A major misstep in my childhood was made while wearing my first pair of rugby boots (which were actually a pair of cheap sneakers in my case.) At the age of 7, I’d never even heard of of rugby league, having just moved to the Australian mainland from Tasmania where we didn’t play the game, but my new classmates had been playing it for a year already. At this new school the game was revered like religion, demonstrated by the fact that our coach was a red-faced, constantly screaming (at me anyway) Catholic priest. Father Footy was a much-loved coach by those who adored rugby, but utterly useless to someone like me who wasn’t naturally imbued with the joy of football, and whose family had never explained the game.
On the sidelines of a freezing football field in a New England Tablelands winter, we puny wee athletes prepared ourselves for battle; outsized jerseys were pulled over big noggins and thin necks to cover scrawny & shivering rib cages. Spindly little legs mottled by the harsh cold thrust out of baggy shorts into big black nobbly boots, that were almost as nobbly as the boney little knees knocking together above them. Father Footy too was decked out in full rugby kit and boots, as he led a troop of pint-sized athletes onto a boggy football field on a frosty day, to vie for a ball that seemed as big to me then as a sack of potatoes would be to me now. People who didn’t innately understand God’s Game were apparently unimaginable in the theology of Father Footy, who never even considered that the new boy from interstate might actually need some tuition in the rules. Father Footy blew a piercing blast on his referee’s whistle – FWEET! – my first ever rugby game was underway, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.
In TV shows or movies of those times, Catholic priests were either portrayed as innocuous Mickey Mouse types (like the priest from MASH) or tortured souls (like the young priest in THE EXORCIST) but I’ve never seen the likes of this particular priest portrayed in the media. He was macho, dispensing gleeful knuckle-crushing handshakes and cheerily rough-housing us boys and all the parish loved him – dads, mums and kids alike. Father Footy’s reputation, and the status of Catholic priests in general, was unimpeachable in those bygone days, which is hard to believe in the 21st century when priests have become punchlines to tawdry jokes at best, and the focus of major heartbreaking court cases at worst (including Father Footy himself, decades later) so it’s hard to convey the stature of priests before that fall from grace. Within the Catholic community of an Australian small town in the early 1970s, priests were held in high regard indeed and especially a rugby playing priest. God’s right hand, man’s man, the archangel Gabriel in cleated footy boots; his authority on matters moral, spiritual and physical is hard to overstate.
However, as no instruction had been forthcoming from our so-called ’coach’, and I was already in the midst of a game I knew nothing about, I attempted to dart about the muddy football field in as purposeful a manner as was possible for someone who hadn’t got a clue what his purpose actually was. Spying another sawn-off athlete, likewise dashing and darting, I sidled up to him and, whispering out of the side of my mouth, asked what we were expected to do. Gesturing to a big letter ’H’ at the end of the freezing quagmire, he said that if the ball was ever passed to us we were to carry it between the giant letter H at each end, which he referred to as “goal posts”. This seemed simple enough, but just to be safe I decided to keep my purposeful darting a discreet distance from all the action, rushing forward as if I was ready for something only when the focal point of the game had moved beyond me. This strategy was working quite well, when my purposeful darting accidentally blundered into “the zone” and the ball came my way. Urged on by the other teeny players, and some incomprehensible screamings and urgent flailings from Father Footy, I picked up the huge football and, like a monkey carrying a watermelon, I purposefully darted to the nearest goal posts I could find. Miraculously, no other player came close as I dashed heroically toward my target and the roar of the crowd receded in my ears as I planted the ball triumphantly, and turned around for my accolades.
Howls of protest and angry jigs from my team mates were matched by hooting laughter and finger pointing by the opposing team. Both of these sounds were blown away by a red faced angry blast from the gaping maw of Father Footy, who was passionately upset about some Sacrilege or other. I was transfixed by the foaming spittle at the sides of Father Footy‘s screaming mouth as he made it clear to me that I had scored a point for the other side. This ability to simultaneously evoke contemptuous laughter, disgust and anger was to set the tone of my athletic ’achievements’ for the rest of my life. Eventually, I became inoculated against such humiliation through constant exposure, and would learn that if the world treats you like a clown it’s best to act as though you intended it, but being the object of universal derision was a new experience on that particular day. Overwhelmed by the scope of my own apparent ineptitude, I started to blubber and bawl. This made Father Footy more furious than ever, which caused me to bawl even more, leading to more red-faced yelling, and so on. We were a breeder reactor of humiliation & fury by the time Dad showed up at the end of the game to take me home, and after hearing my blubbering recap on what had happened, he gave the footy priest both barrels from his righteous-indignation parental blunderbuss. Turns out that Dad and Father Footy were schoolmates back in the days of yore, and it appeared that there was no love lost. There was a high volume red faced screaming match in which Father Footy said I was a cry baby (which was true) and Dad challenged Father Footy’s inattentive coaching skills (also very true). This brouhaha unfolded in front of a bunch of other parents who’d just arrived to pick up their own kids, aghast that anyone would ever challenge Father Footy about footy, and on a footy field no less. GASP. Thinking back on it now, this may have been the Ground Zero Moment for my lifelong awkwardness in regards to sports.
In movies (or even the real world) parents may be resented for not supporting their children at ball games, but personally, I dreaded family members showing up, prefering as small an audience as possible for my bumbling ineptitude. If I felt any ill will toward my parents on the subject of sports it was that they made me participate in the compulsory ritual in the first place, rather than give me parental permission to opt out of the ordeal, as other ‘sensitive‘ souls had been allowed to do. Though my parents confided that they too loathed sports in their own schooldays, they nevertheless insisted I participate, invoking the phrase ‘character building’ more than once. There was no way out. Thus, a knock kneed & freckled Sisyphus played rugby on joyless winter weekends, sometimes being driven to nearby towns to undergo his grueling character-trials there. Waist-high to a crowd of adult onlookers high on parental adrenaline rushes, we tiny players scurried by, chasing the ball. As contorted fright-mask faces screamed and bellowed with vicarious passion, I could never grasp what all the frenzy was about. To me, rugby was incomprehensible torture. A pain-in-motion conundrum. It was physical humiliation algebra.
As a full grown adult, I was introduced to the idea that sports were something that people who enjoyed eachother’s company might do together, for fun. This novel concept made me wonder if perhaps I too might have enjoyed sports, if I’d been introduced to them in a spirit of joy rather than drudgery. Why, even now there may be a parallel universe in which a version of me enjoys watching and participating in games (I am obliged to conjure a science fiction scenario even to countenance the possibility of a physically co-ordinated me). However, even in such an alternate reality it’s difficult to imagine having the almost orgasmic connection to sports that most men have. When romantic couplings are heard through neighbouring apartment walls the male participants are probably inaudible, but you’ll definitely hear male climaxing when a ball game is on TV next door, and if it happens to be a championship game, the lowing rumble of male pleasure and pain will moan forth from bars and apartments across the entire town, like a rutting frenzy at the zoo monkey house. I’m grateful to be free from that primal-ritual-ballyhoo, and my Zen-like detachment is due to a Catholic priest; Father Footy.