The 1999 match between Essendon and the Western Bulldogs has popped up on my social media feeds a few times recently. I saw another highlight from it on Sunday, and it was a reminder that I needed to follow through on this story and tell it, because this particular match was the beginning of a latent but passionate fandom that transcends international boundaries.
Years before, there was a six-year-old kid in the US state of Nebraska whose entire sports world consisted mostly of a different kind of the football - the one played with helmets, pads, and a pointy ball. After all, this was Nebraska, where a college gridiron powerhouse ruled the land.
He also had developed a very early love of pop music - it was the '80s after all - and it was a great time to be discovering all those wonderful bands from the early days of MTV. He asked for, and received, his favourite record, which was Business As Usual by Men at Work, which had two of his favourite songs on it, one of which was called Down Under.
Fate works in mysterious ways, but it does seem like a rather serendipitous foreshadowing of a life I would later live.
During the '80s, the fledging American ESPN cable sports network was void of the large major sports rights that it has now. They didn't have NFL or NBA games then. To fill programming space at night, they often showed live or taped VFL matches and highlights. I wouldn't say I watched this with any regularity, but I did feel a degree of delight whenever I'd discover that it was on, especially when I was able to giggle at the goal umpires in their butcher coats, throwing down extended fingers with gusto. I loved it even though I didn't understand it. As I grew up, I kind of forgot about it for a while.
In the early days of the internet, I had developed a pretty serious long-distance relationship with a young Australian from Melbourne. We bonded over an extremely obsessive fandom of The Simpsons, one that came full circle in 2018 when we celebrated our 20th year together by watching a live episode table read in Los Angeles. During the northern summer of 1998, she visited America and me for the first time, and we knew we were partners for life almost immediately. It was my turn to visit Australia the next year, so I flew out from Wisconsin at the end of May and spent several weeks together around her 21st birthday.
Suddenly I was seeing everywhere on local television that sport that I had vague and hazy memories of as a kid years earlier. I remembered some of the team names - Cats, Kangaroos, Swans. I also correctly remembered that there was a team that was yellow with brown stripes. I'd already decided that I didn't like them. I mean, who wears yellow and brown?
While staying at her parents' house and having some time to kill, I thought learning about this sport might be a way to get to know this girl's parents. I was 22, she was 21, and we had pretty strong feelings for each other.
So, one evening, that fateful Essendon-Bulldogs match mentioned previously is on the television in their bedroom. It was a tight, close-fought game that Essendon won by four points if I remember right.
"So who's your team?" her dad asked me. "Is there a Melbourne team?" I replied. "Actually, there's 10 of them". I knew I had a lot to learn at this point. Immediately, I said "OK, you have got to take me to one of these". He then showed me a red and black scarf with 'Bombers' written on all the red areas. Red and black was easy to get behind - a few of my other adopted sports teams were predominantly red and black or something close to that. I begged him to take me to one of these games.
My first trip to the Melbourne Cricket Ground was on a rather ironic date - the 4th of July, 1999 - to witness Essendon play Fremantle. It wasn't a notable game. Essendon won easily but didn't play exceptionally well and most of their star players were out with injuries. But it was enough to plant a seed, one which quickly sprouted with every triumph, and with every tragedy.
In the months following my trip, I paid close attention to how things were going with the Bombers and was thrilled to see they were doing pretty well at that point. One afternoon in September, during our regular chat, I learned that they were playing off for a spot in the Grand Final, which is the big one. They just needed to win one more game to get there. It was against Carlton.
I knew enough about Carlton at this point from my father in-law's stories about John Coleman being unfairly rubbed out in 1951 to know that I wasn't to like them, as well as the verbal sparring that occasionally went on between him and the Greek neighbour across the road. I was so excited to find a live radio stream, so I tuned in for the last quarter and intently listened, all the way to the bitter, disappointing, spirit-breaking end. No point in rehashing how it went, except to say that I FELT IT. It was as bad as when my beloved St. Louis Cardinals blew the 1985 World Series, or when my beloved Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII to the Broncos. It HURT.
I didn't even watch the Grand Final the next week, even though I knew where I could watch it live. That was the day that my Essendon fandom was set in stone, in a rather cruel way.
From 2002 to 2009 I lived in Melbourne and became a citizen. My girl and I got married at Rosalyn Court just down the street from Windy Hill. We later returned to the US together to live for 10 years, but since September 2019 I reside on these fair shores once again. For a really young, shy guy in a strange land with a strange accent, it was tough to find a place to fit in early on - but the ending is a happy one.
I've made some amazing friends, just by going along to the footy by myself and daring to go outside of my comfort zone. I've become a regular on Bomberblitz.com and have gotten close to a few of those wonderful chanting nuffies in the standing room. They accepted me as one of their own. Together we've seen some amazing things with our own eyes - the second half of James Hird's career, that hug, that brown and yellow team drawing lines in the sand, three Anzac Day wins and some other amazing things. There was also 2016, which we don't need to talk about, but rest assured, even while I was back in the States, I knew what was happening the entire time. There were many days and nights where I thought about all my fellow supporters on the other side of the world and how they must have been feeling. What were people saying to them in the street? Were their kids being made fun of at school? I remember Sam Mitchell's shooting-up gesture and being genuinely disgusted but also depressed.
It is amazing how Essendon continued to follow me wherever I went in the world. I got one heck of an amazing gift when several Bombers began coming over to Boulder, Colorado to train in high altitude during the off-season. By this time we were living in the northern part of Denver and I only had to drive 30 minutes to see Essendon players training. It was a pretty surreal experience, especially when a few of the players acknowledged my presence and signed a Sherrin for me, including Jobe Watson. Of all the places to get autographs!
Circumstances in my life have brought me back to Melbourne for the foreseeable future. This time I'm a father of two young boys hoping that one of them will take a mutual interest. Unfortunately my 10-year-old's wait to see the Bombers in the flesh again has been temporarily put on hold, but I suppose I can wait just a little longer. It will be worth it.
In Red & Black Reflections, we'll select a fan-written piece to feature on the website each week.
Got a favourite memory? A fascinating story about how you fell in love with the Bombers? Thoughts on the 2020 season? Whatever it is you feel passionate about, we're leaving it up to you.
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