Going mad for Mango. A tribute to a champion Cowboy who’s inspired a generation.

September 8, 2012

A change of pace this Saturday.

Yes, it’s a massive afternoon of racing ahead. A super card at Flemington with the Makybe Diva Stakes. And glorious weather for fun at Doomben.

But it’s all just marking time. Before the REALLY big event of the weekend. The Cowboys and the Broncos going head to head tonight in Townsville.

If you’re not a league fan, stay with me here. Because today’s offering is not about a game. It’s about a man. An amazing bloke, who has overcome obstacles that kill off sporting careers every other day.

Matty Bowen is North Queensland’s favourite son. Most games for the Cowboys. Origin and Test star. Indigenous hero. And so much more.

He plays his 250th game tonight. A career in the big time that began in 2001. It could have been so different.

Bowen comes from a tiny dot on the map called Hope Vale, deep in Cape York. Leave Brisbane now, and you’ll get there in a few days, after covering roughly 1500 kilometres. Melbourne is closer.

Like so many towns in the Cape, the road to success is so much tougher to negotiate. And sadly, less travelled.

I’ve been to plenty of them over the years. Some beautiful. Others heartbreaking. All with something in common. Energetic, athletic, carefree, fun-loving kids.

Matty Bowen was one. Playing footy on dusty streets from dawn to dusk. No restrictions. No shackles. Just a pure love of the game.

So many players have that youthful enthusiasm knocked out of them. Over-coached. Mistake-free. Play the percentages.

Not Matty. Watch him now, all these years later, and his mindset is still in the backyard. A loose ball is a try opportunity. Even on his own line. Go down to your local park after school, and you’ll see youngsters doing that exact same thing.

For a small man, his bravery is astounding. On those rare occasions that defenders catch him, they don’t miss. He gets up, with a shake of that curly mop. And looks for the next try.

More than that, his comeback from severe injury has been remarkable. Major knee surgery. Not once, but twice. Cartilage grown externally, then implanted. Awful times, enough to end careers. But not the bloke they call Mango (as in Bowen mangoes.)

Other flying machines get slower as they get older. Those injuries take their toll. Have you watched this bloke lately? He’s breaking low flying speed records.

Townsville has been good for Matty. Just the right fit. I doubt he would have survived with a Sydney club. Not because of ability. He just wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much.

There are so many more kids out there, with the same passion. In small towns where the game is an escape. So many have been given hope, by the bloke from Hope Vale.

He’s spent much of his career doing school talks, and community visits. They love him. A humble hero. Who runs like the wind.

Many years ago, one of the club’s development officers drove Matty to one such function in the north. A school where league was the number one subject, and young Cowboys were regarded as rock stars.

This guy told me later that the trip there took place in silence. Not a word. The shy young fullback was immersed in his own thoughts. Maybe thinking back to those street games back home.

The coach was a little worried. The visit required the diminutive champion to speak at some length to the youngsters, pointing out the pitfalls ahead, and the value of hard work and fair play. At this rate, they’d be back in class quickly.

On arrival, they found the kids in the middle of a typical playground encounter. No shoes and few rules. Before he’d taken the witches hats out of the boot, the coach had lost his special guest.

With panic not far off, the coach scanned the playground. And there, in the middle of the chaos that is lunchtime footy, was Matty Bowen.

The rep star of the future had joined in, to the delight of the kids. Running, and dodging, and scoring tries. And laughing.

There would be no speech. No need. Those boys would learn more that day than they would in fifty classroom lectures. From the champion right next to them. Inspiring in a way few others are able to.

I’ll be cheering him again tonight. Not just because I’m a Cowboys fan, and I think this is our time. I want to celebrate the deeds of a special sportsman, who has done more for indigenous relations and well-being than a room full of politicians. Without even trying.

The never-ending games in Hope Vale, and in other tiny towns, will take a rare break tonight. Just in time to see Matty weave his magic. Like he’s always done.

Those kids will then go to bed, with the footy at their bedroom door, and dream of making it in the big time. Thanks to Matty Bowen, there’s no reason why they can’t.

Toilet troubles, crook knees and baldness. Let the Old Fart celebrations begin.

August 21, 2012

We are all getting so very old. Ancient, even.

Thank you Captain Obvious, I hear the crowd roar. But you must stick with me here.

I’m referring to a particular group. My mates. The boys I grew up with.

We are all approaching fifty years. A bunch of us, hobbling towards five decades of life. Some with more hair than others.

The first of the birthdays was at the weekend. Others will follow in the months ahead. Then next year. And a few in the early part of 2014.

You might tag us as over the hill, but we’re all still young at heart. We remember how it once was. What we used to get up to. I wouldn’t say we were wild. Although others might. I prefer to remember us as high-spirited, and fun-loving.

When we get together these days, we try to do the things we once did. For a while at least. Before one of us nods off.

For this party, we decided to gather at our local a few hours earlier. A punt and a few cool drinks, before the official fun began. A time-honoured tradition among this gang.

One by one they arrived. I don’t get to see them that much now, so every greeting featured a heart-felt hug and a firm handshake.

The ales flowed, and so did the stories. But the topics are so very different.

I returned to the table after a successful wager at Caulfield, to find the boys deep in conversation about their prostates. Not the footy, or the surf, or even a joke. Prostates.

One was recovering from a test. Another had one booked. Everyone had a horror story. Can’t be too careful, you know.

This bunch had been known to take over entire disco dance floors, and drain kegs in backyards. And here we were, discussing troubled male glands. In the same bar that the more spirited had arm wrestled in their youth.

For me, the conversation was a timely one. I’m having surgery later this week. They asked plenty of questions and painted terrible pictures about what was ahead. So nice of them.

We then shifted body parts. One of the boys described his progress after a knee replacement. A bloke who terrorised opponents on the field years ago. Now paying a painful price.

We left for the party soon after. A gentle walk towards the beach. A few were hobbling. One softie was even complaining about the cold. Why didn’t I take a jacket?

We arrived, and found other tell-tale signs around the room. One of the boys on crutches. Another bung knee. And it’s fair to say no-one was carrying a hair brush.

A bloke I hadn’t seen in twenty years mentioned that he’d had a heart attack a few years back. He was a respected opponent in our battles on the paddock. Now he was careful about his weight, and what he ate. Although it must be said, his form on the night was most impressive. I’m guessing the cardiac surgeon has given beer the green light.

A few haven’t made it this far. So sad. One of our great friends fought cancer like a warrior a few years back. The despicable disease got him in the end. Another is in the fight of his life right now. And we’re backing him to get the cash.

So we’re the lucky ones. Still very much alive and kicking. Having a giggle. Just falling asleep earlier.

The birthday boy finished the night by falling down the stairs. There was mock concern for a while, before everyone started laughing at him. I’m told he made a full recovery.

That’s what’s got us this far. A healthy dose of that great Australian trait. The ability to laugh at ourselves. And join is the fun with those closest to us.

My time’s coming, I know. The good news is that my knees are fine. And I’m still safe on the stairs. But can someone lend me a jacket? It’s freezing in here.