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On a sunny winter day in 1966, I went with my father to Cumberland Oval. Parramatta pitted against the might of St George. My dad said, "There`s Ken Thornett", and "that`s Reg Gasnier". Pointed out other players. They all looked like giants to me. Explained bits and pieces of the game. I was mesmerised.
When we got home, he had another fight with my mother. The police were called again. But a skinny kid with asthma was hatching a plan.
At school, I filled my pockets with stones, to make the weight for the four-stone seven`s league team. If I could just be like Ken Thornett....
I read 'Johnny Raper`s Guide to Rugby League' and studied all the diagrams and photographs. My parents bought me a real leather football, with Ken Thornett`s autograph on it. I slept with it for months; held it to my face and breathed in the smell of new leather; hardly had it out of my hands. When I got my first pair of football boots - with real metal studs - I clicked and clacked on the pavement all day and felt like a giant too. Nothing could hurt me when I had those boots on.
In 1969, I started high school. My relationship with my father had deteriorated. We could not connect anymore, except through the occasional: "I think Sulkowicks is out today. Leg injury. By the way, have you got any homework?" Rugby League - and, in particular, the Parramatta team - was to become our only connection. I thought he hated me. He thought I hated him.
I played in the school 'B' team. Not a champion, but I was accepted as one of the school`s warriors. The confidence that had been sucked out of me at home came roaring back on the footy field. A skinny kid with asthma could tackle giants!
I went to Cumberland Oval with my younger brothers now, and my dad drifted into the background. It was the three of us standing on the hill, like three tall trees, cheering for the Parramatta team in the winter sun.
I left home in 1975 and made my way in the world. My father and I became virtual strangers then. When I rang the house, it was: "Did you see the game on Saturday? Yeah. Good, eh? Yeah, they were good; is mum there?" Otherwise we might not have spoken at all.
Then, in 1981, something happened. Caught up in the euphoria of an unprecedented year, we sat around the television in the house in Parramatta - my father, two brothers and I - and watched the unbelievable. The Parramatta team in the Grand Final. Playing well in the grand final. Struggling in the grand final. Punch-drunk in the grand final. No! Fighting back! Turning it around! WINNING the grand final! And unbelievable, too, because it was the four of us in the same room, cheering, groaning, exalting together! Even my mother joined in. We hadn`t had a family moment like that since...... well, for a long time.
In 1982, my youngest brother died. Drowned. Caught in a rip. The family was at first thrown together in grief - caught in a rip of its own - but then, ultimately, thrown scattered out the other end. My remaining brother went to Queensland; I went to Newtown; my parents clung to each other in the little house in Parramatta. Life was tough.
But, again, we re-grouped in the lounge room of that house in Parramatta for the 1983 Grand Final. And although Phil wasn`t there, and although that was a great loss, we all assumed, I think, that he was cheering along with us. Somewhere.
And now they`re all dead. My two brothers and my father. A heart attack, a drowning and a kidney disease.
And so I watch the game alone.
But not alone - because every time I see our blue and gold giants stride onto the fresh-cut turf, and I smell the leather and the liniment; and when I hear the sound of jarring tackles carried on the breeze; and every time I hear the shouts and cheers, I hear my father and my brother and my brother shouting too.
And I sit again in the little house in Parramatta. And I stand again on the hill. And I see a little boy with pockets full of stones; and I hear my father say, "Look, there`s Ken Thornett!"
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