Big Jim proving a true hero’s heart still beats true

WHAT’s the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.

That, possibly, summed up my ill-informed and indifferent attitude to the AFL Grand Final between St Kilda and Collingwood last weekend as I lay, blank-faced and in my Coco-Pop-stained SuperTed pyjamas on the couch watching the biggest game in the Aussie Rules calendar. Though I may have started watching out of stubbornness (I’ll get the value out of this Sky subscription yet!) and continued to follow the game due to a heady mixture of laziness and ill-health (man flu and a hangover), I completely lucked out.

What unfolded vividly and loudly on my screen was a gripping finale to the long season Down Under which eventually saw the two Melbourne clubs – playing in the famous MCG, of course – finish with 68 points each at the final siren.

Sleeveless antipodean men lay prostrate and spent throughout the oval. The two deflated captains, shaking their heads vacantly, wandered slowly towards the field’s centre where they were cruelly interrogated like shocked road traffic accident survivors at the scene as cars fireballed over their shoulders.

A crowd of 100,016 emotional Victorians looked completely freaked out by the first draw since 1977, as if the sport could not compute and the Australian admirable, hard-wired need for a result – one way or the other – was short-circuiting. Please, reader, watch the replay tomorrow if you can. The first game, at least, was poetry.

In the same city and at the same time, Jim Stynes continued his own battle towards another personal victory – and it’s a stalemate there too at the moment.

Stynes of course is a legend in Melbourne. I once picked his autobiography Whatever It Takes off a bookshelf in Sydney, cracked it open and was amazed at the unfamiliar Aussie story written in an Irish accent.

Shipped off to Oz as part of the grandly-named ‘Irish Experiment’ – when Ricky Nixon was but in short talent-scout trousers – the rangy Ballyboden St Enda’s man became both the scheme’s pioneer and its greatest success. Garry Lyon – a Demons star at the time – this week wrote in The Age newspaper about the pasty Dublin specimen that shouldered open the locker room door in a pair of O’Neill’s shorts all those years ago.

“To have a tall, skinny, pale Irishman walk into the change rooms at Melbourne Football Club and be encouraged to embrace the concept of him becoming an AFL footballer was asking a hell of a lot,” he wrote.

“He couldn’t kick, he had no understanding of the most fundamental elements of the game, and for the best part of a year, I was pretty sure he didn’t speak English.”

Yes, Garry, to paraphrase, George Bernard Shaw: we are two nations divided by a common language – but a common game too, I suppose. And from this low base, Stynes went on to become the best player in the game. Seriously; he was inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame and is the only soul from outside of Australia to win the prestigious Brownlow Medal.

Last Sunday night, 24 hours after the white heat of the Grand Final had cooled, Australia tuned into yet more emotional drama on TV: ‘Every Heart Beats True: The Jim Stynes Story’. Footie takes a back-seat in this chapter however.

In July, 2009, Stynes held an emotional press conference, which saw his unique Dub-Aussie lilt crack under the strain as he informed the public that he had developed cancer. Tests revealed that it had spread to other parts of his body, including his brain. By then, as president of his beloved Melbourne, Stynes was reinvigorating the struggling club. He intended to continue the process.

In April this year, it was revealed that his condition worsened and three days later he had surgery to remove tumours from his brain. The documentary is heartbreaking stuff. It’s hard to watch comfortably as a giant is, for now at least, laid low and vulnerable. Smiling through bandages as he’s fed into medical machinery, sporting metaphors are redundant. But he takes plenty of inspiration from the lessons he’s learnt from a life in the oval.

“I was probably addicted to anything exciting,” he shrugs, his head cleanly shaven, “then I took on the role as president of

Melbourne footie club. So I was getting a bit concerned that it was probably a bit... a bit too much of the ego.

“When faced with death, the ego just drops its barriers,” he adds later. But as well as the ready smile that won so many friends as he built a life half a world away, so too we’re treated to the Irish steel in his eyes – the grit that won that won him the Brownlow in 1991 – when he’s told of new cancerous spots.

Jim Stynes is no stranger to overcoming challenges. He usually picks pretty tough ones. Until last year, when one chose him.

And in rough week for Ireland – and yes, as more of her sons and daughters flood towards Australia and elsewhere – let’s remember the path Stynes beat.

Garry Lyon – once his most sceptical teammate in the Demons dressing room – was won over, and long before last Sunday’s film aired.

“This is an insight into a man who is indeed different. A man who makes me want to be a better person every time I talk to him. You will feel that way after seeing this documentary,” he wrote. “There has been much talk about heroes in recent times. Jim Stynes is the yardstick for heroes. There is none better.”

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