Humanity is a comfort in the darkest times
THOSE who hold that sport is nothing other than a frivolous and meaningless pursuit cannot have been paying attention over the past fortnight.
They cannot have been paying attention over the past few years as elite sporting organisations have, all too frequently, faced and met the kind of tests, the sort of tests posed by premature death, which confront so many of us as we negotiate our unpredictable lives.
The gifted batsman Phil Hughes, former Collingwood and Port Adelaide footballer John McCarthy and former Melbourne coach Dean Bailey are three who come to mind. And then, of course, there was Phil Walsh.
At Wednesday’s memorial service for Walsh, much was made in the fourth and final eulogy, a beautifully laconic speech by former Port Adelaide Football Club operations manager Rob Snowden, of the gratitude the Walsh family would like to extend to the public for sharing in its grief.
That gratitude should extend in the opposite direction.
The Walsh family — that is, the immediate family, the close circle of Walsh friends, and the football family which surrounded the man — deserves our gratitude for bringing the public into their trust at a time of such acute hardship.
Until recently I was unaware that football clubs employed chaplains to provide pastoral care for players and club employees and to help these organisations through tough times.
Through Kane Cornes I learned of the leadership provided at Port Adelaide in 2012 by the club chaplain, the aptly named Brendon Chaplin, when John McCarthy died in that terrible accident during a trip to the US after the end of the home-and-away season.
When you think about it, a footy club is the perfect place for a chaplain to work. So much of sport involves the dashing of dreams. Around a quarter of all listed AFL players do not last more than a couple of seasons. They put their lives on hold to pursue a dream and that dream can often vanish in the form of an ACL, a recurring foot injury, or simply through finding out, the hard way, that they’re not good enough. Those are existential challenges for young men, but are nothing on the scale of a McCarthy, a Walsh or a Hughes, a mega-moment that leaves people asking the unanswerable question: why?
You don’t give eulogies marks out of 10, as the mere act of giving one is testing in the extreme, but I have not heard a better eulogy than that delivered by Chaplin at Wednesday’s memorial service.
Chaplin opened himself up by recalling how he almost fell apart a few years back due to the sudden death of his closest friend. When he was paralysed with grief, it was Phil Walsh who, of his own volition, became the de facto chaplain to Chaplin, nursing him through his toughest of weeks, by simply being there for him.
“He was sharing the love,” Chaplin told the memorial service.
As a man of God, Chaplin manned up for the toughest question in Christian theology: how is it that such terrible things can happen to such good people?
In conceding that even he struggles with bewilderment, disbelief and anger at such a state of affairs, and can only reconcile himself with the fact that life is uncertain and sometimes cruel, Chaplin gave everyone in that room permission to feel comfortable in their distress. To feel normal in their abnormality.
The most generous act came from the Walsh family themselves, in opening up the family album to a wider audience than it would have ever have expected to receive. And to show that family in their once-happy totality, beautiful images of Phil and Meredith and Quinn and Cy, father and son with their arms around each other’s shoulders, all smiles, and to implore the congregation to extend their prayers to include their boy. What level of humanity is that. The gratitude is ours.