A present from Grandpa
Our 11-year-old son, Jack, runs through the Hawthorn banner with his heroes
Jack isn’t an easy kid to buy presents for. He has cerebral palsy that affects all four limbs, which means bats, balls, boots and pads are out. He has cortical vision impairment that makes it difficult to see and scan text, so no books or comics. He’s scared of movies, even kids movies, because he has a sensory processing disorder, and movie soundtrack music freaks him out. He doesn’t like soft toys. He can’t hold or manipulate a game controller. He’ll play memory and trivia games for a bit, then lose interest. He spends much of his home life watching live music gigs on YouTube, and talking about whether we should go and see his favourite bands live, which we should, except when it comes down to it, he’s scared they’ll be too loud.
His other obsessions are Paddington Bear, Ben Whishaw, Jack Black, Tenacious D (yes I know, bad parenting) and the Hawthorn Football Club. He follows footy in his own idiosyncratic way. Sirens are loud, and he doesn’t like sudden loud noises, so he’ll watch old games that he knows the result of at the edge of our living room, while I watch the live match on TV. We do go to the MCG together, but only if Jack is reassured that we have his noise cancelling ear muffs, and that we’ll warn him when the siren is less than two minutes away. The most memorable game Jack ever attended was one with his sister and grandpa where he sat next to the booth containing the man who blew the siren. Sure, the Tigers pumped us by four goals, but Jack came home buzzing. ‘Dad. He sits in a room. He presses a button.’
Jack has his Hawthorn heroes. When he was four, he went through a phase of calling himself Cyril Rioli. ‘Is Cyril’s gran coming over tomorrow?’ and ‘does Cyril have kinder tomorrow?’. Years ago, I made a little video about young Jack’s love for Cyril, and after quite a bit of organising, Jack finally met Cyril after training one night. Cyril was lovely, he’d been told how much he meant to Jack. When I gave Jack the obvious videoed set up, ‘who’s your favourite player, Jack?’, he didn’t hesitate — ‘Paul Puopolo’.
Nowadays, he’s obsessed with Luke Breust (“Breeeeeuuuuuust!’), and 'my man Jai Newcombe’. Jack has been saying ‘my man Jai Newcombe’ since August 2021, which is well before the rest of the footballing commentariat caught on, so it’s not impossible that in that corner of the room, watching old replays, he’s some sort of talent-spotting genius.
For his eleventh birthday present, his grandpa Ray thought of a lovely idea. Maybe we could get Jack into the Hawthorn rooms? We visited often in my childhood. Grandpa Ray (Wilson) played 105 games for the club between 1966 and 1972, won a best and fairest, became a life member after serving as a development squad coach in the seventies and eighties. In those days, the doorman at Princes Park or the MCG treated Dad like the good looking girl in the nightclub queue. We were just ushered straight in. Nowadays, it’s trickier. In covid times, impossible.
But Hawthorn came back with an amazing alternative. Would Jack like to be the junior mascot for the Collingwood game? ‘We’ll make it a special day for him’, Kerrie promised. ‘Do I have to dress up as Hawka?’ Jack asked, panicked. He doesn’t like having his head covered, even by a hoodie. A giant styrofoam beak wasn’t going to work.
We reassured him that junior mascots weren’t the actual mascots, they were lucky kids given the chance to run (or roll) through the banner with the team, and he’d be pushed by the player of his choice. Jack asked all the questions I expected he’d ask. ‘Will it be loud?’ I explained that the sirens and the team songs were probably quieter out in the middle, because he’d be further from the speakers. ‘What is a banner made out of?’ I told an ancient story of tissue paper and cheer squads. ‘Will you be there with me?’ No, it was going to be grandpa. There’s truth in the old adage, ‘marketing departments prefer premiership players’.
Ten days out from the event, Jack was buoyant. He rang friends, cousins, aides, and especially grandpa, and everyone was treated to an in-depth preview. He chose 250-game milestone man Luke Breust to be his running mate, but asked repeatedly if he’d meet ‘my man Jai Newcombe’. We bought tickets for the whole family, then the extended family. Grandpa booked an East Melbourne restaurant for a post-game birthday dinner. As they day crept closer I looked at the forecast. Twelve degrees and horizontal rain. Jack hates rain — is terrified of thunder.
We waited all week for the anxiety to strike, (we also waited for covid to strike), grimly aware that for Jack, jubilant anticipation and dread reality live side by side. But to my surprise, he didn’t waver, at least not to me. We had many long conversations about where the speakers were positioned at the MCG, (‘in the roof, quite high up, a long way from the banners’) and Jack seemed to be placated. It was only when he was being tucked in by his mum the night before that he gave anything away.
‘Mum, I’m really sorry, but I think I might be a bit nervous when I go through the banner tomorrow.’
It turned out Ticketek didn’t send me the e-tickets. I want to reassure you that this cheap, loaded lead sentence is somewhat of a red herring. We all got into the ground, and good and efficient people ushered me to more good and efficient people who printed out an extended family worth of missing barcodes. But meanwhile, Jack and Dad disappeared into a lift that would take them down to the player tunnels while I was still in the ticketing office. So I didn’t get to wish him luck. And I didn’t get to brief Dad on what to do if Jack started to distress.
When Jack entered the arena, he was anything but distressed. I’d later discover that he’d met the senior mascots, the ones who do wear giant styrofoam beaks, and had his photo taken with them. He’d also been dressed in a new #22 Luke Breust footy jumper by Claire and Kerrie and the rest of Jack’s Hawthorn handlers for the event. For nearly a minute Jack hovered on the precipice between race and arena, waiting for an MCC attendant to place a ramp. Finally, all was in readiness, and my seventy-seven year old father pushed his eleven year old grandson onto sacred ground, the same ground he ran onto 51 years ago in front of 118,192 screaming fans.
There were fewer screaming fans this day, although still plenty enough, and they were led by the mob of cheering Wilsons overhanging the tunnel. A security man spotted we were highly invested in the fortunes of the small boy in the lime green wheelchair, and pointed to the gate. ‘Do you want to come out on the ground to watch?’
Suddenly, the gate was open, and Wilsons were pouring through it. For a moment it seemed we might charge at the banner ourselves, but we eventually took a restrained position at the back end of the Breust-Shiels guard of honour. Thirty metres away, Jack and grandpa Ray were posing for photos with Nick Riewoldt. He was clearly having a ball. So was his grandson. When the Magpies ran onto the arena, I’m no lipreader, but Jack seemed to be yelling ‘boo Collingwood’, and flinging his body against the back of his chair in excitement. He wasn’t even wearing his ear muffs! He was cresting a wave.
We’d known for nearly a week that Luke Breust was going through his milestone banner with his nieces, and that it would actually be Dylan Moore who would accompany Jack. The Fable Singers struck up that Yankee Doodle toot, the Hawks players flowed from the tunnel — ridiculously young, and muscled and athletic at this close range —and a gang of them made their way over to their junior mascot. Luke Breust was indeed hand in hand with nieces, but stopped to talk to Jack, while grandpa took photos. Then someone arrived with a footy. It was none other than ‘my man Jai Newcombe’ and he gave Jack a kicked-in, full sized Sherrin, that wasn’t really part of the junior mascot deal, and was really meant for the team warm up. We now know Newcombe brought his own ball for that game. But he also gave one away.
Finally, Breust and Shiels were in position, two twenty first century greats celebrating their own special day, and Dylan Moore had Jack on the runway too.
Then they took off. It’s fair to say AFL banner expeditions in 2022 are not the tissue paper catastrophes of my childhood, when the players crashed and bashed through metres of sticky tape, and spelling and misplaced apostrophes rode roughshod. The players brushed through the base of the banner, the milestone men leading, and Dylan Moore steering the Jack Wilson party caboose.
‘Woooohoooo! Go Jack!’ Along the line, our phones were raised, as is the modern way.
The Wilsons in the guard of honour were getting emotional. Tam wiped away tears. ‘I had no idea it was going to be like that.’ Jack’s sister Polly had choked up too. ‘Well that was very quick, and very worth it.’ Grandpa Ray retrieved Jack, and we made our way back to the gate and the big-hearted security man.
The rain held off throughout.
He watched the game from a wheelchair space in level four, Q45, with family fanning into adjoining rows. I’d tried to get the seats next to siren man again, but just couldn’t swing it. Jack held court, summoning cousins, bestowing on them the honour of sitting next to Hawthorn’s junior mascot. Friends who were at the ground sent videos and photos. Whattsapp groups pinged with footage filmed from the TV. Jai Newcombe’s Sherrin never left his wheelchair tray. We indulged in the donuts, the hot chocolates and the overpriced chips. A sporting drama unfolded in sleeting rain, and it had a thrilling, down-to-the-wire finish. Jack flinched as he always does when the final siren blew. Collingwood won by four points.
We were the happiest losers in the place. Jack issued one last ‘booo Collingwood’ in the crowded lift that took us down to ground level. Some Magpies laughed, winners being grinners and all that. ‘Did I see you on the ground before the game, mate?’ one asked. Jack flushed, and didn’t answer. The celebrity beam was getting a little hot.
His grandpa wheeled him to the restaurant, leaving the stadium together, as they’d entered it. I walked with Polly, who’d sat next to Jack for most of the day. ‘Do you know what he said to me in the last quarter?’ she offered. ‘He said, “actually, this is the best day of my life”.
Thank you Hawthorn and thank you Dad. Actually, it was one of the best days of mine.
Here is the scoreboard video of Jack’s banner moment.
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