Here we go again. The excitement. The hope. The emotion. The endless analysis and conversation. AFL footy is back.
From now until early October, footy will dominate Melbourne conversation and, increasingly, around the nation. For many, it will dominate their lives.
In total, 207 games will be played. Based on last year's figures, it's estimated the attendance for the season will climb to over 6.3 million, while another 20 million will watch on TV.
Over 875,000 of us are members of the club's we follow. All of those, and others, are footy die-hards, lifelong fans who dream of their team winning the flag.
I'm one of them -- an Essendon fan who grew up a footy optimist, watching my team win more often than they lost. As a kid, I used to kick the footy around in the back yard for hours on end, commentating the most extraordinary imaginary matches that would go well into the night.
In my imaginary football league, Essendon never lost. Collingwood and Carlton never won. Men like Kevin Sheedy, Tim Watson and James Hird were not mere mortals. They were mythical, magical characters.
In an age where most things we do are measured in numbers, objectives and outcomes, our passion for footy and the clubs we support lies within. We feel it.
I grew up in Yarrawonga, over three hours from the MCG. For my 10th birthday, Dad took me and four mates down to 'The G' to watch Essendon take on Geelong. We were mesmerised. A bloke called Gary Ablett had 21 shots at goal and kicked 14.7. Up the other end, Paul Salmon kicked 10. Essendon won by four goals. We were in awe of what we'd seen.
The year was 1993 and Essendon would go on to win a famous Premiership with a young team dubbed the 'Baby Bombers.' Fourteen years later, I was back packing around Europe. I'd been abroad for almost five months when my phone rang in the dead of the night. I was in Paris and it was my father calling.
Why was Dad calling? What was wrong back home? I feared the worst. But it was worse than I feared.
"Sam," he said, "Kevin Sheedy's been sacked."
Later than day I stood at the Eiffel Tower completely preoccupied by the fact Sheeds had reached the end of the line. Things would never be the same. Not without Sheeds. History will tell you this nagging feeling proved correct. At Essendon, at least, things have never been the same.
Few Essendon fans will tell you they've enjoyed the last four years. They've turned this optimist into a footy pessimist, accustomed to bad news, fearing the worst at every turn. We copped our fair share of drubbings last year, and I was there to witness them all.
But as with most years, this season brings new hope. This hope will be felt by most footy fans. It will be felt by most people in our city and state. And this is a good thing.
Few Essendon fans will tell you they've enjoyed the last four years. They've turned this optimist into a footy pessimist, accustomed to bad news, fearing the worst at every turn.
Of course, not everyone finds this time of the year a joyous occasion. There will be those dreading the start of the season. By mid-season they'll be tired of the footy chatter that takes over households, pubs and offices. By October, they'll be utterly sick of it, praying for it to end.
But for many of us it will be utterly absorbing and a constant presence on our minds.
It is not unusual for me to return home from a catch up with a mate during the footy season full of insights about a new game plan, a solution to kicking more goals or why we can't win the ball out of the middle, but we won't have discussed a single other aspect of our lives.
This sort of behaviour may well be strange, but it's not unusual. Footy can be all consuming. Many passions and obsessions are irrational. They can even be illogical to the point some can't make sense of it.
But that's what makes it so grand. In an age where most things we do are measured in numbers, objectives and outcomes, our passion for footy and the clubs we support lies within. We feel it.
As part of my PhD research a few years ago, I interviewed several footy die-hards about the game. After an hour long interview my final question to each of them was why they loved the game.
One respondent paused for what seemed like an eternity before saying: "I just do. I can't explain it. Sometimes you can't explain the things you feel the most. But you know it must be important, because if you stopped feeling it, you know you'd be lost."
I know how they feel. Welcome to another AFL season. Let the games begin.
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