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.