Jimmy Stynes was an amazing footballer. More impressive than the fact that he won a Brownlow medal in 1991 – Australian Rules’ highest individual honour – was the fact that, in a senior career with the Melbourne Football Club lasting 11 years, from 1987 to 1998, he played 244 of his total 264 games in succession. It’s a benchmark for durability that’s yet to be beaten, and probably won’t be.
It’s also a benchmark for bravery, at times reckless bravery. In 1993, Stynes – a ruckman, the most physically demanding position in the game – had the cartilage of his breastbone severed in an on-field collision with a teammate, leaving his chest looking like a tent. Amazingly, and quite possibly stupidly, he fronted up the next week to play after passing a fitness test in which his coach, Neil Balme, pitted him against a few of the Demons’ hard men, one of whom was Rod Grinter.
Grinter was a known sniper, suspended so often for acts of on-field malice that satirical Melbourne band TISM (This Is Serious Mum) once namechecked him in the following lyric: “I’ve mixed heroin, cocaine and angel dust / I’ve played on Rodney Grinter, and been concussed”.
Balme put Stynes through his paces with Grinter knowing he’d face similar treatment (or worse) against the next week’s opposition. The session apparently ended with punches being thrown, although I find it hard to imagine Stynes hurling them, certainly not throwing the first. He was a scrupulously fair player.
All of this is impressive in itself. Now imagine this: Stynes arrived in Australia as an 18-year-old from Dublin in late 1984, having never played a game of Australian Rules in his life. He was in the vanguard of what’s become known in the game as the Irish Experiment, wherein young Gaelic footballers were imported to Australia on spec to play a different game.
It took until 1987 for Stynes to break in as a regular to the Melbourne side. The Demons, a former powerhouse of the competition, had been impotent for decades, but they were surging, and that year they made the finals. They would have made the Grand Final, too, had Stynes not given away a free kick in the dying seconds of the preliminary final – a technical rule breach of which he was unaware – that gifted Hawthorn a match-winning goal.
Stynes would never escape, or be allowed to forget his error. His side actually made the Grand Final the following year, only to be smashed again (by a then-record 96-point margin) by Hawthorn. Stynes was Melbourne’s best player on that day, but they never challenged for the premiership again in his career. Life is about taking your opportunities, and learning from your mistakes.
And that’s the lesson Stynes went on to prove, over and over again, after his playing career ended. In fact, it’s where his legend grows almost to the stature of myth.
A few years before his retirement, Stynes set up the Reach foundation. Broadly, it was aimed at teaching life skills to young people, particularly disadvantaged youth. This work, it transpired, was his real calling. He was a firm believer in the power of each individual to realise his or her gifts – but also recognised that often, they need someone else’s belief and love to help them unlock that potential. Here lay Stynes’ profound sense of social justice. Martin Flanagan recounted this quote in his obituary today: “What’s happening in this society is scary … We’re splitting into the haves and have-nots. A growing number of kids are getting caught in dark places.”
In 1997 he joined the board of Victoria’s Youth Suicide Task Force. He also took up a position as an anti-racism officer with the AFL, not long after Michael Long had brought the issue within the sport to a head. He resolved not to return to Ireland.
He became increasingly celebrated. He was named Victorian of the Year in 2001, and again in 2003. He was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2007.
Then, in mid-2009, he was diagnosed with cancer.
By that point, he had returned to his beloved, ailing football club as chairman. The Demons were $5 million in the red. Stynes, with his charisma, organisational skills and sheer bloody-mindedness, wiped that debt within three years, but his team continued to take a beating on field. After a horrible loss to Geelong in 2011 that saw the sacking of coach Dean Bailey, the toll on Stynes’ faltering health was clear.
What Jim Stynes did better than anything – better than his ability to run, kick, mark and jump – was connect. The football community and Australia is a lesser place without him, but we’re all better for the lessons and the legacy he leaves.