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Soup of This Day #154: My Missionaries In A Foreign Field

March 20, 2012

An Australian rules football match from 1866
An Australian rules football match from 1866. The game was just 7 years old, having been created in 1859 when members of the newly formed Melbourne Football Club codified the rules that their team would play by. 100 years after the above game was captured in a wood engraving an unlikely superstar was born – Image: Robert Bruce, 1866. Robert Bruce is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

1 day I was walking back to my boarding college from town with some high school mates. We were talking about family illness, topping each other with stories. I won the battle of teenage one-upmanship because my mum was fighting cancer and nobody had that much going on. Briefly I was pleased – When you’re 16 any attention is good and I was getting some sympathy which is nicer still. Even better, the sympathy was coming from a girl. A cute girl. She was all dewy-eyed with concern for me – Your mum could die, she exclaimed. Yep, I grimly nodded, mistaking her empathy for signs of affection.

And then it struck me. My mum could die.

It’s true that we all can die so maybe that doesn’t seem that out there. The thing though was that there were some heavy stats behind that thought process that day – My mum had fought off breast cancer once before, when I was a little tacker of just 5 or so. When it came back in the early 90s though it returned stronger and the fight was tougher. Mostly it was hard for me to gauge how tough – I was a self-obsessed teenager and my mum was a very private woman. She kept herself to herself and shielded her boys from the demons that she faced – For the most part she kept up the façade of a superhuman woman quietly waging a good fight and winning.

Like a fool I bought into that and my only thoughts around Mum’s situation were how it affected me and my chance to win sympathy from cute girls. Call it mental self-preservation. Call it egotistical. However you label it I’d built this fantasy world where I extracted the only silver-lining I could find.

That day though, it finally clicked. It’s probably not the whole story if I just say that I thought that Mum could die. It’s truer to say that at that point I realised that it was likely that Mum was being taken from us. The cancer had metastasised. She was spending large amounts of time in hospital and when I really looked at her it was obvious that she was wasting away, losing the fight. She had scant months to go and she had given everything.

It’s easy to believe in the modern day medical miracle – This concept that if they fight hard enough then we have the capability to save anyone. Later in the 90s Lance Armstrong beat testicular cancer having been given at 1 point a less than 40% chance of survival. Lance fought hard and won. Sometimes though people can fight hard and lose. My mum was in that category and she’s not been alone.

Jim Stynes was an Irishman who took a giant leap of faith 1 time and chose to travel the 17,000km from home to play Australian rules football. The lanky 20 year old had excelled at Gaelic football, a game with some similarities to the Australian 1 and with his natural height and a willing attitude he answered a 1984 advert in a local Dublin newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. He was to become the 1st import in what came to be known as ‘The Irish Experiment’.

Stynes struggled at 1st – A Gaelic football is round, like a soccer ball, whereas an Australian rules football is oval, like a rugby ball or an American football. In our game the main methods of disposal are via kicking or a handball. Both are difficult to master.

And we require exponents to bounce the ball – The oval ball. Try that yourself and you’ll find it’s intentionally cruel but rewarding when you get it right.

Jimmy persevered with the strangely-shaped ball and in 1987 made his debut at the top level of Australian football. He had matured into a more than competent ruckman and in 1988 he helped Melbourne to a Grand Final. Although they lost – They were thumped off the park in truth – Stynes was a stand-out.

See, sometimes people can fight hard and lose.

It takes a rare kind of player to be mentioned in dispatches for a losing side – That’s the kind of quality that will get you in the running for the Brownlow Medal, awarded to the AFL’s best and fairest. Sure enough, Jim Stynes went on to snare that award, triumphing in 1991. He is 1 of few ruckmen to win the Brownlow and is the only overseas player to have achieved the honour.

1 other stat better marks the man though – Jim Stynes didn’t miss games. Australian football is a full-contact sport with little in the way of padding. In addition it’s played at a ferocious speed, with running, jumping, twisting and turning constants throughout. There are few pauses in each game and those that stop to catch a breath can be found out to their team’s detriment.

Jimmy rocked up and rode all of that punishment week in, week out. In 1993 he suffered a compound rib fracture and 6 weeks out was the learned medical prognosis. Stuff that thought Jim and he somehow convinced his club to let him play the following Friday with a protective vest the only insurance. He made the All-Australian team that year. The next year, 1994, he had a medial ligament tear. It made no difference though as he just kept turning up on game-day to play.

In fact he managed to go through to 1998, recording a Herculean 244 consecutive games for Melbourne at the highest level of the sport across 11 years. It’s still a league record. His 264 games in total for Melbourne puts him 2nd on their all-time list.

And when he was done playing he still had more to give to his adopted country and sport, taking on the role of an anti-racism ambassador for the AFL. In addition he focused on youth work via his group, the Reach Foundation. Twice he was honoured as the Victorian of the year.

Through all that though he couldn’t turn his back on his beloved Dees and in 2008 he assumed the presidency of the then struggling Melbourne Football Club. The Demons needed a strong figure, someone to lead them to safety and in Stynes they got just that.

The big man stabilised a club on the verge of extinction, bringing them out of debt and providing a platform that would allow his son and even his grand-kids to watch his Melbourne Football Club play in the future. Maybe even have 3 generations of Stynes at the MCG 1 day to cheer on the Demons.

Unfortunately Big Jim got sick.

In 2009 he was diagnosed with cancer. It had started in his back and spread to his brain. The prognosis wasn’t good but much like he had with the broken rib the big Irishman played on. Several times he was given a short lease on life, told that he had months and even weeks to live. Across the next 3 years he had 20 or so operations, with tumours removed from his brain and stomach. Each time rumours of his impending death were foretold he’d appear in public, laughing at the suggestion. To a casual observer it began to look like he was unstoppable – That modern medicine plus an indomitable spirit would carry him through.

Sometimes though people can fight hard and lose and this morning Jim Stynes lost his fight, passing away surrounded by his family and friends. He had made it to watch the Demons play in a 2012 pre-season hit-out and he had been there for his son’s 7th birthday.

Vale James ‘Jim’ Stynes (1966 – 2012).

That was a good fight mate.

My Missionaries In A Foreign Field

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