Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: Micky O – the gentleman of AFL


 As a peer of Michael’s, I have shared a board room table at the National Aboriginal SportingChance Academy, I have watched him speak to business people with intelligence, humour and humility, and I have heard endless stories of how kids react to him in his role of Indigenous Literacy Day  Ambassador (of which I am also one). On every level, he remains humble and inspiring. His words in Micky O are no different.
Michael is - as I once tweeted while watching him on the Marngrook Footy Show - the true gentleman of AFL. With that in mind, this review is not simply about the well-known and respected sporting legend. It’s a review about a proud, eloquent, gentle-spirited Indigenous fella, who also plays football.
While many will read his book – written with Jim Main  – as the history of the man and his role with the Sydney Swans, I read it as the story of a devoted family man, adoring husband, mentor and ambassador for Indigenous people, especially kids, everywhere.
Family and friends
Although only a small part of this volume is dedicated to Michael’s personal life, the story of the love for his family shines through. Acknowledging his mother for her capacity to raise her children almost singlehandedly, right through to the star-crossed-lovers moment of when he met his soul mate Emma in 2003 at a bar in Darling Harbour then the birth of each of his three children: Taya, James and Leni, we learn about Michael-the-family-man.
Reading about the O’Loughlins in South Australia and now in Sydney made me smile. I share the same birthday as Michael’s daughter Lena – August 14. The couple on the $50 note outside the old Raukkan church are two of Michael’s ancestors: his great grandparents are Clarence Long and Polly Beck. And Michael’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Kudnarto, was the first Aboriginal person to marry under white-man’s law, in 1848, when she married Englishman Thomas Adams. So, the work is also a bit of an Australian history book.
Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of absolute respect for his teammates and especially Adam Goodes  (Goodsie) with whom he set up the GoodesO’Loughlin Foundation. Michael writes that his mate shared the same ‘determination and will to succeed’. As it turns out, Michael and Adam are cousins – Adam’s grandmother and Michael’s great-grandmother were sisters. Easy to see then how the genius runs in the genes!
Identity and racism
It’s Michael’s words on his identity and managing racism throughout his life that I find most valuable, especially given I am always looking for books to recommend to teachers for use in schools. Michael writes that he is enormously proud of his Indigenous heritage, and being strong in identity meant he never let racists upset him, and thankfully, he was rarely subjected to racist abuse in the game. However, as a child he learned the realities of being Indigenous and how to deal with racism.
I was often called an ‘abo’, but I learned to live with this, even if I could never accept it. More hurtful names, like ‘blackie’ or ‘darkie’ were a different matter. Although I bristled, Mum had taught me the best way to deal with such comments was to prove myself a better person and, on the football field, a better player. (p.22)
The average white Australian has no real idea of what Indigenous communities went through, and still doesn’t. Imagine needing permission to travel, to seek employment elsewhere, etc! We were regarded as second-class citizens, had no voting rights and often were shunned and relegated to the poorer and unwanted parts of towns and cities. (p.31)
Michael credits his Mum for teaching him to ignore racist taunts and he never as a youth, accepted invitations for a brawl behind the sheds. As a young man, he was proud of his Aboriginal heroes like Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Nicky Winmar and Syd Jackson who were brilliant players who ignored ‘the verbal barbs of narrow-minded racists’.
Many like myself might not know until reading this book that it was after Damien Monkhurst racially abused Essendon winger Michael Long in 1995, that the AFL introduced it’s racial vilification rules which are (apparently) so effective that they have been picked up by rival codes and sports around the world. Of course, this also followed on from the famous Nicky Winmar  shirt-lifting incident in 1993.
While Michael is proud of his Aboriginal identity, we learn of his varied heritages as well, including his ‘strong element of Hebrew and dash of Irish.’
It might sound like a strange mixture, but I am an Indigenous Australian, just like most Aborigines who have Caucasian or other elements in the DNA. To explain this, I use an analogy about coffee. A cup of coffee can be black, white or somewhere in between. But no matter whether you add a tiny dash of milk or whole dollop of cream, it is still coffee. I am black coffee with just a drop or two of milk. (p.8)
Football
Reading Micky O was like spending a few days inside the mind of a committed professional athlete. Michael dreamed of being an elite footballer at an early age. His role models as a child included his Uncle Wilbur Wilson who played for the SA Bulldogs. He idolised Derek Kickett. He was a self-defined ‘footy-head’ growing up in Salisbury, SA. By the age of 12 he was representing his home state in Sydney. It was his mother’s ‘tough-love’, which Michael talks about that kept him on the right track to become the star he did.
I had this inner drive to succeed in a sport I embraced heart and soul. I don’t honestly know where this came from, but it was always there – striving, striving, and striving to better myself as a footballer, even in the twilight of my career with the Swans. (p.21)
By 17 Michael was drafted in the Swans (although he wanted to go to Carlton) and his dream of playing in the AFL was realised. He kicked three goals in his debut game for the Swans and even as a reader it was hard not to feel the excitement of a young lad many years ago. At 22, Michael was Swans Best and Fairest and won the Fos Williams Medal in 1998. In 2005, he fulfilled his dream of winning a premiership with the Swans, breaking a 72-year drought. Being welcomed into the team’s celebrations that night through Michael’s memories - gives readers a true insight into the passion that ripples through the team, and indeed the fans. It was interesting for me to read: ‘Players change teams but fans remain loyal to just one club.’
In the same vein as understanding the awesomeness of the win, was reading the pain of defeat in 2006, as Michael wrote: ‘the pain of that narrow grand final defeat still too raw.’
By the time he retired, Michael had played in a premiership side, in three grand finals and in one finals series – and today in his role AIS AFL Academy Coach, he still maintains the same passion for the club, his mates and the game.
Mickey-speak
I’m not someone who would ever be considered a ‘footy fan’, but I gained a greater interest in and an appreciation for the sport because Micky O was easy to read, partly because the author is a natural storyteller – warm, humorous and with an unusual turn of phrase. What I call ‘Micky-speak’. For example:
            ...the butterflies in my stomach started flapping like startled bats. p.56
There was a light at the end of the tunnel and this time it was not an express training heading our way. p.62
...he poured petrol on his cereal each morning and gargled his throat with nails. (about Guy McKenna) p.75.
I thought Ricky deserved another chance so I suggested the Swans pick him up as a rookie for the 2002 season and I was cock-a-hoop when the club gave him that chance. (p.117)
Michael also provided some beautiful imagery in his words, with one weather report citing: Thunder echoed around the ground and rain lashed down. Playing in the rain is tough enough, but when you can hear the thunder like cymbals in your eyes and see the lightning forking across the sky –albeit in the distance – is a frightening experience. (p.146)
Guest quotes throughout the work by his mother Muriel O’Loughlin, wife Emma, coaches Ron Barrassi, Rodney Eade and others, add to a rich web of storytelling, shining various spotlights on the same man from different perspectives. I wonder how daunting that must be for him?
Finally, I’m told there are few footballers that come through their careers as men who are grounded. Even the ‘all Australian boy’ writes on the issue:
It’s important to keep your feet on the ground and it saddens me to see so many sports starts –not just footballers – who they are better than others simply because they have God-given gifts (p.103)
I’m pleased to say that Micky O is one of those few who has his head on his shoulders, feet on the ground and priorities just as they should be for himself, his family and his mob.
You don’t have to like football to love Micky O.
Micky O - Determination. Hard Work. And a Little Bit of Magic is available now for $29.95 from the ABC Shop.
 

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