It started with a few photos cropping up on a friend’s Facebook page around August 2017.
There was a couple of guys I knew from the social cricket competition I umpire in who hadn’t been sighted at cricket for a few Sundays. Instead, there were photos of them wearing the unmistakable garb of Australian rules guernseys in pseudo Hawthorn colours, smiling and obviously having just played games of football. Next time I did see them at cricket I brought it up, asked them about it
“Oh, it’s masters football, Paul. Over 35s. Up at Aspley.”
“Can anyone play?”
“For sure mate, they’re always looking for numbers. You should give it a go.”
I’ll admit that there was something in the back of my mind that wanted to experience what it was like to play Australian rules football. I felt at times discussing football online here and elsewhere that I lacked understanding of what the game involved that watching alone could never provide.
My childhood had never involved AFL – growing up in country Queensland, I’d played a lot of tennis, squash, cricket, and some basketball. Did a lot of swimming. My parents weren’t big fans of contact sports, and with me being a somewhat intellectual type I think they consciously tried to steer me towards sports that relied more on nous and less on physicality.
I first got interested in AFL as a spectator around the time the rest of Brisbane did, around the turn of the millennium, but playing the game was never really a consideration at that time. I didn’t have the passion for it, and taking it up fresh in my early 20s seemed an impossible hurdle to climb in terms of having to catch up to those I’d be playing against, most of whom had grown up holding a footy since they were old enough to walk.
Fast forward a decade and touch football was taken up around 2010, as I worked on getting fit again and working off the contents of a Heathrow injection I’d received during two years in England prior, but that remained the limits of my participation in the football codes until the photos piqued my interest.
I had recently given away a similar attempt to make up for an activity not learnt as a child, binning the notion of being able to stand up on a surfboard after realising that a 6’3” body combined with a poor sense of balance was never going to lend itself from going rapidly from horizontal to vertical on an unstable platform no matter how much I tried.
There was undeniably a desire to challenge myself and learn something new, while also getting fitter and both mentally and physically stronger. To a certain extent playing football came about because I knew there was only a certain amount of years left where such a thing would be possible – not so much a mid-life crisis as it was a mid-life realisation.
Not being a believer in reincarnation I decided that given I only had one chance to do something like this, I should go for it. At a certain age, you start caring less and less about your dignity and what other people might think of you.
Early on though, I decided if I was going to do it I needed to make sure I didn’t go at it half-assed – I have always been a bit of a perfectionist in the sense that if I’m trying to do something, I always try to make sure I am giving my best effort towards it.
In terms of the internal naysaying to overcome, there was first and foremost the inherent uncertainty about what it was like to play a contact sport. It wasn’t so much the notion of being tackled as it was getting punched in the head from a blindside.
Alarmist perhaps, but being punched was one of the first things most people asked me if I was concerned about when I told them I was going to be playing football.
But I figured I wasn’t the sort of person who approached life looking for a fight, and decided to trust that everyone else around me was there for the same reasons. You can only control what you can control, after all.
The other main concern was the knowledge I was going to be absolutely useless to begin with. I didn’t want to be any more of a liability than I had to, and knew I’d have to work hard to catch up to teammates who had years of experience ahead of me.
If I didn’t have the chance to start out in over 35s, knowing that at 35 I’d be one of the youngest people there and with all the inherent cartilaginous advantages that bestowed, I wouldn’t have gone for it. The initial step-up would have been insurmountable had I been up against people a good 10-15 years younger than me.
I was lucky that my mates had chosen Aspley Hornets as their club of choice, although maybe they chose them for much the same reasons I enjoyed it. Aspley were incredibly welcoming to this beginner – and many others since – and while they took their football seriously, they weren’t as, well, hardcore as some of the other clubs in Brisbane, where there are plenty of blokes whose purpose primarily seems to be to rage against the dying of the light.
Perhaps the best way to sum the attitude around Aspley up is to make you aware that the masters competition in Brisbane isn’t played for points anymore – they dropped that concept some years ago as it was making some teams a bit too competitive, apparently, with lots of fights and unneeded aggression – and I’d say that there’s a higher proportion of blokes who are just fine with that at Aspley then there would be at most other clubs.
The aim isn’t to go out and win every game. It’s to play football first, for your mates, and leave nothing in your tank at the end of the game, and if we happen to be on top at the end, that’s great, but if we’ve been outmatched, outclassed and we’ve lost, well, so be it. It’s just football, after all.
I went along to a couple of training sessions towards the end of 2017 after chatting to my mates – dipped my toe in the water a bit, played a couple of games for a couple of possessions and mainly looked to sub on and off the bench and give others a rest at the tail-end of the season. I started out in 2018, then had to have a couple of months off due to work and personal circumstances but managed to play about six out of 11 games, and now onto 2019 where I’m aiming to play every one of them if I can.
I really missed football when it ended in 2018. I missed the focus fronting up to training on Wednesday evenings brought to the middle of my week, and how it provided a benchmark for me to measure myself on every seven days.
Last year, I incorporated cycling into my training regime, riding to and from the fields at Brendale most evenings. There were moments at 9pm riding back along Sandgate Rd where I was questioning my life choices, but I felt it helped me push through barriers by putting myself into a situation where the only way to get out of it was to keep going to the end and pedal myself home, no matter how cold or sore I was feeling.
I haven’t got on the bike this year – yet – but as winter rolls around I daresay it will happen again now that I’m not going to be riding with the sun in my eyes on my way to the ground.
This year I seem to have found my niche playing in the forward line, I can generally make a contest of the ball and am quick and agile enough to make second efforts or lay a shepherd, although I really need to work on anticipating blokes ducking as I run at them so my height doesn’t mean my arm slides up above the shoulder as I go in for the tackle and give away a free kick. I feel like I am contributing more now, and it’s now a matter of maintaining this level and building from that.
I have learnt the difficulty and frustration involved in trying to get an AFL football to land perfectly on the end of your shoe and get it to spin, and how important it is to fully learn the ball drop. I am still trying to master that skill – I daresay I never will. But at least now, after two years, it generally comes out spinning and roughly where I want it to go.
I understand now what it means to play in the wet, and how impossible it quickly becomes to take a mark with a wet football. I now know how much more a wet footy weighs when you try to kick it. How much harder it is to run when your boot is full of water and the soggy ground won’t release your feet from its grasp in any sort of hurry.
But also how much fun all of this can be when you’re battling both the elements and your opposition. I wouldn’t want to play footy in the wet every week, but it’s a totally different game when it’s raining that provides a different sort of challenge.
I learnt the importance of knowing your teammates, both to be able to call their names to convince them to kick you the footy over someone else doing the same thing, and also to know how far they can kick it, given this can vary widely at the amateur level.
I really came to admire the camaraderie that the over 45s players had. They were all great mates, with some of the funniest intra-team sledging I’ve ever heard anywhere, including all my years of umpiring social cricket.
I realised part of the reason we didn’t have that sort of closeness in the over 35s was that we hadn’t had the decade playing together to forge it yet, and that it was up to me to do my part to help construct those bonds of friendship by getting involved out on the field, and committing myself to the football and to the team by taking steps to build friendships on and off the field.
I learnt that when kicking for goal, you have to train your eyes to look at the empty space in between the poles, not the big sticks themselves, otherwise you wind up hitting what you’re looking at.
I have found one of the hardest things is learning when to run, and where to run to. Aussie rules is a game where you are constantly making calculations about space and time, trying to anticipate where you need to be – if you go too early, you wind up too close to the player trying to kick the ball, too late and you find yourself out of position. Once you’re out of position it’s difficult to make up the difference in time and distance.
I’ve received plenty of sage advice along the way, often during intra-club games talking to some of the older guys who were happy to share their acquired wisdom with a newbie.
“I don’t wanna see any more blokes running away from the kicker calling for the ball over their shoulder! Lead at him, this isn’t AFL, no-one is dropping that kick over your shoulder and onto your chest from fifty metres!”
“Some of these blokes have big egos – nah they do mate, they’ll admit it – give them room and draw blokes off them. Let them use the footy. They have egos because they’re good.”
“If you can’t make it to the contest, don’t go running in. You’ll only drag a defender with you.”
“We (expletive) owe these blokes.” That one’s usually spoken during the huddle of an intra-club game.
I’ve found that playing football at this age is about challenging yourself. To keep running, to keep showing up, to keep putting in for your mates out on the field and understanding that every day we get to spend playing football without getting too old or injured is a blessing.
I’ve seen guys who’ve had to hang up the boots temporarily or permanently because of injuries, and how frustrating it is for them, and how disappointed for them their mates on the team feel.
It’s a bit like Icarus with his wings. Playing football into your 40s and 50s is flying close to the sun, because you become more and more conscious that you’re pushing the limits of what remains possible. You have to learn to temper your urge to push those limits every time you go out there in order to keep flying.
But it’s not about trying to be the best player out there, or winning every game, or beating your opponent. It’s about being the very best version of yourself you can be, and testing yourself to see if you still have that desire to keep putting your best foot forward.
It’s not a cure-all for all of life’s ills, but as an important piece of the puzzle that is my life, and helping to keep myself focused, fit, healthy and striving to achieve, I have found playing football to be invaluable.
So where do I find myself now? It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’m glad I took the step to join up almost two years ago.
Could anyone do it? I guess that depends on the individual. I perhaps had a few advantages, being tall, already fairly fit and motivated, but I don’t see why anyone who was prepared to put in the work and commit to it, and approached it with the right mix of determination, humility and light-heartedness couldn’t take it up.
Certainly I have no plans to stop and have every intention now of continuing until I can’t.