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Shoulder to Shoulder

Updated: Oct 16, 2020




There are some people who just get it; who have this innate ability to empathise with what you are going through. You listen to the things they say, in particular the questions they ask, you look at their faces, and especially into their eyes, and you know that they are with you 100%.

And it is not always the people you expect who fall into this category.


In June 2019 an old rugby mate of mine, who now lives in Canada, was back in Australia to catch up with family and friends. He was a tall, rugged, man’s man-type of guy when we played together in our late teens and early 20’s. Rugby forwards are not known for their sensitivity, on or off the field, and Robbo fitted that mould pretty well as a young man.


But the experiences of life, and the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood, have mellowed the young man I remember in ways I could not possibly have anticipated when we competed like a couple of pitiful horned wildebeest for the attentions of the same unfortunate young lady almost 40 years earlier.

Though we spend the evening (my 56th birthday coincidentally) in the company of a number of other highly-valued old footy mates, I notice a couple of significant things about Robbo.

First of all, he does not shy away from the subject of Ben’s death. To the contrary, he raises it almost immediately, enveloping me simultaneously in the sort of crushing bearhug that can only be bestowed by a man who is comfortable in his own skin, and with his own masculinity. Perhaps it could be argued that this gesture was a throwback to our footy days – the days of electrical tape, Dencorub, shared sweat and blood, fetid footy socks, communal showers, going-out gear, after-match speeches, and drunken dance moves. But I would dispute that. The warmth and emotion that hug carried with it conveyed the kind of sentiment you don’t get just from playing sport together, even on euphoric Grand Final days amongst a team that lived and played like brothers.

The second thing that struck me was his willingness to engage in a one-on-one conversation, even in shared company; to ask difficult questions, with even more difficult answers, and to listen quietly and attentively to those answers, with understanding and sympathy.


The only awkward moment came when I asked him, later in the evening, about how he reflects now, as a middle-aged man and then some, on his own near-death experience at a 21st birthday party more than 35 years ago. A time when those of us who knew him seriously contemplated the possibility that we would never share a laugh or a beer or a changeroom with him again as he fought for his life in a hospital bed – having been miraculously recovered, unconscious, and at night, from the murky depths of Pittwater by frantic drinking buddies after falling from the roof of a party boat, hitting his head on the way down into the chilly waters below.

He tells me he never thinks about that night, or how close he came to not ever having the chance to celebrate his own 21st birthday. But there is a hesitation, and an unusual lack of conviction to the way he responds that convinces me he has indeed considered, since hearing of the circumstances of Ben’s death, exactly how unforgiving and capricious life can be, and how grateful he is to have been given a second chance at his.


It only occurs to me some time later ‑ as I drive home from a night spent with the kind of friends we all aspire to have, and to be ‑ that perhaps my old mate simply did not want to consign my loss, and his own remarkable fortune, to the fickleness of fate; felt that somehow to do so would have been to diminish and trivialise that loss in a way he considered inappropriate, and almost offensive.

But he need not have worried. In our short time together he has done all I could possibly have asked, and more, to show me he is still the kind of teammate I want, and need, standing alongside me as I confront one of the toughest adversaries imaginable.

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