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Stynes a living breach of the rules


Jim StynesFor football followers, March is a month of beginnings and endings. The regular games of the soccer A-League season draw to a close. Both rugby codes and the AFL begin their premiershp seasons.

With the football season comes football news. Much of it is about transgressions: new dangerous tackles, failed expectations, bad behaviour, careless speech.

And in football, transgressions are followed by judgment and punishment: suspensions, sackings and retirements.  Each event is followed by reflection on such topics as footballers as role models, football as a business and racism in football.

This March there has brought sadder news. Just days after the feast of St Patrick, Irish born Jim Stynes died from the cancer with which he had lived courageously and publicly for some years.

The first time I saw Stynes was in a final at VFL Park. On that warm and sunny day he became a notorious transgressor. He ran across the mark and the subsequent penalty probably cost Melbourne the game. It was his first season of Australian Rules football. For a while it appeared that he might forever be remembered by that single transgression. 

But during his subsequent life in Australia he had different and better stories to tell about both football and transgression. In his football career he was a model of reliability and faithfulness in a club that was generally mediocre.

He played almost 250 games without interruption, carrying injuries in order to do so. In his public appearances he was generous, modest and assured. Because his world was manifestly wider than football, he was a good role model for young men and for footballers in particular.

After he finished football his activities addressed some of the questions raised by the everyday football stories: how to handle the relative wealth and celebrity that comes to gifted footballers, and how to deal in a human way with transgression.  

He used his status as a footballer and his energies to work with young people lacking in direction. Through the Reach Foundation that he began he showed a better way of dealing with transgression than by judgment and punishment. He commended the way of encouragement and awakening a sense of possibility. 

He recognised the importance of role models, or heroes as he preferred to call them, and became one himself. He did not treat his celebrity and freedom of access to the wealthy and powerful as bling to be displayed but as a resource for benefiting the community.

In the face of illness, Stynes also gave his name, time and energy to raise the Melbourne Football Club from a perilous situation. On the field the team remained mediocre but as president of the club he improved the morale and the stability of the club. 

His contribution was another measure of the importance he placed on returning to the community what he had been given. It was also significant that in an environment where lack of success breeds fractious relationships he remained on good terms with everyone.

The last years of Stynes' life were a sustained transgression. In his life sickness and death constantly ran across the mark that society and football considered sacrosanct. His cancer transgressed the expectations that footballers should be and look healthy, and that football legends were immortals who lived happily on into old age.

Stynes was a living breach of the rules. He looked ill, acknowledged his cancer and did not tiptoe behind the mark where he would not be seen.

Terminal sickness has its own code. It is normally handled and propitiated by silence. For public figures whose illness is of public interest, it is something to be fought against. Their bravery in this, the last and hardest game, is saluted.

Stynes seemed to do it a different way. He did not fight his cancer as an enemy. He lived with it, lived through it and used all available medical resources to deal with it. But this was a way of living fully, not fighting a battle that defined his life. From outside it seemed that to him death was not fearsome but a part of life.

Ultimately the life and dying of Jim Stynes was not a football story. It was a better story, one about the possibilities of being human. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, football, AFL, Jim Stynes, Demons, cancer, death, Ireland, sport



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Existing comments

A lovely tribute to a good man. A small personal thought: people look at Jim Stynes and think the Irish must be good people; as someone who benefited from this generalisation, thank you, young man. The extended metaphor is good, but I wish it had not been used in the title of the piece.

Frank | 21 March 2012  

Andrew, thanks for the rich detail that someone living in Sydney had little chance of accessing. But thanks even more for the big heartedness of your piece. It gives a beautiful sense of the ways people can contribute to the functioning of community.

Joe Castley | 21 March 2012  

A beautiful tribute to a truly great man. So many sportspeople are called great because of their deeds on the field. Jim Stynes was great in the truer sense of the word. Rest in peace.

Nils | 21 March 2012  

Thank you, Andrew, for your eulogy on Jim Stynes. I knew a wee Irish mother in her early seventies who died of cancer late last year but she did not "battle" it. She accepted it. She accepted the best treatments that medical science could provide. She was grateful for them.But they could only retard the inevitable progress of the disease. Her grandmother before her had died of cancer in her early fifties. In 1943 medical science could only alleviate the pain. And she accepted that relief. She did not "battle" her cancer. Where do human beings find this serenity to accept death? In the case of the two women I mentioned I think it was their belief that their vocation on earth had been to be good mothers. And their children were proof that they had fulfilled their vocation well. I didn't know Jim Stynes well enough to say what his sense of his vocation was but it seems to me that he rejoiced in his gifts as a sportsman. He used them well. And he returned thanks to the alien sport that nutured him by continuing to play in his retirement the game of life with the joy, determination and perseverance that he put into footy. He was an example to us all. May his generous soul find eternal peace.

Uncle Pat | 21 March 2012  

As a Demons' follower since the mid 1930s, I was deeply saddened yesterday by the news of Jim's death, although it has been anticipated for some time. In the midst of bad press surrounding several prominent AFL players, Stynes stood out as a great role model and his brave response to cancer was inspirational. Several years ago I wrote an ode to the Demons and submitted it to an ABC local radio contest. The radio staion being in Crows/Power territory I had no chance of winning but here are two relevant verses: With Dixon in the Centre, And Beckwith as back pocket; (if he was playing still today, He'd cut off Tony Lockett)' It's a shame that Robbie Flower was robbed of his right to wear the crown, When that final's 15 metre rule Brought Stynes and colleagues down. But now with Schwartz and Nietz and Smith and their reconstructed knees, It's the other teams whose knees will knock, When they play the mighty Dees. As Farmer reaps his crop of goals, And Lyon threads them through, With Irish luck and Yze's skill. They'll gain their rightful due. I am still waiting.

Bill Edwards | 21 March 2012  

Recently I came across a Senior Girl's school essay which was a tribute to Jim Stynes not so much as an AFL champion but as an inspiring role model for a young Christian. That this was the product of a Brisbane student shows that goodness can weave a wide web. I vividly remember those last seconds of the Final against Hawthorn when the young Irishman wandered over Gary Buckenara's mark. Although a Lion's devotee,I followed his subsequent career with interest and the more I learned about this man the more inspiring he became and old codgers are not easy to inspire. Andrew's beautiful article is an appropriate finale to an edifying life.

grebo | 21 March 2012  

Well spoken Andrew. Life is sacrosanct and Jim is now a wonderful example to those who think they cannot live or contribute with an illness. Palliative care plus a confidence in his God, a love of family and support from friends- this is his legacy. When Jim said to Jesus '' my god, my god, why have you forsaken me'' Jesus called'' be not afraid, I go before you always, come follow me and i shall give you rest''. May Jim's life be one of inspiration to others to rise from their afflictions and bring peace and hope to the world by their actions. Without being callous- those who think euthanasia is a way out think again. You have life and you can use it to the full no matter how old or infirm you are.REACH OUT to others by your actions of the love of life and respect what you have been given and respond accordingly. MAY GOD BLESS JIM and his family and all those who work for the betterment of humanity in general. INSPIRATION AND PERSPIRATION - he gave it all

PHIL ROWAN | 21 March 2012  

To celebrate the still living: the author of this has over the years grown constantly in writing skill, in depth of understanding and in luminous charity; so that excellent pieces like this are by now the kind of thing we expect from him. Thank you, Andy.

john fox | 22 March 2012  

Thank you Andrew. Thank you Jim!

John T | 23 March 2012  

Thank you Andrew. You have expressed what I have been trying to come to terms with. I met Jim. Jim is a magnificent man. A man who will live forever in my heart. I say this as an ardent St.Kilda supporter. John Elliott.

John Elliott | 23 March 2012  

Well spoken, Andrew. Unlike some of my comments about your writing in the past, this time I want to congratulate you for putting into words some of the thoughts that I was feeling. Thank you.

Noel Will | 29 March 2012  

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