At quarter time things didn’t look good.
Richmond, playing its first AFL grand final since 1982, trailed by 11 points against an Adelaide side that looked ready to break loose.
I thought I could see the writing on the wall and, to try to manage the expectations of my six-year-old son, Billy, I declared the Tigers were up against it.
“I don’t like the look of this, at all,” I muttered.
Quicker than Jason Castagna in the forward 50, Billy shot back.
“It’s only the first quarter … Belieeeve,” he droned with a hint of anger, leaning in to my face like an angry sports coach.
And there it was.
In the climax of the 2017 season, I realised the master’s work was done. The apprentice had graduated. The lessons of the season just gone had crystallised into this one, beautiful moment.
Billy showed he had listened. He had listened and processed at least one of the fragments of wisdom that I had preached all year – with football our curriculum, the MCG our classroom – in the hope that some of it might stick in his moral fibre.
And I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
If you’d told me even a couple of years ago I would regularly attend AFL matches – and enjoy them – I’d have scoffed.
If you’d then said I would come to see that wisdom could emerge from the tribal obsessions of Australian rules football, that this formless and anarchic game could provide life lessons for anyone, let alone a six-year-old, I’d have said you were mad.
In fact, when I arrived in this country 18 years ago from New Zealand as a mad rugby supporter, I would indulge in the ridicule of Australian rules – for its failure to excite the wider world, for its histrionic, prancing umpires and for its homoerotic displays of men singing in a changing shed, among many other things.
But today I marvel at it, debate it, rage about it. A sport so strange, yet so strangely seductive.
When our family returned to Melbourne early in 2016, after eight years in AFL-shy Queensland, it took only weeks for Billy to be swept up by a passion for football.
He arrived at his team the same way any child born to a Czech mother and a Kiwi father might do – via arbitrary and ridiculous considerations that had little connection with logic.
We live in Coburg, the home of the old Coburg Tigers – formerly the feeder team for Richmond. He also discovered around this time that he was born in the Chinese Year of the Tiger.
Finally, I assured him, as a Tigers supporter, things could only get better, not worse. Done – forever a Tiger and a life of pain and hand-wringing.
And if life lessons are forged in the furnace of hardship and struggle, who better to follow than the mercurial Tigers?
Most matches would begin the same – the opposition would start brightly, Richmond would be either behind or up only a few points at quarter time. Despondency would set in.
“We’re going to lose … we’ve lost … game over,” was Billy’s regular cry.
Faith is a tricky concept for many to grasp, let alone a six-year-old, so I explained it in terms of belief. You must believe, I’d say.
What if Dustin Martin or Trent Cotchin didn’t believe? What if they simply gave up in the face of the first setback? The team needs to know that you believe, too.
Remember the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.
My mantra soon became: “It’s only the first quarter, man.”
Victories flowed. Five in a row to start the season, and the Tigers were riding high. Then came the losses.
It was Richmond seemingly reverting to character, embodied by two gut-wrenching, last-gasp losses to GWS and Fremantle.
For hardened Tigers fans, those defeats were nothing new. For a six-year-old, though, they were bewildering.
Learning through loss is good. Mistakes are the stepping stones to success and wisdom, I said. Defeat hones your discipline, shapes your strategy and attitude. The bitterness of defeat makes victory taste sweeter, failure isn’t fatal, it’s how you handle failure is what matters – he got all the sporting clichés – clichés that a six-year-old hasn’t yet heard.
The Tigers then got the ship back on an even keel, but an unlikely 67-point thrashing by St Kilda in Round 16 would wreck Billy’s week.
Loyalty was shaken, and after having turned out in Geelong colours for an Auskick turn on the MCG with good mate Tom earlier in the year, a defection to the Cats was mooted.
Loyalty is non-negotiable, I said. Sticking with a team through the troughs and peaks defines the true follower. True followers sustain the team, and this is when the team needs you most.
As a true follower you’re part of a family, and you don’t walk out on a family at the first hint of a challenge or problem.
After that horror show against St Kilda, the Tigers would lose just one more match for the season, a 14-point defeat in Geelong that we watched at the local pub, which became something of a ritual in our non-Foxtel household.
Excitement in our house hit fever pitch in September, but Billy, by now with a forensic knowledge of footy stats, was well aware of Richmond’s finals woes and 35 years of torment.
But in a moment in the electric fourth quarter of the Geelong qualifying final, when Kane Lambert snapped a goal to extend the lead to almost 30 points, it was as if a light went on.
Billy leapt up on the seat and hugged me. Long and hard. There was faith, no jitters, no doubt. He now knew they could go all the way.
Come grand final day, he was the one buoying me, more assured of Richmond’s fortunes than I. “It’s only the first quarter, Dad.”
He was right, and so in the aftermath came another lesson – for me. As I watched Billy leap and dance, I saw a kid who’d taken away so much more than highlights, stats and merchandise. I saw a kid who’d grown up just that little bit more, a kid proud to have remained faithful to his team.
I began the season as a reluctant accessory to Billy’s infatuation with football, but ended it as a disciple, never expecting it to be such a rich source of wisdom, of connection, of shared joy.
And now I can’t wait for the seasons that await.
In the scheme of our lives together, it is, after all, still only the first quarter.