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  • Geoff Cordner

Celebrity Twins

For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by the concept of shared birthdays. Whether it be reading an autobiography, checking out an online profile, or unpeeling a Fantale wrapper, for years I've been in the habit of noting the birthdays of sportsheroes, entertainers, and famous historical figures, and seeing whether they correspond with those of other people I'm familiar with.

Did you know for example that two of the most celebrated men in the history of politics and science respectively – Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin – were both born on February 12, 1809? Or that Australia’s First Lady of Media, Ita Buttrose, shared a birthday (17 January 1942) with arguably the most famous sportsman of all-time, Muhammad Ali? I am absolutely certain you didn’t know that Russia’s controversial leader, Vladimir Putin, arrived into this world on the same day (7 October 1952) as Graham Yallop – the man who would go on to lead Australia’s national cricket team during one of its most controversial periods; following the birth of World Series Cricket in the late 1970’s.

Now before you conclude that my fascination has developed into something of an unhealthy obsession, I hasten to add that as recently as a few months ago I didn’t know about any of the three birthday coincidences noted above. Because, in yet another remarkable coincidence, as I was assembling my thoughts to write this very article the Sydney Morning Herald published a Holiday Crossword over the October long weekend in which the major theme was, believe it or not, exactly the same as the theme of this article – ie shared birthdays.

Truth be told though, my interest was never really about celebrities blowing out candles on the same day as one another. It was about the sharing of birthdays between (a) the famous and (b) people I know, or have known, personally.

It was, therefore, a matter of delight when I discovered many years ago that my mother, Gwen, and the enigmatic actor/director, Clint Eastwood, both drew their first breath on May 31, 1930. I clearly recall one year delivering champagne to Gwen which purported to be a birthday gift from her celebrity twin, or, to be more accurate, one of his most famous alter egos – Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department. A .44 Magnum of bubbles, the handmade label of which suggested its alcohol content was so high it just might “blow your head clean off” seemed amusingly appropriate to me at the time, but almost certainly less so to the 70-year old (as she then was) who had given birth to me.

It also struck me as fitting that the woman who would become the subject of my most amorous attentions, my wife Linda, was born on November 12; the same day of the year as one of the most beautiful and desirable women in history ‑ Hollywood actress, and subsequently Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. Although their birthdays were separated by 37 years, in another notable coincidence both Grace and Linda would marry (two very lucky men!) in the April following their 26th birthday. Less happily, both would suffer unthinkable tragedy in their 53rd year.

In 1995, just a little more than two years after our marriage, Linda and I were contemplating the impending arrival of our first child – a son, who we had decided would be named Timothy, and known as Tim. We had almost no hesitation whatsoever in choosing Tim’s first name – an omen perhaps of the fact that he has rarely ever given us cause for doubt or concern. His middle name was, at the time of his arrival on June 15, still a matter for gentle debate, although the frontrunner was most definitely James. The debate was settled when I discovered on that day (courtesy of the Daily Telegraph) that the actor James Belushi was also born on June 15. Now I’m no particular fan of James Belushi, but it is a curious fact that less than a month before Tim was born I had met the man himself when I appeared with him (as a featured extra) in two staffroom scenes in Race the Sun; a movie shot, in part, here in Australia from April-June of that year. (If Tim had been a girl, chances are his middle name may have been Halle, as Halle Berry also starred in Race the Sun, and sat next to me in one of those scenes – be still my beating heart!).

Barely a year after Tim’s arrival I would realise a lifelong dream by attending the AFL Grand Final for the first time at the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground. My “second” team, the Sydney Swans, were playing North Melbourne that day. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the efforts of, statistically, the greatest player in the history of the sport – Tony “Plugger” Lockett, who bagged a lazy six goals on the day – the Swans were soundly beaten by 43 points. One of my enduring memories from the match however was not the action taking place on the field, but the large sign brandished by a gentleman sitting not far from our group. It read “GO ROOS”. I couldn’t help but wonder if the man was deliberately having an each way bet on the result of the match: Roos being an abbreviated nickname for the North Melbourne Kangaroos, but also the surname of the Swans’ most experienced player, who set a record that day which still stands – the greatest number of AFL games played (313) before participating in his first (and only) Grand Final.

What I did not know then, and would only discover some years later, after he had taken over the reins as head coach of the Swans in the early 2000’s, was that Paul Roos was my celebrity twin. Not only were we both born in Melbourne on June 27, 1963, but our height and weight at the peak of our powers (188cm, and around 88kg) were virtually identical. Roos would marry his wife, Tami, a year before Linda and I tied the knot. Like us, the Roos family would ultimately consist of just two children, both boys – the first born two years after their parents’ marriage, and the second two years later.

With Paul Roos being an Australian Football coach living and working in Sydney, and with both his boys being keen footballers themselves, it was hardly surprising that we would find ourselves in the same place at the same time on occasions during the late 2000’s and early 2010’s; nearly always of course in the context of a footy match somewhere. What was a little harder to explain was the way in which something significant always seemed to happen on those occasions.

In 2008 Paul arrived at the ground where Tim was playing in preparation for the match to follow, in which his older boy, Dylan, was to be involved. It was Tim’s 13th birthday, and he would go on to kick his lifetime best tally in a single match (8), including five goals in one quarter. In 2010 the same situation arose again, with Paul arriving early for Dylan’s match - only this time Tim suffered a season-ending injury. In 2011 Paul’s younger son, Tyler, and Tim would find themselves pitted against one another for the first time, only for Tyler to himself suffer a very serious leg injury that would require the attendance of an ambulance, and put him out of action for a considerable period. Sadly Tyler suffered a serious shoulder injury in the Grand Final that same season – a match Tim and I attended, even though Tim’s team had not qualified for the decider.

I would not see Paul Roos again in person until the second half of 2013, more than two years later. The very day before - September 6, 2013 ‑ it had been announced in the press that Roos would be returning to the AFL coaching ranks in 2014, having spent the previous three years, following his retirement as coach of the Swans, working in the football media. There are 18 clubs in the AFL. It could realistically have been any one of them that wanted to appoint a coach with Paul Roos’ history of on‑field success, outstanding off-field leadership, and boasting premiership experience. But I should hardly have been surprised that the Club concerned was the Melbourne Demons – the very Club my father, his three brothers, my grandfather, his brother, and my cousin David had all represented during the course of the 20th century.

So what does all this have to do with Ben?

I was pretty excited to discover some time during Ben’s childhood that he shared a birthday with one of my favourite cricketers, the South African Jacques Kallis. On numbers alone Kallis has claims to being the greatest all-rounder the game of cricket has ever known, but his perfect batting technique was enough for me to relish any opportunity to watch him play, and to point out his sublime skills to the boys – in particular, Ben, with whom he shared an important date. What strikes me now, as I reflect on that coincidence, is how wretched it seems that the cricket-loving boy born on Jacques Kallis’ 22nd birthday would never himself achieve that modest milestone.

But this story does not end there.

In the very early part of 2020, around the time that the Australian Open Tennis tournament was about to commence, I heard or read some media discussion about whether or not Japan’s Naomi Osaka would be able to defend the title she had won at Melbourne Park the previous year. Bells started ringing in my head immediately. I recalled, having not thought about it for a long time, that Linda had discovered back in 2018 – around the time she won the US Open in controversial circumstances against Serena Williams; becoming, in doing so, Japan’s first ever Grand Slam tennis champion – that Osaka was born on exactly the same day as Ben: 16 October 1997. I knew, even before going back to research the facts surrounding that Australian Open victory in 2019, that something extraordinary was in store for me.

This is what I discovered.

The Women’s Final at the 2019 Australian Open was played on the evening of Saturday, January 26 (Australia Day) between Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic. At around 7.15pm the players were preparing to take the court, with the match scheduled to start at 7.30pm. At that very time Linda and I were arriving at the Royal North Shore Hospital, hoping and praying for good news about Ben’s condition. Ben had been airlifted to the Hospital by helicopter a short time earlier, after receiving treatment at the scene of his accident ‑ initially from incredibly heroic onlookers (to whom we will forever remain indebted for having kept our boy alive as long as they did), and subsequently from attending paramedics.

At around 7.45pm the match commenced. Simultaneously we would place a call to Tim, enjoying his own Australia Day celebrations in Sydney’s west, but completely unaware of what had occurred to Ben, to tell him we believed he should make his way to the Hospital as quickly as possible.

Media outlets analysing the Osaka-Kvitova match in hindsight would refer to Osaka’s “meltdown” towards the end of the second set, during which she lost four consecutive games after having had the opportunity to serve for the set, the match, and the Championship. By my reckoning this inexplicable loss of composure would coincide with the delivery of the news to Linda and I by medical staff at the Hospital that, despite all of their best efforts, Ben’s life could not be saved.

We would spend the next couple of hours, initially on our own with Ben, and subsequently in the company of Tim, and a number of very close and important friends of ours, and of Ben’s, saying our farewells to our beautiful extraordinary boy. These were precious moments that are denied many people who lose their loved ones as the result of an accidental death, and we remain very grateful to have had them, painful and bitterly final though they may have been.

It remains incomprehensible to me that at virtually the exact moment that the medical equipment supporting our son’s fragile existence was being withdrawn from him - surely the most difficult decision a family can ever possibly make ‑ another young person, born on the very same day as Ben, would be celebrating the greatest moment of her young life (Naomi Osaka having won the third and deciding set of that epic Australian Open final): hoisting the trophy into which her name has now been indelibly engraved above her head in triumph, and toasting the victory that would see her become the Number 1 player in the world for the first time.

It seems almost impossible to conceive of a greater contrast between the fortunes of any two people on the face of the earth than that described in the preceding paragraph. That those two people should have arrived amongst us on the very same day more than 21 years before makes the contrast even more acutely improbable. But it happened.

So what does it all mean? I wish, with all of my heart, that I knew, and could explain. But the truth is - I don’t, and I can’t.

What I do know is that I will continue to follow Naomi Osaka’s career closely and passionately for as long as she continues to play. Since I first started putting this piece together she has secured her second US Open championship, staging a tenacious comeback in the final against Victoria Azarenka - from a set and a break of service down - to win her third Grand Slam title. During that tournament she gave silent but powerful support to the Black Lives Matter campaign. She appears to be a person of great moral courage, who has displayed inspirational talent, determination and humility throughout her career to date.

These are such impressive qualities to find in one so young. But they make me even more grateful to be able to claim her as Ben’s celebrity twin.

If you would like to learn more about Naomi Osaka, click on the link below, which explains why she was nominated as a Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year for 2020


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