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Son of a Ports gun: Greg Growden's life as a bush footy player

Greg Growden believes sport -- such as this Australian Rules football match the Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League -- is among the :most important of social outlets" in rural Australia. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

We were city slickers stuck in the middle of nowhere. We wanted to make a good impression.

In my first year as a teenager, I was about to play my first game for my new home town's Aussie Rules footy team. We had just arrived from the big smoke to take up a rice farm in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. One day all I was concerned about was how to look ultra urban cool; the next how to chop off a tiger snake's head as it chased you across a rice paddy. You learn quick.

The bush telegraph had quickly twigged that a certain Kevin Growden, who had just bought Farm 116 Coleambally, had a rich football heritage and that his eldest son was apparently a pretty handy player himself. So they selected me sight unseen for an away game, about 140 kilometres to the east of our property. After my father, who had only been a fully-fledged farmer for a few weeks, had checked the water in the two rice paddocks, we left early on the Saturday morning for destination basically unknown. We didn't really know where we were going, and the name of the town didn't bob up on any old road map.

We were given a few clues. Turn right when you get to the highway just after the Morundah pub, head towards Jerilderie, go a little way down there and then go left, follow that for about 20 miles or so until you see this red letter box made out of a 44-gallon drum, go right there, and when you see this pub, not the first pub, but the second one with the Reschs sign on the side, do a bit of a backtrack to the left, then you'll see a silo and there's this bird with a big busted Hills Hoist and .... On and on and on. We somehow found the footy ground.

We made a bit of an impression when we arrived, because our car was something very foreign to these parts. The traditional travel vehicle was a dilapidated ute, which usually had about five or six kids sitting in the back along with an assortment of mongrel farm dogs. The footy gear was dumped in one corner.

We were instead in something out of an American Route 66 movie: my father's pride and joy; a 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air, which looked like the Batmobile. It was the ultimate lair's car.

Heads turned as we found a spare spot on the boundary fence, and several crusty old graziers even momentarily stopped manipulating their Drum rollies to ponder whether the Martians had just arrived.

They watched our every move as we got out of the car. Soon there was silence, except for this weird broooorrrrr broooorrrrr broooorrrr noise emanating from the front of our car.

A crowd gathered. Several farmers introduced themselves, even occasionally taking the smoke out of their mouth so you could actually understand a word or two. They all asked: "What's that noise?"

It was getting louder. BROOOORRRRR. BROOOORRRRR. BROOOORRRRR.

My father announced: "No idea. I'll lift up the bonnet."

The crowd headed towards the front of our car. Standing room only. Father opened the bonnet. A frazzled and slightly burnt chicken jumped out, screaming and clucking, hurtling its way across the football field. Soon several kids were chasing after the not-quite BBQ chook.

Gales of laughter from everyone except us. Mother put her head in her hands. "This is the most embarrassing moment of my life. What do they think of us? Complete idiots."

I felt sick. I jumped back in the car and tried to bury myself in between the front and back seat, underneath a blanket.

My father was dumbfounded. "The chicken must have got in there behind the battery before we left home. It's been sitting there for 100 miles. Unbelievable."

The mood changed. They weren't laughing at us, but with us. Backslaps all ways. We had been accepted. Then the footy club president who had almost laughed himself sick, introduced himself, offered his gargantuan right hand to all of us, and said: "Welcome to country life."

So began six magical years playing sport out in the bush: footy and rugby league in the winter; cricket in the summer. It made me. Vivid memories abound. The most poignant is of how sport is such a crucial instrument in keeping rural people sane, motivated, focused, believing.

"The bush footy club, cricket club, netball club, bowls club works better than any psychiatrist's couch or medication. It makes one feel wanted. There is a sense of belonging."

Greg Growden

Farming life is enriching but often so exasperating, so thankless. It can be a hard, lonely existence in which reliance on the elements often sends farmers around the twist.

Sport becomes the most important of social outlets; an opportunity to interact, have a day off from backbreaking work, yarn to other farmers, talk about their problems, help each other with solutions, and revel in a community environment. It's as crucial for the farmer's wives because it gets them away from the kitchen, the tractor, the chores and the endless demands of their partner. On a farm, work is never finished.

Frustrations are released by either chasing each other around a field, or yelling at those who are.

The bush footy club, cricket club, netball club, bowls club works better than any psychiatrist's couch or medication. It makes one feel wanted. There is a sense of belonging. For so many in the bush, the highlight of the week is the Saturday or Sunday footy or cricket match culminating in everyone - team and opponents - hanging around for a barbeque, dance back at the club, or even a simple get-together around a fire. So many dilemmas, personal crisises are solved on a Saturday or Sunday night. There you would natter about the crazy times. I was witness to many. Such as the merry times on the footy-netball bus, which would take us to the away games in the Coreen League, going to tiny towns or pub stops such as Urana, Daysdale, Rennie, Buraja, Oaklands and Boree Creek.

(Boree Creek - Tim Fischer territory - boasted the greatest postcard ever. In the town's ramshackle general store, you could buy a card where someone had taken a blurred photo of a windmill, and written in ballpoint pen across it: "Greetings from Boree Creek.")

"Someone's locked the umpire in the dressing room. He's been in there for hours."

On the footy-netball bus all us mischievous teenagers discovered the facts of life, especially if someone had smuggled a bottle of Blackberry Nip for the long trip home. There was no need for sex councilors to attend our little Coleambally Central School, which had 500 kids from kindergarten to Year 12. The netball bus put us on the right track.

There was also the time when a lot of us didn't bother taking the netball bus as we wanted to stay focused for the junior final we were playing that morning in Wahgunyah, on the other side of the NSW-Victoria border from Corowa. We instead went in several cars, which disrupted all the usual planning. It was only when we arrived at the ground for the 9.30am start, with the temperature a crisp 2C, that we remembered our footy jerseys were still on the netball bus, which was not due to arrive in Wahgunyah until a few hours later due to an engine malfunction. So out we went for the final, wearing just shorts, socks and boots. Playing topless on a winter Victorian morning is certainly bracing, especially when a Tommy Sherrin hits you smack bang in the middle of your unprotected guts. We lost.

Or the time I played in a representative under-19s match at centre-half-forward and my opponent - a vicious thug (and I'm being very, very kind) - ran onto the field, hand in hand with his two kids, who also had tattoos all over their bodies.

There was the time when my younger brother - who was renowned for being a bit of an enforcer - was accused of nefarious deeds.

The junior match, where he had a running battle with the umpire, and the main match had long finished, and we all around an enormous fire, enjoying the traditional after-game feast.

Suddenly came the call: "Someone's locked the umpire in the dressing room. He's been in there for hours."

My mother immediately screamed: "Craig."

Another time, Craig was among the suspects when an umpire went to his car only to discover his tyres had been let down.

No one ever owned up for either episode. But we had our suspicions.

And then there was the infamous time when my father made his footballing comeback after a two-decade gap at the ripe old age of 53.

Kevin Growden was a proud player for Port Adelaide Magpies, the mightiest of football clubs, playing 126 first-grade games during one of the club's most successful eras between 1945 and 1954. A gangly ruckman from the South Australian country town of Gladstone, he played with footballing royalty - including Fos Williams, Davey Boyd - and represented his state on numerous occasions. He loved talking about taking on the feared Vics at the MCG.

So for me, growing up in Adelaide until I was 13, meant transforming Alberton Oval into my second home. Kevin was a life member of Port Adelaide and the South Australian Football League, so he would get free tickets to the Ports game and I would be there for every home match, sitting at the back of the main grandstand.

My most vivid memory of that time?

My father introducing me to the legendary Geof Motley in the Ports dressing room after a game. Why so vivid? Well, Geof was in the nude, and his penis was about a foot away from my nose.

Kevin lived for footy. But he also wanted to be a farmer. He had worked on the wharves down the port, was a master welder and had been a truckie and a rodeo rider for a short time, but he loved nothing more than pottering around a 25-acre plot we had at Gawler on the weekends. When the chance came up in the early 1970s to make the dramatic move of heading interstate and becoming a rice farmer, he took it.

On Saturdays out in the scrub, he relished a day off watching the local Coleambally team. He would stay in the background, warding away several approaches to coach.

At that time I was doubling up - captaining the under-19 team as a ruckman and then playing in the seniors at centre half-forward. I loved playing in the juniors with all my schoolmates. I hated the seniors because it meant that a skinny 17-year-old would get bashed week in week out by some Neanderthal on weekend release. By the end of the day, I resembled a bloody and battered punching bag.

One afternoon, I had enough. The first two quarters had seen me stepped on, jumped on, and king hit a few times behind play. As the team headed to the dressing sheds for half-time, I put in a feeble protest. "I've done my knee. I can't walk. Haven't you got any reserves?"

My father was never sighted in the dressing room. But this day he was, standing near the urinal.

He came to where I was sitting.

"Give us your boots."

I thought he was just trying to help me pack up. I handed him my boots.

"Give us your jumper."

I did.

"Give us your shorts."

I did.

"Go and have a shower."

I did.

Five minutes later, I returned to see that my father was now wearing my gear.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm going to play."

These words led to a standing ovation and stamping of feet from all the other players and officials in the room.

"Don't be stupid. You're too old."

But I was drowned out by the other players.

"Don't listen to him. We need you Kev. Come on Kev. You've still got it. Show us the way, Kev."

He was now rubbing liniment on his legs.

He gave the team talk, and then led them out for the second half.

There was an explosion of noise when the locals saw who it was, as everyone around the ground in their cars on the boundary line began hooting their horns in unison.

Numerous people clambered out of their cars to get a closer look. I scurried to the half-forward flank, where our car was parked, hoping to get to my mother before she noticed what was going on. She was sitting in the front passenger seat, knitting.

Mother looked up and asked: "Why aren't you playing the second half?"

"Well, um."

She immediately twigged. "Oh no!"

She jumped out of the car, saw her husband in the middle of the field flexing a few saggy muscles, and yelled at the top of her voice: "Kevin. Get off the field."

He gave her a timid wave.

"Kevin. I repeat. Get off the field."

He turned his back, and prepared to take the centre-tap for the start of the third quarter. He won the tap, and then ran around for the next two quarters as if it were the 1950s and Alberton Oval was his dance floor.

He took several marks, kicked a goal, and then decided to show off. He hated how the modern game had made the drop kick redundant. So when having a spell at full-back, he decided to restart play with a drop kick. The only problem was that the goal square was thick sand and when he dropped the ball, it spilled off to the right. He missed the kick and his opponent picked up the stray ball to kick a goal. He pulled his head in after that.

The get-square was big.

The next day we were to start shearing on our property. Dad was supposed to be in charge of the shed, taking delight in all day telling several shearers and myself as a rouseabout what we had to do. Instead, he couldn't get out of bed for four days; he couldn't walk for a week. The shearing shed was a far happier place without him around, giving orders. Thank you country footy!