Day of tears: Retiring Bombers Jason Johnson and Adam Ramanauskas are farewelled in 2008. Photo: Leigh HenninghamSunday will be another very emotional day for all who love the AFL game.
In two football-mad states and with the starting times just 80 minutes apart, Adelaide and Port Adelaide will be paying tribute to the late Phil Walsh in a Showdown, while Etihad Stadium will host Maddie’s match as the AFL fraternity rallies behind the Riewoldts, after the death of Nick’s sister Madeleine in February after a five-year battle with aplastic anaemia, a bone marrow failure syndrome that took her life at just 26.
I was lying in bed last Saturday night watching the Adelaide Crows bravely take to the field against the West Coast Eagles in Perth.
When the final siren sounded and the players linked arms for the 30 seconds in the middle of the ground, tears started rolling down my eyes watching the Crows players as they bowed their heads and wept for Phil Walsh.
The vision of the Crows players leaving the ground with such an outpouring of emotion will remain etched in my memory forever.
What a remarkable effort it was for them to even take the field after such a traumatic and draining week.
Every player on the Adelaide list will grieve in different ways. I remember back in late 2003 when the Essendon players were called into a team meeting to be addressed by our CEO Peter Jackson. Nobody knew what was coming but football clubs are so routine-based and structured that we knew something must be seriously wrong because of the timing and urgency of this meeting .
The first thing I did as I entered the room was look at Peter’s face and his body language and I knew then that the announcement was not going to be a good one.
Peter, with Dr Bruce Reid by his side, delivered the message that our much-loved friend and premiership teammate Adam Ramanauskas had been diagnosed with cancer at just 22.
You could have heard a pin drop in the room as Rama was actually sitting in his usual seat in the auditorium listening to Peter and Reidy outlining to the staff and players the battle that lay ahead for him.
Unbelievably, Rama was looking calm and stoic as he always was through his cancer battle while the rest of us were in a state of shock and fighting back tears as we tried to come to terms with what it all meant.
We had four games remaining that season and were in finals contention but, just like circumstances in recent weeks, football became irrelevant for a period while we all came to terms with the fight Rama had on his hands.
Rama spoke calmly to all the players about his predicament and even made an apology that he wouldn’t be able to help us get to the finals.
Rama was the ultimate team man and said, I wish I could be with you in the next few months but I’ve got to get this surgery done to give myself the best chance, otherwise I’m going to be in serious trouble in the future.
Rama had surgery and radiation and was clear of any tumours for two years only for the tumour to grow back even more aggressively one month after Adam and his wife Belinda were married in 2006.
This time I received a text from Adam’s best mate, Dean Solomon, saying, “be at Rama’s house at 7pm tonight”. I feared the worst straight away and once the 14 players Rama had asked to his house arrived, he delivered six devastating words that none of us wanted to hear.
With his wife Belinda standing in a side doorway fighting back tears, Rama stood up in front of everyone and said: “The cancer’s come back, football’s over.” We were devastated and it was an emotional and draining night for everyone, but it’s amazing how much better you feel, talking through everything in a group situation like that.
Football clubs are the best possible places to deal with adversity because you have a huge network of professionals and friends to care and support you and your loved ones.
Throughout his cancer battle, we would hang Rama’s No. 9 jumper above the race as we were about to run out and play at the MCG or Etihad Stadium and we would place our hands on the guernsey as not only a show of support for Rama but also to take some of his strength and character onto the field as he inspired us all with his fight.
A long-time trainer at the club, Charlie Italia, had also laminated some small photos of Rama that players would put in their boot or sock. Some left the photo in their locker or bag and would be seen taking a look at Rama’s photo to gain inspiration from his strength.
For Nick and Jack Riewoldt and the Adelaide and Port Adelaide players, they would have been on an emotional rollercoaster over recent weeks and months and playing football for two hours suddenly becomes an outlet to free their minds of the pain and suffering they have been through.
Today will be another emotionally challenging day for everyone associated with the Riewoldt and Walsh families but it will also be a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to both Maddie and Phil as there is no organisation better at getting behind their own than the AFL and its 18 clubs.
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