The sun is setting on a glorious Canberra day. My mates and I are standing around the Mal Meninga lounge knocking back a few beers, trying to put off our inevitable separation, where we all disappear back to the beginning of another working week, not seeing each other until next weekend.
There are several others standing around waiting to meet the players after yet another Raiders loss. Others wait for the post match talk from coach Elliot and captain Schifcofske. Others are just wandering around, for reasons, probably no less valid than ours.
My mate points out Greg Alexander, who is standing around looking for someone, after his call of the game. Brandy leaves, then Laurie Daley emerges from behind a door. A young man, covered head to toe in Raiders paraphernalia bails Lozza up, and has him sign just about everything he is wearing.
Phil Graham emerges from a corridor and instantly another young man rushes over, pen in hand, all excited, despite the fact his team got thumped on the scoreboard. Chris Kahler saunters over to Graham and gives the kid a signature as well.
My mate gives me an elbow in the ribs and notions his head over to the autograph hunter, ?Have a go at that. Back in high school those blokes wouldn?t have given that kid the time of day, now they?re the only people that come to support ?em.? I looked again at the kid. He has some sort of mental handicap. I looked back to Daley, the other kid still has Loz bailed up and is now pulling stuff out of his Raiders backpack for him to sign; he is handicapped as well.
I ignore the conversation my mates are engaged in and scour the entire Meninga Lounge. There are quite a lot of people with some sort of affliction or another, all coated in that familiar sickly lime green colour ? as the first guy was ? head to toe. And they are all excited, parents and minders assuring them; the Raiders will be here soon. To those young people, who had long since discovered the truth about Santa, are still reliving that same anticipation, every week or so, after the game.
My mate didn?t mean Phil Graham, specifically, in his youth, taunted the ?slower? kids at school, but he did mention a few boys I used to play along side, who had made representative teams. They were the ones who would pick on the ?nerdy? kids, and if the mood so suited, the kids in ?I.M.?
At our school, there was one boy in I.M. (Inter-Mediate class), Mitch, who is the biggest Manly fan I?ve met, would forever be wearing his Sea-Eagles cap and on non-uniform days, without fail, he?d have on a Sea-Eagles t-shirt or jersey. But because of his particular disability there?d always be big drool stains down the front of his chest. I used to mess with him a bit, but in a friendly way, ?Hey Mitch, you reckon the Steelers are gonna win this week?? ?Who they playing,? Mitch would question with his slurred speech. ?The Eagles.? ?Noooooo!? He?d boom, his face alight with a big grin, ?Cliffy is gonna beat ?em.?
And he believed it, regardless of whom the Eagles were playing. Mitch unquestioningly thought the Eagles would win every game. And that his hero, Cliff Lyons, would be solely responsible for the teams? victory.
The handicap bashing at school isn?t a one-off occurrence either. Several of my friends have reaffirmed the stereotypical ?jocks,? at their schools, which were the local footy heroes and how they?d pick on the ?spastic? kids.
It is a real shame that growing up, those young football stars can?t see that those who they pick on, are those who become their biggest and loyalist supporters. More one-eyed than the drunken louts on the hill, fans like Mitch, and those autograph hounds at the Raiders game, are continually optimistic through good times and bad.
Hopefully, players like the Raiders who struggle to attract crowds, really appreciate the part that the handicapped play in the support of their club. And, should they have been amongst those who taunted the handicapped at school, be deeply remorseful.
These guys are the true ?die-hards.? They?re the ones who turn up week after week to watch their team run around. And regardless of the result, will be there again next week. Never criticising, persistently cheering, often in incoherent babble, but constantly supporting their team