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So, it?s August 2006 and I?m contemplating another September without the red, white and blues. I?m disappointed, but philosophical, surviving on the scraps of promise littering our late-season performances, hinting at a better 2007. But, it is not the Roosters I think about now, rather it?s the Eels and more specifically, a family of Eels, who pervade my thoughts.
While September will bring its usual cacophony of cheers and elation, tears and despair played out between eight teams, for this family September brings heart pounding grief and remembrance and the hope that rides on the blue and gold backs of seventeen young men.
You see, last September this Eels? family lost one of its members in the prime of his life, having only had a meagre thirty years of this life. He was my best friend?s husband. His name was Craig.
My friend and I shared much of our lives, our joys and hurts over the years, but had maintained this friendship largely via telephone as her she worked the erratic and unfriendly hours of the hospitality industry, while I worked the standard nine-to-five. This is how I got to know Craig, through mistimed phone calls.
I believe that football is the greatest bridge upon which to build friendship with a stranger - that spark of recognition of a fellow die-hard; that fire in the larynx when debate flairs over Origin selections, or the latest controversy.
What I learnt about Craig from early conversations was that he was smart and that, coupled with being a huge smart arse, made him an always interesting, and often infuriating conversationalist, whose barbs forced you on your toes once the usual pleasantries had been paid homage to and footy talk commenced.
After his death, my friend admitted to me, as if it were a sacred and secretly held truth, that Craig had really not liked the Roosters. I laughed at this, for one thing Craig never was, was complicite. But full credit to him, he was never blatant. He just simply wasn?t interested in hearing about them, thank you very much! He would allow me perhaps five minutes of ?rooster-talk?, before he would launch into ?Eel-speak?, segueing into his rhetoric as subtly as an Adrian Morley high shot!
When I visited, Craig would remonstrate with his eldest daughter not to tease and taunt the guest with jibes about the Roosters, or to tone down the innocently obnoxious heralding of another Eels? victory that can only come from the mouth of a six year old, untouched by years of hope fallen short. But this tempering of a young spirit was only a loose gesture towards social etiquette on his part, as once the conversation got louder, probably to be heard over the clink of ice, niceties were all but set aside.
Visits after an Eels loss were the most interesting, as I would be greeted at the door by the six year old making such an announcement like, ?Daddy broke the clock.? Even if I didn?t watch all the games, at that point I would know the fortune of the Parramatta side, along with the latest offensive inanimate object within Craig?s reach. Jerseys were flung onto the road, one was even burnt after the great debacle of 1998 against the Bulldogs.
Craig lived and breathed his club, bound in a cycle of love and hate, familiar I would dare so to most Eels? supporters. The morning of his death he grinned through tubes that protruded from his nose and mouth when he heard that Nathan Hindmarsh would be returning from injury to play in that weekend?s final. As it turned out, Hindmarsh didn?t play, but it was a small solace that put a smile on the face of a man who by this time realised he would not be there to watch the game, nor any game thereafter.
Now I live with my friend?s brother, close to their parents. I celebrate with the family all special occasions and I cry with them when the anniversaries of a shared life come and go without him. On the brink of this dreaded month I hope with every fibre of my being that the Eels can come through and give this beloved family some happiness, long deserved and overdue. And maybe, just maybe, Craig may have some conception of his long hoped for, but never witnessed, Parramatta grand final victory.
R.I.P Craig Bennett. Husband. Father. Son. Eels Supporter.