The captain of the Collie football team was in court last week, escaping jail after being convicted of kneeing an opposing player in the face during a game. I grew up in Collie, a coal-mining town fifty kilometres inland from Bunbury, two hundred kilometres south of Perth. I played football for a year, too, and going through a packing box which has sat in our spare room for two years, I recently found my trophy for Most Improved, Collie Saints under sixteens in 1996.
That year of football was a culmination of my three years at the high-school. It was a rough school, where fists ruled, and kids were brutal to each other. I took up playing football after years of hockey because we’d done football in phys-ed class in year nine, and everyone was amazed that I was one of the better players, at least against boys who mostly didn’t play. The ones who did play were inviting me to join their team; it was half a joke, because I was a nerd, and so very skinny. A second reason: I wanted to be consistent. I watched football on television with my dad and brother every weekend, and I collected football cards. It seemed inconsistent to not play.
There were two teams, the Collie Saints and the Mines Rovers, and you had to choose. The rivalry was not just friendly; it was more defining than religion or ethnicity. I chose the Saints, because I liked St Kilda. In the clubroom, there was a picture of an aerial mark from the sixties, with a caption, “The closest a Collie Saint will ever get to heaven,” disturbing for an earnest Baptist.
I wasn’t prepared for the violence of the game, the constant, bruising physicality of it. It was a test, and I endured, but not easily. The first game on a Friday night was a derby against the hated Mines Rovers Eagles. We had a full team that week, bulked up by five or six good athletes who came just for the derby. I was in the front pocket, and panicked the one time the ball came to me, kicking it out of bounds. The rest of the season, I was moved to the back pocket, usually finding myself pitted against solid behemoths on the other team. I was reasonably effective, with only one or two goals scored by my opponents in the whole year. Once when we were losing badly, one of the dads at half-time pointed at me and said, “Look at this kid – fuck-all skills but there he is trying his guts out. Can’t you at least do that?” I nearly cried; it was a harsh compliment.
Our team didn’t do well; that first derby match was one of the few we won, as our undermanned team played in the mud of country town ovals each week against stronger, better teams. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, though; we were warriors together.
At the end of the year, our family moved to Bunbury. I trained a few times with the South Bunbury team the next year, and coming home with bruises, exhausted by all the running, I asked myself why I was doing it, and I realised I didn’t know. I quit football, not just the playing, but the watching. In the years since, I’ve developed an allergy to the dominance of football in Western Australian culture.
Some time after I left, the two struggling Collie football clubs merged, and became one very strong club, the Collie Eagles, winning premiership after premiership in the league. Perhaps in having to swallow old rivalries, a new peace exists in the town and in the school.
I haven’t been back to Collie much. My childhood has this extra layer of distance from me, having grown up in a place I no longer have ties to, even though it lies just up the hill from where my parents still live. It seems a strange place for me to have grown up.