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Memoirs of a Waterboy - Wrong Time and Place

Wrong Time and Place

My father used to come and watch me play football if he could drive and park on the oval fence. That way, he could sit in the car and listen to the races while watching me in action. Win-Win.

After one match he gave me some advice. “Al, you spend a lot of time with the ball going over your head. You either need to drop back another 20 metres to where it’s going to land, or go forwards 20 so you can compete for it.” I never did bridge that gap and my footy career went nowhere.

Twenty-five years later when I became the Willunga Waterboy, I realised that my footy-playing style developed over 8 or 9 seasons, qualified me perfectly for my new role: I’d trained myself to stay clear of the ball.

Sadly, my ball-avoidance skills fell well short of Best Practice one night in 2017 on the Vale oval.

The locals got away to a flyer and kicked five before Willunga gave a yelp. With each goal the Willunga players wanted less to drink and were definitely not up for a friendly chat. After the fifth of the Vale’s unanswered goals, I strolled across half-back without getting a single customer.

I moved backwards so I could keep my eye on the play and was ten metres from the eastern boundary when the Vale ruckman grabbed the bounce-down and hammered the ball along the ground in my direction. I was unphased and continued to move backwards but the ball, having a mind of its own, as Aussie Rules’ footballs do, bounced, bounced, bounced and with each bounce, deviated towards me.

Five metres from the line I realised I was directly in the firing line. I glanced up: eight rather large bodies were rushing towards me from the centre square. I glanced right: two fleet-footed wingers were zeroing in on me. I was caught in a crossfire. I froze, assuming the pack would swerve around me. Wrong.

A McLaren player hit me at full speed right up the middle - BOOF - and the world went into slow motion. I fell backwards, bottles flying from flailing hands, eye glasses spinning off into the darkness. I heard the Vale player demanding a free kick. “The Waterboy was in the way. That’s a free, ump.”

Meanwhile, my lower back hit the ground followed by my upper back then my head – one bounce. I slid backwards for a couple of feet on the dewy turf then ground to a halt. The play went on.

I took a count of ten and assessed my situation.

Joel, the runner, appeared above me. “Steve (the coach) wants to know if you’re all right.”

I replied that my back was stuffed. He helped me to my feet and collected the bottles while I located my glasses. He told me to come off but I resisted.

“I think I need to move around to see if I can free my back up.”

He returned to the coach’s box. I stepped gingerly along the boundary but quickly knew my night was done. A Willunga supporter asked if I was all right then added excitedly, “That was the best shirt-front I’ve seen for years.”

At quarter time, the trainer (“Thank you, Meredith”) wrapped me in an ice pack and Gladwrap and repeated the process on and off until game’s end (which we won), then sent me home. It took nearly two weeks until I could bend enough to tie my laces and resume my water running - at a slower than ever pace. You can’t keep the Willunga Waterboy down for long.