Pearce had lost the ball with an unmarked Brasher on his outside, Elias missed a field goal, Roach and Sironen were off the field (benched by Warren Ryan – they were then ineligible to return to the field in extra time).
Garry Jack knocked on too.
By the time the Raiders’ Steve Jackson dragged half the Tigers across the line to score the final try the entire universe made no sense. All purpose for existence was gone.
It’s a lot to expect from an NRL player, who in one sense just wants to bash into other players for a living until their joints break down.
It ups the stakes of the game of rugby league to remind yourself they are more than players, they are role models to a lot of kids who love them as intensely as I loved the 1989 Balmain Tigers.
I learned a few good things that day too. It’s okay for a man to cry. There are times when it just makes sense.
I learned that fanatics never really get to enjoy anything as a whole. I had watched 80 minutes of the best rugby league ever played and had hated most of it.
It’s wise never to get too invested, I enjoy watching sport more again now. Now when I watch rugby league, I don’t see 17 gods, there are 34 to chose from.
Moving on, it took time, and that’s what I’ve learned longer term: time does heal. That thing you thought was the most important thing in the world, wasn’t.
That’s a good thing to remember, putting things in perspective even now.
But I guess in a way it is my saddest memory, because in my ten-year-old world it was one of the only certainties I had believed in. That can damage a kid.
It’s because kids feel this way about their sporting heroes that everything needs to be done to ensure this latest scandal is dealt with and responded to quickly and effectively.
Drugs in sport aren’t necessary. Has there ever been a better grand final than Raiders versus Tigers? Not that I can think of?