When grief hits: The ghost in the locker room

His absence is a presence – an almost-palpable presence. The teammate who dies a young man leaves many things behind to deal with: unbearable sadness, a sense of waste, a sense of impotent rage at having been ravaged in such a sneaking way. Historical holes, interrupted ambitions.

Sport is such life-affirming, energetic engagement. It is no place to reflect on the ultimate outcome of the human condition. Death has been known to make its malevolent forays into the locker room, but not often. It stalks Out There, usually, and rarely does it separate teammates.

When it does, it’s devastating. Amputation. Emotional nerves continue to run back to the absent member, and the throbbing can be unbearable. Amid team mates left behind is not an empty space but a negative image, the size and shape of the living man. Habits, jokes, sentiments that formed around him remain and when he suddenly appears, he brings melancholy, or denial. It’s very difficult for a long time. Eventually he flickers and blurs at the edges and starts to shrink a little as the grieving of his team mates eases, and it’s time to let go; to be incorporated into a world that he strove to be part of while still alive; the world of immortality, heroism and legend.

The overwhelming instinct then is to somehow absorb the dead into the living world in order to nourish it: the symbolic world imitating the organic. That negative image needs to have a positive message. If not, it becomes a burden.

Meanwhile, the feelings he arouses need to be dealt with practically. The complex dynamics of a team need to be managed. Today’s sporting clubs have counselors and chaplains. Knowledge has evolved.

Sometimes things work out. Rarely do they work themselves out.

Peter Crimmins was not the sort of bloke you’d expect to die early. Imagine if it was Adam Gilchrist. Like Gilly, Crimmo was a bonus of a sportsman – too good to be true. He aroused tremendous affection. No-one had a bad word to say about Crimmo. And, to top it off, he was a great footballer.

Hawthorn boasted some of the game’s very best – Hudson, Tuck, Matthews, Knights, Moore – and Crimmins was one of them. He turned games with pace, foresight and sheer guts.

In 1974, Crimmo was diagnosed with testicular cancer, but, as captain, he felt a duty to play on. His ambition was to captain his team to a premiership. His treatment got too much for him, but he came back at the end of the 1975 season to play in the reserves finals – well enough to be considered for senior selection. His inclusion in the Grand Final would boost the team. The agony of that week, which culminated in the selectors’ decision not to pick him, was compounded when the Hawks conceded Norths’ first ever Premiership win. What the public didn’t know was that the dispirited and angry players almost revolted before the climactic match of the year.

Crimmo left the game the next season to fight his illness. He lasted until the 1976 Grand Final, which his cherished Hawks won. David Parkin led a delegation of players to his bedside with the Premiership cup the very day of the win, and the resulting picture of the wasted, widely-grinning little champion surrounded by team mates and the trophy is the last we saw of him. He died three days later.

Darren Millane was a true Collingwood hero – a working class Superman. During 147 mostly-spectacular games between 1984 and 1991, he epitomised everything Collingwood fans loved. A muscular, energetic tearer as ebullient as Barassi, “Pants” took no nonsense and no prisoners. He announced his arrival in true Collingwood style: spectacularly, just like Carman and Greening and Kink and McKenna. Not only did he skittle two sides in the 1984 finals series almost single-handedly, but he did something the Collingwood masses love: he was heroic in defeat. In the preliminary final, the ‘Pies were flogged by Essendon, and Pants never forgot. Win or lose, Essendon were subsequently on the receiving end of many hidings from Millane. Pants didn’t always need to have a good game; he only needed to be present, and they’d get out of his way.

How the Collingwood fans loved having that projection of their own ideal self-image rampaging around on a weekend. Feeling indestructible, just like Pants, they’d go home pumped.

When Collingwood won the Grand Final, Millane left them a lasting, iconic image at the final siren, as he held the ball aloft. He revealed then that he’d played the entire finals series with a broken thumb. It only enhanced his legend. A year later, he was gone.

On October 11, 1991, Millane, driving home from a nightclub, hit a stationary truck and was killed instantly. His blood-alcohol reading was .399.

Troy Broadbridge was a promising footballer. Tall and lean, a leaper, he could run like an Afghan hound. He was considered the ultimate team man: selfless and aware. He was the sort of bloke who always made friends easily. After 40 games with Melbourne, he looked like being a fixture at the club for years to come. News of his death in the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004, hit the club hard.

Ben Alexander, too, was a popular young player. “Lovable larrikin” is the phrase most commonly used to describe him – one of those standard labels that help us to remember the dead. He was coming off the bench a lot in the 1991 season, the year of Penrith’s first-ever ARL premiership. His brother, the brilliant Greg, was a hard act to follow, but Ben was a high-quality player destined to make a mark in any number of positions.

According to Ben’s brother-in-law Mark Geyer, Ben left the club angry the night he was killed, after an incident involving the coach, Phil Gould. He drove angry; he drove under the influence, and he never came back. As Andrew Webster put it in his 2003 article in Inside Sport, the crossroads at which he died came to symbolise what happened to the lives of many people he left behind.

Until recently, sport’s men felt it was wrong to allow themselves to be affected too much by death, or at least to acknowledge they were. Leigh Matthews, a teammate of Crimmins when he died, and Millane’s coach at the time of his death, has often expressed the fact that he grieved quietly and “soldiered on” professionally. Tony Shaw, Millane’s mate and captain, was similarly stoical: “It can probably steel you a little bit (but) that emotional pull doesn’t have a major impact for a long period.” He cites the example of his brother, who died before a game. “I played the next week, and I thought I played pretty well that day because I controlled it. You’ve got to be as professional as you can be.”

The way men coped was their own, but, in the absence of any other way, even as recently as the early nineties, they had no other option. Mostly, it was about denial.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has described denial as “too little memory”. Over the years, when the emotion had become less raw, the Hawthorn men were able to allow themselves a little more memory. Most had played out entire careers before they could admit their sadness and depression to Crimmins’ wife, Gwen. “It actually affected the team a lot. The players all tell me stories now about how it affected them. And their wives were devastated.”

The emotional makeup of David Parkin is vastly different from that of his former teammate, Matthews. Parkin recognises the Hawthorn reaction at the time as denial. “We didn’t grasp the significance of the fact that (Crimmins) had a testicle removed. We didn’t have the equipment to deal with the fact that he might not get better, and so we thought he would get better.” During the recent case of Adam Ramanauskas of Essendon, who was out for a season last year, diagnosed with a much more benign form of cancer, Parkin expressed admiration for the modern way of doing things. Before the club even knew the full extent of “Rama’s” illness, they went public with support, and ongoing updates for the public and fans. Coach Kevin Sheedy, always on top of club issues, bought every team member a copy of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike. “When Peter first had testicular trouble,” says Gwen Crimmins, “we had to call it a groin injury. Thank God that’s changed. People want to know these days.”

Hawthorn in 1976 was an emotional universe away. Players grieved privately – very privately. The only public acknowledgement that Crimmins might not live much longer came from coach John Kennedy, who exhorted the Hawks to go out and win the 1976 premiership “for the little fella”. “Back in those days,” says Gwen, “It wasn’t all about how they were coping internally.” There were no chaplains, no counselors, and it’s likely they’d have been under-employed anyway.

Supporters were connected to clubs in very different ways back then. Better ways, mostly. But death was a different matter. “I had parents writing to me saying, ‘my fourteen year-old can’t cope with Peter’s death,’” says Gwen. “He was an idol to a lot of the young kids. I had to say to people, ‘Peter would want you to be strong,’ and all that sort of crap. I had two small kids and had to bring them up. I collapsed completely a few years after.”

Troy Broadbridge and Ben Alexander were yet to leave a legacy as players, unlike Millane and Crimmins. Instead, the legacy of their loss as loved human beings was a profound, ineffable sadness. The death of Alexander was to reverberate throughout the club – and the Penrith area – for a decade. As Andrew Webster told me, “It was like a holocaust for the club.”

Mark Geyer agrees. “To lose someone so special so suddenly at twenty years of age, the shock and devastation was compounded by the realisation that probably one of the best talents ever was no longer with us. He only scratched the surface of his ability. A lot of team mates were close to him. Greg was his brother, but blokes like Fittler, Barwick and myself were like brothers as well. For two weeks, we just went into a state – I don’t know whether it was shock or depression – where we sat around a bonfire every night drinking piss and telling stories about Ben.”

There was little on offer to contain or make sense of the immense grief and loss. “We had a pastor on hand for anybody who needed him, but there was no counselling for the team. It was mainly ‘get through it how you can.’ Some did better than others. Blokes were feeling the pinch a lot more than they were letting on. It’s very surreal. You never think it’s going to hit so close to home and affect the club so profoundly.”

As the shocking event ripples outward from the epicentre of the club, the club “community” absorbs the tragedy too. The Penrith community could barely assimilate it in the same way the Collingwood faithful has in Millane’s case. Penrith’s fans were all located in one area, whereas Collingwood – the team – has long been a geographical abstraction. The entire Penrith community, where the Alexanders were locals, was devastated. “The outpouring of emotion was something never before seen. Obviously, you don’t want to see it again,” says Geyer. “Elderly gentlemen and ladies of the community down to the school kids were all shattered by it.

“If you had the opportunity to say, ‘we’ll give the Grand Final ring back as long as we get Ben back’…the last thing on our minds for a long time was Rugby League.”

1992-3 were the worst years in Penrith’s history. Greg Alexander and Mark Geyer barely played. Brad Fittler spent the year grieving. No individual so vulnerable should have been playing a game like League. This was an entire team. At the end of the season, Geyer left for Balmain. He was never quite the same player. Neither was Greg. The next year, coach Phil Gould left mid-season after a dispute with Greg, who departed himself for Auckland in 1995.

The “gun” team of the league was decimated. The crowds dwindled. The struggling club had nothing to offer Fittler and Matt Sing, and lost them to the Sydney City Roosters.

Mark Geyer thought he was handling it, but “it affected me more than I thought it would. I turned to all kinds of substance abuse in the hope of getting over the…trauma. I didn’t want to be in reality.”

Only recently has the club expelled the demons. The recovery that led eventually to the 2003 Premiership only began when Alexander and Geyer returned to the club in 1997 and 1998 respectively.  “We were lucky to finish at the club we both loved. The world turned when we came back.”

Survivor guilt might explain Penrith’s rapid decline. It often manifests itself in sentiments expressed as, “why couldn’t it have been me?” or, “why didn’t I just tell him not to?”, or “If only I’d been there.” Alexander and Broadbridge died in different ways. The latter was time and chance, an act of God, and that is how the Melbourne club has made sense of it. It’s too early to tell, but for this reason, Melbourne’s onfield performance might not be adversely affected. In Alexander’s case, he was doing something any number of his teammates were doing the very same night – attending a club function. The difference in the experience is profound. “Survivor guilt” is experienced by anyone who feels keenly that only good luck prevented them from meeting the same fate. This self-punishment is perfectly natural. Sufferers think that, somehow, they might have been responsible, and such feelings actually give the event meaning for them, and are a hedge against total helplessness. But their effects can be debilitating.

The nature of Millane’s death was different again. He was doing something “typical”, but his teammates were elsewhere. The season had ended. It was a numbingly tragic time for Collingwood, but unlike Penrith, they lifted the next year, fuelled by emotion and the sort of self-belief Millane epitomised. They made it to the finals and were flag favourites in 1992, only to fall at the second-last hurdle. After that, their downward spiral lasted the best part of a decade. The Millane death wasn’t the sole reason, but it helped precipitate the chain reaction of decline.

Death makes no sense. It doesn’t discriminate. It is no respecter of persons. It has its own whims, and we cannot hope to anticipate them. So when a sports star, who is somehow larger than life, suddenly leaves us, our first impulse is to somehow make meaning of it. The culture of fans is a powerful generator of meaning and preserver of memory.

Fans demand explanation. Today’s clubs often provide it. In the 1970s, fans were left to make their own sense of such catastrophes. Crimmins’ slow demise allowed too much time to search for reasons. Until the end, everyone hung onto some slim hope that he might not die. But one urban myth targeted Crimmins’ teammate, Don Scott. The canard that he somehow caused Crimmins’ cancer when he flicked him in the groin with a towel (it was actually his hand) merged, in folklore, with a captaincy issue that arose the week Crimmins was almost selected for the 1975 Grand Final. Scott was the premiership captain, selected as skipper during Crimmins’ absence. Crimmins might have re-assumed that captaincy had he made the team. The vague implication of intent is unthinkable, but urban myths, because their origins are untraceable, are able to express the unthinkable.

The timing of such stories matters. If Geyer’s version involving Phil Gould had come out at the time of Ben Alexander’s death, reaction to it might have been very different.

Sometimes, it takes more than a generation of fans to heal the wounds. On official and unofficial Collingwood websites, you’ll uncover a colony of Magpie faithful still working on the Millane legend diligently, carefully, reconstructing the man from the bottom up; protecting his god status from the gleeful, sometimes morbid taunts of fans from other clubs. Millane’s death instantly began the myth of Darren Millane. As with anyone who dies in the fullness of their youthful powers, Millane’s legacy is that of thwarted greatness. He “would have been” Collingwood’s next captain. He “could have been” one of the great players of all time. Darren Millane, in death, became the “heart and soul” of the Magpies; the “backbone”.

Long term, clubs often find ways to perpetuate memory, for the sake of the fans, the club and the family of the deceased. The Ben Alexander trophy is for rookie of the year at Penrith. There are still enough of the old Hawks around to resurrect the Crimmins legend, three generations of players later. Gwen, his widow, has finally been asked to present the Peter Crimmins Medal. “There’s the old times and the old stories, and they want a bit of that to boost the club, I think,” says Gwen without cynicism. Millane’s family has been enveloped by the club ever since Darren’s death. Every year, they attend events and are respected by players, officials and the fans who revered Darren. The most significant of these events is the Copeland Trophy ceremony, where the Darren Millane Medal is given to the best clubman.

The number of a deceased player, or a retired great, has potent symbolism in AFL – more so than in other codes where number indicates position. In AFL, jumper numbers are “retired.” Depending on the circumstance, a jumper might not be resurrected for a few generations. Collingwood, who have done everything right since Millane’s death, acted, it was believed, with indecent haste last year when they gave his revered number 42 to their first pick in the 2004 player draft, Billy Morrison. They underestimated the emotions of Millane’s former teammates, and his family, who took their complaint to the media. Richmond experienced similar angst when they handed Jack Dyer’s beloved number 17 to Paul Hudson – and Jack had been fifty years retired.

Gwen Crimmins has reason to be thankful to Hawthorn and its high-profile supporters, who rallied upon Peter’s death. The club and its backers, led by businessman John Hoare, set up a family trust. Another prominent businessman, Des Walker, arranged a variety night with Melbourne’s stars to raise money for it. The effect was lasting and practical. Gwen was able to send the children to Assumption College and give them a relatively normal life as a direct result of these efforts.

Just as you find families of the deceased heal their wounds with service to the living, in voluntary organisations associated with the cause of death, so they become fixtures at footy clubs. Grief is converted to engagement. The family of the deceased offer club and fans transition and consolation, and vice versa. Ultimately, people need the therapy of turning a loss into something good. Gwen also involved herself in fundraising for testicular cancer research.

“The club said, ‘hey Cam, there’s no script for this. You’re writing it. What should we do? Where should we go?’” Cam Butler, Melbourne Football Club’s pastor, called players back from holidays all around Australia before confirmation of Broadbridge’s death. Butler read out the same Biblical passage he’d read at Troy’s wedding to Trisha Silvers eight days earlier – the “love passage” from I Corinthians 13.

Cam felt it was just as relevant to Troy’s ongoing influence as it was to his marriage. “Troy was a salt-of-the-earth guy. A conciliator. He was always contacting guys when they were injured. He expressed a lot of one-percenters around the club that made all the difference and typified that passage really well. They spoke about who Troy was and the impact he had on our lives…then later on (ten days later), once he was declared deceased, it helped them to move on to a new phase and deal with it all.”

The club received tens of thousands of letters and cards from fans expressing grief and encouragement, and so many phone messages that their answering machines reached full capacity day after day.

A counsellor, Phil Martin, addressed the players en masse, encouraging them to express their suffering; to find their ways of understanding it. They tried to flesh Troy out with stories and descriptions: a “wicked sense of humour”. Confident. Selfless. Jim Stynes used it as a challenge for the way they lived their lives. Anything to draw some life out of Troy, and put death back in its box. Troy’s father, Wayne, just wanted the club to become closer. Meanwhile, President Paul Gardner has exhorted the club to “get on with it” in the same way Broadbridge would have: with “confidence and ambition.”

The club pledged to “keep a close eye” on the players, their spouses and staff, “to make sure they’re dealing with it as well as they can.” In the change room, Troy’s jumper was still hanging in his locker, and that number, 20, was enough to conjure him up. It haunted the players.

At the funeral, Cameron Bruce placed that jumper on the coffin. With that “letting go”, Troy Broadbridge’s story will be perpetuated, incorporated, put to good use, as it should be.

Still, denial is never far away. According to Butler, “The typical response can be to bottle it up. There’s a lot of ‘let’s play for Troy,’ but there’s escapism in that.”

Butler saw, in the reaction of other clubs, that the impact on the entire competition might be a neglected aspect of a player’s death. “The AFL is a big family. Our network of chaplains communicated closely. Clubs like Richmond put together a tribute book from the players and sent it to us.” Butler put a message on Melbourne’s website to help people outside the club deal with the emotions they were feeling.

“Closure” is an overused word. In many ways, it’s a misnomer. “While the laymen might forget, there’s a bunch of us who will never forget,” says Mark Geyer.  “If we’re at the pub and heading towards a long night, we’ll put the juke box on and play a few of Ben’s favourite songs, and get a bit of a tear in the eye. That’s a good way to remember him. He’d be happy about it. He loved his music.”

Cam Butler’s path to resolution is more spiritual. “The greatest honour we can give Troy is to honour him in our lives, and move on with our footy. He was thoughtful and kind-hearted and I’d like that to impact on their daily lives. On the footy field, you need to be ruthless. Troy just wouldn’t give up and that’s a quality we can draw from him on the footy field.” It’s important to preserve memory, according to Butler, but to avoid taking away a man’s dimension as a human being. “Let’s not deify people. Dealing with grief is to think about the good things, but the things that annoyed you can be just as important to remember.”

No matter what we do with the deceased, when they die, everything changes. But closure? Nothing ever closes.

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