I always thought it was an urban myth.
Like sightings of the Tasmanian tiger, rumours of a secret society of guys kicking an Aussie Rules footy around on Sunday mornings were heard, but I never saw the evidence and I never quite believed.
But then a chance casual remark by a mutual acquaintance led to a reunion with an old school friend.
We bonded over Neil Young and a love of Aussie Rules in school 35 years ago.
Recess and lunch were spent kicking a footy backwards and forward on the basketball court — him in his scratchy 30 per cent wool, 70 per cent acrylic Collingwood jumper (with collar), and me in my Hawthorn equivalent.
I hadn’t seen him since.
So, we had a coffee and spent a few minutes catching up on the last 35 years, before talk rapidly turned to more pressing matters — like footy.
“I do this thing on a Sunday morning,” he said.
Strike me down with a feather, it’s real!
That Sunday I turned up at a local oval and met a couple of the old hands who introduced me at the weekly pre-game address to the group of 20 or so women and men who’d turned up.
“Dave’s come down for a kick.”
And so, we began: Some kicking and handballing in lines to warm up and then circle work for the next two hours or so.
If you played footy in the 70s or 80s, circle work was the go-to training for coaches before things started getting complicated.
It’s pretty simple really: Spread out in a massive circle around the oval, lead for the ball, mark it and handball to a player running past, who kicks it to the next player on a lead. Repeat.
It’s the closest thing to playing a game without actually playing a game, and it comes without the threat of an unwanted collision or someone jumping into your back to take a screamer.
And that’s it — round and round we go, as the ball zings from hand to foot to handball, all accompanied by the constant supportive talk that you’ll hear at any footy club.
Some of these players are exquisite kicks, balanced and poised, capable of delivering bullet passes over 50 metres. Some are still finding their feet. That’s fine.
The bloke from Finland is getting really good and can run everyone off the park.
They say team sport is good for character development, and that’s true. Working together for the greater good is wonderful — when it actually happens.
What they don’t tell you is that team sport is riven with politics and pettiness and when your harshest critic in community sport is a teammate, it can wear pretty thin.
It turns out some grown men in particular, can transform from upstanding citizens to nasty, lippy, violent bastards when they cross that white line and a win is all that counts.
Two years ago, a belated attempt to play masters’ footy ended in the first practice game when I was smashed late from behind resulting in a rotator cuff tendon torn from the bone and a shoulder reconstruction.
My new, secret club strips all that away.
They’re a mixed bunch: teachers, students, designers, musicians, photographers, printers, brewers, IT technicians, theatre producers, a record company owner, a film director and so many actors they could spontaneously break into experimental improvisational theatre at any moment and demand audience participation.
Everyone is equal. The only common denominator is a love of footy.
Last year, many of the regular players lost jobs, or for those in the performing arts, their work dried up because of COVID.
The Sunday morning kick was a vital touchstone for many people in the club — one thing to look forward to in the week. Even some of the injured players turned up regularly to watch and catch up for a yack.
In between times a WhatsApp superhighway kept everyone connected and on their toes.
More than once I heard someone comment that our club was a saviour in what was a difficult year for everyone’s mental health.
My 17-year-old daughter came down for the first time last week and another woman in the group immediately introduced herself and showed her the ropes, while the group of largely middle-aged men did everything they could to make her feel welcome.
After that first Sunday morning, I knew I’d found my sporting home.
I’ve always been a competitive bugger, but after years of playing team sport, I’ve lost the passion for winning — and losing for that matter. I care so much more about how you play the game.
I just want to kick a footy and kick it well. There’s a purity in the drum sound of a drop punt coming off your boot and spinning slowly backwards into a teammates’ outstretched hands. And if you’re feeling particularly audacious, peeling off a spiralling torpedo punt.
And if that kick instead slews off the side of my boot, it’s comforting to know that no-one’s going to criticise me for making a mistake.
I just want to take a mark and dish off a handball to a mate running past.
My new club distils sport down to its pure essence: The love of the game.
It’s for the people and the community they’ve created, talking footy, catching up with mates, having a kick. The grassiest of grass roots.
It’s for fun.
And while I may not care about winning or losing, this new club has one statistic of which they’re incredibly proud.
In 18 years, they’ve never lost a game.