Such are the little moments that project one into or away from footy. The game can offer a place for an athlete, a player with skills and abilities and professionalism. Or, it can move to the sidelines of one’s life. These are footy transitions: the small moments that shape one’s trajectory towards or away from the game. On this day, the weather is still overcast and cool; spring, let alone summer is struggling to make its mark in October. The Collingwood Knights are doing their weekly footy therapy.
Shane Potter (Potts), a proud Gunditjmara man, works for Ngwala Willumbong , assisting Aboriginal youth with alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is part of the support team of the Knights and also plays when needed. His calm, soft-spoken demeanor contrasts with much of the volatility that surrounds the players at Collingwood Knights. Shane was the first person at the Knights to call me ‘bruz’ – and after that I felt accepted and could then talk and engage confidently with the other members of the Club – people who I would only see once a week, at the most. Rather than the usual micro-aggressions of everyday life, this was a micro-affection and simply meant ‘welcome’.
Potts says: “I grew up in the housing commission flats in Collingwood until I was about five or six years old. And then we moved out to a house over in Clifton Hill. This was still a part of the housing commission, but, at least we had our own place. We paid rent of course, but the rent was adjusted depending on what my mum was earning. It was good because we were still able to come over to the flats and meet my friends. We would come down here a lot and muck about kicking the football. We would watch Collingwood train. During training, we would have a kick of the footys and then let them fall into a trough at the back of the goals. Often times the property steward wouldn’t check in there so, we could usually nick a ball. At other times, a player would give us a ball. You know they would have so many, so they would just say, ‘here you go, you take it.’
“I was invited to come down and play for Richmond. I got a letter saying, ‘come down to training and we’ll look after your footy.’ I was playing for the [Fitzroy] Stars and they had someone come out and watch and that’s how I got invited down. A couple of my mates also went down and they ended up playing in their Reserves side. But, I wasn’t interested. I was 18 years old and I had just had a baby daughter, so, I had other things on my mind. They could see that I was a good player and I also felt like a good player. There were a number of things that I was elite at. I was tall; and back then, players weren’t generally as tall as they are now, but I could also play on the wing. I was a good mark, too. So, basically I would play in the ruck, but I was also very versatile. I had other things on my mind and other opportunities. It is certainly something I don’t regret. Over the years I have played with quite a number of clubs, all at lower levels of course. But I have still been paid to play footy and I have got a lot out of it. Now, my son plays with the Stars and has also played with the Laguntas, which is a team put together by the Richmond Football Club. So, maybe he will go further with his footy if he wants to.”
“I’m still mates with the people I grew up with. I didn’t do some of the stuff that they did – like taking drugs or getting into alcohol. It is not something that I really agree with. But that is their life. It doesn’t meant that I’m not friends with them; it just means that – I don’t do that sort of stuff with them. There is no point in breaking off friendships totally in these cases. You always have to be there for your mates. Except if they do something against you personally, then, I try to maintain my friendships. If you cut them off for having done some bad things or having made mistakes, then there is no opportunity to have a calming influence on them; or to help them get out of the trouble they’re in.”
Shane may well be one of the quietest blokes at the Knights. After the goals he kicked in their recent grand final, he ‘didn’t give ‘high-fives, but low-fives as his team-mates ran back past him to the centre square. He is playing with pride on the field and working with pride off the field. Professional footy is awash with adulation and adoration, while the community facilities and services of Ngawala and Collingwood Knights fight tooth and nail for funding amidst, local, state and federal budget cuts.
Sometimes the Club gets lucky and an elite player comes down to run some training drills and to share his experiences of growing up and becoming a professional footballer. So, Travis Varcoe arrives at the club in his understated and easily familiarity. He’s mates with Shane Williams, one of the Knights’ coaches, and they talk shop while the Knighters take pot shots on goals before being shouted into order and told to get ready to train proper. Travis doesn’t seem that big, but his body shape indicates his job – playing a game that requires both physical strength and bursts of speed. Varcoe was a part of great Geelong sides and kicked wonderful goals in their grand finals. He’s a balanced and smart mover, never appearing to exert too much energy. Economy of movement and footy nous personified. He knows the running patterns and how to avoid the would-be tackler. When he moved to Collingwood, his career could have easily diminished in a lesser side; instead he has grown as a footballer and no doubt leader at the club.
Travis: “When it comes to coaching, I prefer not to have too much input. I want to be told perhaps two main points from the coach about what I have to do. Then, I’ll go and check them with my line coach. But that is about it. I know what I have to do and I can generally work out within the game about how to beat my man. I don’t want to have to think about too much. Of course, some players are different. Harry has piles of note books which he writes in before and after games. “How am I doing to beat my man?” And then after the game he writes whether or not he beat his man and how he did so. One of the hardest players I have ever played on is – and you might not believe this is Brent. He reads the ball really well and has good fitness. Normally, I’m able to outrun other players, but this guy usually had my measure when I played for Geelong and he was with the Pies. Fortunately, we’re on the same team now.”
“My times for the 2km trials are generally about 6:30 to 6:50. It depends on where I’m at with my training. When I’ve got my best times, I’ve finished about third or fourth. Steele. He is a gun of a runner. He is so quiet. But you can hear me coming from a mile off – I’m panting and exhausted. I’m one of those players who doesn’t believe in the skin-fold test. Mainly because I don’t think it necessarily affects the way you play your footy. I’m generally a pretty light-weight guy, but I still don’t like them – particularly coming back to training after the summer break. I eat well in general. I have to as it is a part of performing to one’s best abilities. It is not as if I don’t ever eat junk food or Maccas, it is just that most of the time, I eat properly. You’ve got to think about it, like a car and petrol for example. If you put water in your car instead of petrol, the car ain’t going to work properly, is it? That’s how we see it in being a footballer; you have to give yourself the maximum opportunity to perform at your best.
“I’m already back into training – even though it is only the end of September. I have started doing some kick boxing with my partner, because she is one of the staff at X gym. I’ve bought this [fancy] watch to measure my heart rate and how many calories I’m burning etc and kick boxing is one of the best things I’ve done. I’m just training by myself at the moment. We come back to the Club at different times, depending on how long you have been in the system – whether it is more or less than five years.”
“When I was growing up I had some mates and we would always do everything together. There were four of us basically and we would go to school together and muck around together. But there was a time when I had to make a decision about what I wanted for myself. One of us suddenly had some ganja and it was offered to me. I said, “nah mate, it’s not for me” and so did one of my other mates. But the other two both tried it. And from that moment on, me and my mate and the other two have followed different paths. I’ve been able to play in a couple of premierships in professional footy and my mate has been successful in his career. He is not the smartest bloke going around, but he works hard and is good at his job and he has made a good life for himself. That’s what happens when you work hard and make sensible decisions. The other two have had more difficult lives, involving drugs and alcohol. It doesn’t mean that they’re not good people and that I’m not mates with them. I’m there to support them if they need me, but they go about their lives in a different way.”
“When I was young I also made the decision that I wanted to finish my highschool. I never had any ambitions of going to university and getting a degree or anything, but I just set my goal at finishing Year 12 and then going on to other things. If I start something, I want to finish it.”
And then, someone asks, “what do you think of Wellsy [Daniel Wells] coming in?” “Ah, he’s a great player. And it would be good to get another brother at the club.” Even the elite, it seems, require camaraderie in a professional, working environment. Clubness, that sense of belonging, is shared through these two Collingwoods: the Knights and the Pies. And Travis is welcome and at home in both. Shane Potter didn’t pursue footy as a career, but he keeps it as a part of his everyday life and for part-time work. Here are two players, playing with pride – quietly and humbly – and through creating and working with their communities.