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Bucket list or not, it’s likely you’ll meet a football celebrity once in your lifetime. It’ll be this random occurrence where you’ll feel like an unprepared mess and have nothing to say that sounds remotely great and wonderful. It will be largely weird and meaningless for the footballer, and the meaning will have an expiry date for you, but what else can you expect when you meet an iconic athlete or coach?

A few weeks back in Toronto I was waiting to get into a bar on a Thursday night with friends. It was late. A few quiet drinks after a baseball game lead to a mini pub hop and lead me to the line I was waiting in.  A small congregation of twenty-somethings were hovering against the wall, smoking cigarettes with loud Australian voices. I left my spot in the line and mention to the group something corny like “it’s such a small world, hearing Australians in Canada.” The group were in town for the 2017 indigenous Games and after a few minutes a girl points to her friend standing opposite me and blurts out: “that’s Clem Smith. He played for Carlton.

The conversation went like this:

Me: Clem, who?

Clem: Clem. Smith. 

Clem’s friend: He played seven games for Carlton. Google it.

*typing “who is Clem Smith” into Google*

Me: So he did!

All I remember is that Clem Smith went from being some random person to instant cool-guy appeal. After all he played AFL. He went through the draft and was selected with pick.no 60. He understood the rigors of preseason. He rubbed shoulders with Chris Judd, Marc Murphy and Bryce Gibbs. The Herald Sun said Clem Smith modeled his game on Byron Pickett’s ability to become a human wrecking ball. Even with a short career, the 21-year old became a portal to AFL and I got a front row seat.

These encounters get welded into tightly wound stories and shared at parties, catch ups and work meetings. And they cover everything from run-ins at the local fish and chip shop to awkward conversations during a 45-second elevator ride. Telling these narratives over and over again make us feel as we somehow have a stake in the AFL. That, by making a connection to a player, we’re suddenly “in” with them, becoming exclusive, peeking into their world for a brief period and judging every second. 

We’re often drawn to these athletes because we see them on T.V. performing physical feats, acting as heroes and entertaining us all. We refer to them as gods. That all makes meeting them in real world scenarios appealing and we reaffirm their godly status in the flesh.

In 2007 former Bombers legend Kevin Sheedy embarked on a post-season world tour as an AFL ambassador. One of his stops was Toronto. He tossed the coin at the Grand Final of the local football league and found himself midweek at a city pub. As luck would have it, I saw Sheedy at this pub, at the end of the bar, talking to three men in classic grey business suits. Being a Bombers fan, I had so many questions: what was it like winning ’93 with a bunch of kids? did Dean Wallis really lose it for us in the ’99 Preliminary Final against Carlton? what’s the relationship like now with Derek Kickett?

Of course, I couldn’t muster these thoughts. Instead, I said hi, we exchanged general chit chat – something about the long flight to Canada and the rather cool Autumn weather – and grabbed one of those awkward photos that is now framed and sits on my desk in the study. Sheedy was as impressive in person than how he came off on T.V. His fatherly vibe was endearing and he generally looked like he was ready for retirement. He looked at peace.

Meeting football icons helps paint a picture of who they are. Seeing them at the grocery store gives you that sense, they are normal too. They buy cucumbers just like us. Their personalities hold true instead of goals and defensive spoils and we unravel a small layer of who they really are. We can never plan for these encounters. They just happen. And because they are spontaneous they are truly uncomfortable experiences where we fumble over words and forget those burning questions. But the connection, however strong or weak, is what we crave.

On the other hand, working in media has lead me to an array of football icon encounters. Working in Melbourne in 2009 for a newspaper I met and spoke to football icons on a regular basis. For example, I needed to know why Dean Rice was coming back to coach a South-Eastern suburbs team. I spoke to Billy Brownless about his greyhounds. And Dyson Heppell told me about his disappointment inside the Etihad change rooms after his TAC Cup Grand Final loss before he was selected for the Bombers.  These encounters felt clinical but no less meaningful. 

It’s fun to meet football celebrities no matter how insignificant. We tend to think that these encounters mean a lot, that we’re special because of them. But we’re not special. There’s a gulf dividing footballers and the rest of us. We are worlds apart and that’s just the way it is. But whatever that means at least we have these moments we can share to friends, our kids. It’ll always be weird talking to a footballer outside a bar in a foreign city like Clem Smith but weird is what makes it memorable.