Life Support

by Daniel Anthony

My secret shame started with a jersey.

It’s not something that is spoken about openly, or much at all, these days. A dark, nearly forgotten past that is best left undisturbed. And it all started with that blasted jersey.

I don’t actually remember receiving it as a gift at all – I was only 5 at the time.

But I remember the jersey.  I remember the faded but vibrant colours, I remember the proud, defiant emblem.

I remember the name on the back – “City Ford”. Odd name, I thought. Of course, Dad used to read me a story at night sometimes detailing the hitchhiking exploits of an alien called Ford Prefect, so maybe it wasn’t so strange.

It was just always there, or so it feels like, a permanent fixture in all my childhood memories. It sometimes hung in my wardrobe, far more often was piled on the floor, covered in dirt and grass and mud stains after kick-arounds.
Thanks to that blasted Jersey, I was an Easte
rn Suburbs supporter, to the abject horror of my father.

Let’s rewind a bit for some historical context – it was 1990, and dad had just signed me up to play for the nearest thing to a local club we had, St Pat’s. (Later, our fledgling local school would found their own club, the mighty Menai Colts, with whom I’d see out the rest of my less-than-glorious playing career).

Suddenly my afternoons and weekends transformed from orbiting around my dusty old Atari 2600, to being spent outside, perpetually chasing my brother around, only occasionally succeeding in catching him, but always succeeding in getting dirty.

My mother, tired of good shirts being ripped and torn, insisted I get a jersey to muck around in.

And then, as if by fate, our friendly neighbours appear out of nowhere (or so the legend goes)

They came bearing gifts, and offered a bag of second hand clothes their young son had grown out of.

Would young Daniel like these? He’s more than welcome. No, it’s our pleasure. Oh, and look, it’s Shane’s old Roosters jersey. It doesn’t fit Shane anymore, but it suits Daniel perfectly! How wonderful! Now you have something to play in Daniel!

Insidious, wasn’t it? I was poached before I even knew what I was being poached from. I had no say in the matter.

My father must have seethed. We were a Dragons family. Proud Carlton stock, he grew up within walking distance of Kogarah oval, and lived through the glory years of the 60’s and 70’s, cutting his rugby league teeth on premiership after premiership.

And then, suddenly, his boy as wearing a Roosters strip. The Roosters! The memories of September 1975 and Graeme Langland’s uselessly numbed leg still burned for him, his darkest hour. And every afternoon kick-around was now a reminder.

The dye cast, my youth was spent proudly following Eastern Suburbs, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me. Completely ingrained and without question, a truism as natural as breathing.

Dad, bless him, soldiered on, taking me to the occasional game, trying his best to pretend to be interested and invested, for my sake. What a guy. Truth be told, more often than not it was me being dragged, reluctantly, to St. George games, and not the other way around.

As for the inevitable intra-family clashes, when the Dragons and Roosters met on the field, they were particularly tense affairs. How I used to dread those games… There was no joy to be had in victory, as any celebration would see dad silently sulking and my loyalist older brother fuming. On more than one occasion, words were not spoken between us for days afterwards.

And so on I followed, not knowing any other way. While my brother would declare himself to be Ricky Walford or Mick Potter during afternoon kick-arounds, it would be names like Kurt Sherlock, Craig Salvatori or Gary Freeman I would childishly seek to emulate. Defeat, and overly-harsh brotherly jeering, would usually soon follow. And I needed no reminding of the pecking order in 1992 and 1993, with the Dragons making back to back grand-finals, while the Roosters missed out on September footy both years running. It was clearly communicated via sullen and angry faces in the disastrous aftermath of both deciders that NO banter would be brooked or tolerated.

Blood always tells, though. I’m not sure when it started taking hold, but it happened, inch by inch, by sheer force of proximity if nothing else.

By high school, the Dragons had evolved from just my father and brother’s team, into my second team, and a firmly and passionately supported one at that. There was no one tipping point, just a gradual, but inevitable progression.

Finally, after years of distance, the 3 of us could truly go to games together, and cheer or mourn as one. Sunday afternoons were now spent in unity, an unbreakable bond between two generations forged and strengthened. My brother and I, no longer at warwould ridevery tackle together and urge on every scrum, while my father proudly imparted years of history and memories in between hit ups and kick-offs.

When St. George knocked off Sydney City (as they were then known) in the 1996 Semi-finals, I don’t remember any sorrow, just unbridled joy that the Dragons were one win away from the big dance. When Geoff Toovey led his Eagles to grand final dominance a fortnight later, I almost wanted to cry.

With each passing season, my support for the tri-colours diminished, bit by bit, while my blossoming love for the Red V only went from strength to strength. I started avoiding discussions about clubs with school friends, the easier to hide my shame… For there was no pride in the admission that I belong to two tribes, a supporter divided against himself. It would not stand in polite conversation – One might as well tell people you worship two different gods, so sacrosanct was the concept. What remained of my allegiance to the Chooks was hidden away, almost like a dirty secret. Roosters games were watched by myself in my room, cold and sterile events entirely devoid of the warmth to be had cheering on the Saints with my family.

It took a few more years until my head finally caught up with my heart. I blame my sense of sentimentality: It was hard to let go of all those youthful memories. But the penny finally dropped sometime in the 2002 NRL season. The Roosters emerged from the chaotic saga of the Bulldogs salary cap scandal triumphant, and claimed the Premiership for the first time in 27 years, and amid the joyful scenes and celebrations I felt… Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This was ostensibly the first Premiership of my lifetime, so why was I so disconnection for the euphoria and joy, I wondered?

Because my heart was still heavy from a fortnight prior, when the Dragons had been eliminated in a 40-24 drubbing at the hands of Cronulla, my most hated of foes.

Soberly, I realized, it was time to stop pretending I had any connection left to the Roosters. My blood was red and white, as it always should have been.

Perhaps unfairly, in the years that followed, I started to take particular joy in watching the Dragons slay the Roosters, above and beyond the norm. The traditional ANZAC day clash became one of my most anticipated fixtures, and I savored every victory, taking extra delight in watching Bondi’s sons slumping to defeat; Perhaps it was a way of sending a message to the myself of yesterday, ashamed of my past and reviling in my present. Or perhaps on some subconscious level I was worried I had some deeper allegiance to prove, and atoning those past sins drove me to cheer louder, boo more scornfully, and wear the red V as proudly as possible.

There was no hint of sympathy for the Roosters in those losses, all muscle memory of my youthful support for them long since evaporated away. They were as alien and foreign to me as any other tribe that stood between my Dragons and victory. I had to try very hard to recall what it was like to look on them as my own, in the very few times I thought about it. More often, I did not. It was almost as if another child had supporting that team. It certainly didn’t feel like it had been me.

It was poetically fitting  when, in 2010, the Dragons finally broke their own drought, and claimed their first Premiership in 31 years, it was against the Roosters. It couldn’t have been anyone else. I was there, of course, with my father and brother, near hysterical with unbridled joy, endorphins practically dripping out of my ears, a grin so wide it hurt, plastered all over my face, my throat scraped red and roar and reduced to the huskiest of croaks from screaming all night.

I had only had one team, as it always should have been. At no point in my journey there and back again did I ever make a conscious choice, at no point did I make any decision based on calculated logic or preference.  I was led astray, and found my way home, guided by instinct, family and emotion.

Blood always tells.