Jimmy Stynes always said that, outside his family, it was his exposure as a teenager to Irish traditional culture and the philosophy of outdoor education that shaped his life.
What does that mean when expressed in the colloquial language of sport through which most Australians converse? It means, for example, in relation to a recently retired AFLplayer at a loss to know what to do with himself, that Jimmy remarked the player hadn’t “put a value on his life”. Jimmy put a value on his life and he lived that value to the end.
This relates to those old Irish notions of honour and the hero. Jimmy was a hero. He upheld a way of living that many others could relate to at a deep level. This is not to say he wasn’t human.
Not all who played with him at Melbourne loved him back then. Some saw him as self-absorbed. He just saw himself as doing whatever it takes. That’s the title of his 1996 autobiography — Whatever It Takes.
There was an inescapable largeness about Jimmy’s life.
When he ran across the mark in the 1987 preliminary final, he cost Melbourne, the most historic club in the game, its first grand final appearance in two decades. There is a famous photo of coach John Northey glaring at Jimmy as he returns to the rooms, head down, a look of shame on his young face. He ended up fleeing the country.
On the Metro in Paris, a man asked: “Aren’t you the bloke who ran across the mark in the preliminary final?” and Jimmy knew he couldn’t escape what had happened. Four years later, he was standing at the peak of personal glory in the sport, winning the Brownlow Medal. Whether he wished it or not, his story kept bumping into history.
It was as if his path was not for his choosing and he was destined to be famous. By the end, I reckon Jimmy also knew his destiny meant living a public life and, with that, having a public death.
That’s why so many people are moved. So many people knew Jimmy Stynes or had shared some element of his epic fate — they’re migrants, they’ve had cancer or know someone who has, they played footy or saw him play.
When those Irish eyes were smiling on people, those people tended to donate money. It’s how Jimmy funded his charity, Reach, and how he resuscitated Melbourne, the oldest football club of its type in the world and one traditionally associated with the Anglo-Australian establishment.
That such a club should be saved by an Irish immigrant whose Uncle Joe fought alongside Michael Collins in the IRA against the British is irony on a grand historical scale. I once wrote that Jimmy was attempting to re-create the club as an old Irish clan. He liked that.
My most vivid memories of Jimmy are from his visit to the remote Aboriginal community of Yuendumu in 2010.
Jimmy had promised one of his players, Liam Jurrah, he would go. Notwithstanding his cancer, he kept his word. Yuendumu had some unity as a community at the time. Jurrah was the young man who had achieved the impossible dream, making it in the AFL. Now he had returned with a legend of the game and for an hour or two after they had arrived it seemed that I stood in a different Australia, one truly built on mutual respect and dignity for all. The air shone with hope.
But the Warlpiri people could also see how sick Jimmy was. One old man said to me: ‘We feel for him Aboriginal way.”
Your story’s out there in the desert now, Jimmy, just like it’s back in Ireland, where you become ever better known, just like your story’s here, in the 154-year-old club you saved, in the game in which you were a champion, in the people who knew you, not through football, but as an outstanding citizen.
Your story’s bigger than you, Jimmy, but that was always going to happen.
* This article first appeared in The Melbourne Age