With his streaming long brown hair, broad shoulders and thick, battle-hardened, muscular physique, Nat Fyfe already looks like a Greek warrior. You could slot him straight into ‘Troy’ at the expense of Eric Bana and that film wouldn’t have been any worse.
Fittingly, in the context of football at least, Fyfe’s preliminary final last Friday night was as Homeric as performances come. His game was less a game and more an odyssey.
He started the match on the bench and before he entered the field of play his team had kicked the first two goals of the match. Things were looking ominous for the champion Hawks – their opponents were 11 points up after three minutes and bringing in Football Jesus off the bench for further reinforcements.
Fyfe as we know him lasted 30 seconds and one contest. Liam Shiels collected him at centre half forward, knocking him off balance straight into the path of Brian Lake. The collision fractured the fibula in the Brownlow Medal favourite’s troublesome left leg, rendering him virtually immobile. But he persisted. His body wouldn’t allow him to play his customary role of dominating the midfield, so he decided to play the role of Greek hero instead.
Watching Fyfe limp through the first half on a broken leg, grimacing every time he tried and failed to get into second gear, gutting himself to every contest to make a single effort, physically unable to make another, was as tragic as it was compelling.
Seeing him run was like watching a racehorse try to gallop after being shot in one leg. We know what happens to them, but Fyfe refused to be euthanised by the red vest.
Fyfe, more than any other player in the AFL, seems like an extra-terrestrial at times. He’s the athletic successor to peak Chris Judd, and regularly makes impossibility vulnerable to his physical majesty. His violent aerial explosiveness is the most breathtaking individual talent in Australian football right now.
The explosiveness of stars like Patrick Dangerfield and Jake Stringer is brilliant, but it’s a variation of what we’ve already seen from players like Judd and Ben Cousins. They explode horizontally – Fyfe explodes vertically.
The first half of the season for Fremantle’s number seven was comically magnificent – in the sense that it was both ludicrous and out of a comic book. With Gary Ablett Jr on the shelf, Fyfe established himself as the undisputed best player in the league.
Nagging injuries curtailed his transcendence around mid-season and his output dropped from ‘religious figure’ to ‘mere superstar’. Nagging became crippling on Friday night though, and physically Fyfe became a sad, limping shadow of his typical glory. But even though he couldn’t walk properly, let alone run or sprint or leap, he found something deeper to add to his legacy.
Despite being incapacitated Fyfe had nine clearances, four more than anyone else on the ground, and 16 contested possessions, three more than anyone else. His six tackles were as many as anyone in purple. He generated the turnover that ignited Fremantle’s second half.
Fyfe didn’t play a great game. This wasn’t Isiah Thomas in the 1988 NBA Finals scoring 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 with a severely sprained ankle. Fyfe’s touch was off, missing regulation handballs and unable to get penetration on his kicks because he couldn’t plant his leg. He couldn’t spread from the contest and his physical state made him essentially a one effort player.
But he still found a way to have a real, tangible impact on the game in the clinches, the one area of the ground where free movement runs secondary to toughness, desire and intelligence. Given his state, the simple fact that he didn’t kill his team is as great a testament to Fyfe’s ability as any of his three-vote performances.
The stats will say that Nat Fyfe finished the game with just seven kicks and his team lost by 27 points. But legends aren’t built on facts, they’re built on memories. And no-one will remember the inadequacies of Fyfe’s stat sheet years from now. Instead, people will remember the heroic images of him defiantly dragging himself around the ground, willing himself to contests and impacting them in any way he could.
They’ll remember the force of his continued presence becoming greater than the game itself. And they’ll remember believing that he could make a difference even if logic dictated he couldn’t, simply because he’s Nat Fyfe.
Eventually Fyfe’s performance will stand separate from the narrative of Fremantle’s failure, but on the night those two stories ran fittingly parallel to each other. It felt as though the story was set up for Fyfe to rise to the heavens for a game-altering mark or to kick an inspiring goal. It never happened though. Aside from a brilliant juggled second quarter mark in the centre square at Josh Gibson’s feet, Fyfe never really had his moment. And neither did the Dockers.
With five minutes to go and the result effectively decided, Fyfe leaped as a third man up to a boundary throw-in. It was the first time all night he had really taken to the air and he swung passionately and ferociously at the falling ball. He barely connected, brushing the side of it, and on the way down he clutched at the ball desperately but couldn’t hold onto it as it slipped out of his grasp.
It was symbolic of the Dockers’ night. Their effort and passion was unquestionable, but they just couldn’t hold onto it. They were gallant enough but not good enough. They matched Hawthorn’s intensity but not their execution.
With Tommy Sheridan starring in the 2015 remake of Rhyce Shaw’s 2003 grand final and Chris Mayne and Tendai Mzungu looking like they were going to burst into tears at times, the Hawks engine just kept on humming.
Cyril Rioli was clinical, Jarryd Roughead and Matt Suckling were clutch, and Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell were impossibly calm and composed, dancing purposely and unselfconsciously in a cauldron of classless lava.
They’ve been written off before but it feels more than ever like the Dockers missed their best chance at a premiership in 2013. They might be done. Fyfe is not though. And that’s really what Dockers fans have to content themselves with in the coming months – they’ve still got the best weekly viewing spectacle in the league: Fyfe in flight.
And in the coming years the loss to Hawthorn will fade into a hazy collage of other painful losses, of which there have been many. What they, and we, will ultimately remember from Friday night is the image of Fyfe enduring – knowing in our minds that he probably didn’t have anything to give, but believing in our hearts that he might. Such is a champion.