Two champions of the sport, two men taken in the same draft but with completely different career trajectories, celebrated major milestones over the weekend.
Shane Edwards was hoisted up and carried off following an astonishing comeback win over Brisbane. Edwards was nearly a Brisbane player himself. The Lions’ chief recruiter was desperate to get him, but was outvoted by senior figures at the club. They settled on Albert Proud, who ended up in jail.
Few footballers have been so assured and so damaging in heavy traffic. He would swerve, shimmy and circumvent the normal chain of possession with his long, weighted handballs. Richmond was never a pretty team. They had blue-collar players who could thump and soccer it forward. It was swarming, brutally efficient football. But Edwards was the purest of footballers. In a team that always played in a hurry, he was the one who was always unrushed – their Pendlebury, their Mitchell. For any of us who have scrubbed around at the lower levels, if we could wave a magic wand and be blessed with one talent, it would invariably be that – the ability for the game to slow down around us.
But you had to strain to see him sometimes. He was easy to miss. He was labelled ‘underrated’ so often it got to the point that he was verging on being overrated. At Richmond games, your eye was immediately drawn to the superstars. Edwards was best watched with a rewind button. You’d re-watch a passage of play that had broken a big game open and the crowd and commentators would be gurgling over Martin. But Edwards was always in there somewhere. It was invariably his touch – the cleanest touch, the decisive touch – that set the football free and propelled Richmond forward. Even on Sunday, amid all the last-quarter mayhem, he was a cool head and a clever distributor.
Unlike Edwards, Joel Selwood was an instant star. In his first practice match, as he was being stapled up on the boundary line, the coaching staff had to caution him against cannoning into packs head first. He nodded, wiped the blood, re-entered the fray and almost had his head removed. It was constitutional.
Selwood’s played like a rutting bull for 15 years now. We should be cautious about lauding this aspect of his game. There’s so many footballers whose lives are in disarray as a result of head knocks. Just this week, Jay Schulz detailed the toll of more than 40 concussions – the depression, insomnia and memory loss.
But Selwood is somehow still standing. He’s missed just 30 games since 2007. He’s never missed more than four in a row. There have been other footballers who have played with the same ferocity, and with the same recklessness. But they typically haven’t lasted very long. The body, the head and the brain simply can’t take it.
An argument can be mounted that he’s the most significant Geelong footballer in the history of the club. Polly Farmer went back to Perth. Gary Ablett Snr went missing. His son went to the Gold Coast. When Selwood arrived, it was a club on its final warning. It was “provincial, parochial, happy with mediocrity, but poisoned by it too,” James Button wrote in his official history. The 2007 loss to North Melbourne was a watershed moment. In just his fifth game, Selwood was easily Geelong’s best player that day. He brought a steel and a hunger that at times bordered on disturbing. He changed the club, led it, dragged it kicking and screaming into contention year after year. Many of the sides that finished top four under his captaincy were pretty limited. He’d will them over the line in games they had no right to win. He took them to preliminary finals they had no business being in. Every year, the pundits would say that Geelong’s cupboard was bare, and that Selwood’s body was shot. Every year, he would go again.
Few footballers have squeezed more out of themselves. Few footballers have enjoyed so much success, so early in their careers. But strangely, my enduring memories of him won’t be from the wins. I’ll remember him collapsing like he’d just been kneecapped on the night the Kennett curse was broken. I’ll remember when he went on Footy Classified with steam coming out of his ears, while all his teammates were on the turps and dressed up as Ewoks, after the Cats had been bundled out in 2014. I’ll remember the blood, the bandages, the trainers being shooed away, the constant booing and carping over his ducking.
And I’ll remember those eyes. Tim Boyle once said the only person in football with eyes like that was former captain, Luke Hodge. There was distance in those eyes, he wrote, a “wilderness” that was almost unnerving. You don’t see eyes like that on people gathering around water coolers, or handing out canapes. They’re the eyes of those born to compete, to fight and to lead.
They’re irreconcilable with the amiable, respectful interviewee we saw on Saturday, the man who trotted to all four quarters of the centre square and thanked his fans. For a brief moment, however, that thin veneer of politeness cracked, the jaw jutted and the eyes blazed. “Righto boys, enough of all this”, he seemed to be saying. With Edwards, there was a sense of finality, of satisfaction of a job well done. With Selwood, it’s harder to imagine that it will ever end, and that it will ever be enough.