Well finally the big day arrived. The build up had been like grand final week, with speeches by his peers at training, an AFL presser, and multiple appearances on ‘media street’ courtesy of SEN’s The Run Home, Fox Footy’s AFL 360 and MMM’s Hot Breakfast . The only thing missing was a ride in the back of Toyota Hilux in front of 100,000 people through the streets of Melbourne.
While some might say over the top, it was fitting that there had been so much interest in something as rare as Halley’s Comet as Steve (Jack) was only the fifth person and third umpire to achieve the 400 game milestone.
The day itself had been like the preceding week. Hectic, tense and resembling something similar to the current Federal Election campaign. Jack arrived late delaying our visit to the competing club rooms courtesy of him being his usual self and ensuring everyone else was attended to first. His son Oscar crossed the MCG with us to visit the clubs and everyone from the security guards to the door men on the rooms knew what a special occasion this was and acknowledged it to Jack with genuine words of congratulations. He simply took it in his stride, more focused on performing his duties and ensuring Oscar took in the experience. One they would reflect on in years to come.
After organising the family and conducting one last radio interview, it was down to business – the reason we were here. Jack had already foregone the annual AFL Life Members Golf Day on the Friday as, after all, we had a job to do. And with the finals still very much alive for both combatants, Carlton and Richmond, what a job it would turn out to be.
With the pre-game coaching session complete and final briefing from the coaches, Jeff Gieschen addressed the group and reminded us of the focus we regularly recite on big occasions and milestone games. “They are more enjoyable and more fondly remembered if we nail the game”. Given the experience of this group, it didn’t need to be said, but like many things at this level, it is part of the routine, was justified and was expected.
I had hardly had a chance to speak to Jack in the two hours leading up to the game, such is the commotion that is normally associated with marquee games, milestones and finals. But I did get a chance with about 10 minutes before we went out on the ground – Jack for his 400th time. When I asked Jack, “How are you feeling” there was a brief but calm pause before he said, “To be honest, a bit disorganised today Wennie”. To which I offered, “In few minutes, we will be out on the ground with 12 minutes before the bounce and the normal routine will kick in – nothing changes.” With that he was off to do his last interview with the MCG “warm up guy” before the rest of the team would join him in the umpires’ race for the announcement of our entrance onto the ground. Everything was now back to normal. Game on.
The game turned out to be a contest fitting of the occasion. After leading for the first half, Richmond was overtaken by Carlton momentarily at the start of the third quarter only to snatch it back. It was at this time that Jack conducted a live interview with Channel 7. While this was happening Shane McInerney undistracted, executed a perfect centre bounce while Jack was asked whether having umpired the 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2009 Grand Finals, he would like the commentary team to put a good word in with the “Giesch” given it had been so long since he had been part of the “big dance”. Jack quickly replied as the ball sailed into the end zone where his was perfectly positioned for the contest, signing off as he called ‘play on’ and returned to the game. I couldn’t miss the chance to ask them to put a good word in for me, but I think the moment had been lost.
Later that quarter, Jack gave those listening around the nation an insight into just how long he has been umpiring when he referred to Richmond player Alex Rance as Murray, Alex’s father. Surprising given the former Footscray and West Coast player retired from the AFL five years before Jack debuted. Perhaps a legacy of his early interest in the game while growing up in footy mad Melbourne.
Richmond’s lead never got more than 10 points for the remainder of the third quarter with Carlton finally pulling ahead after the final change and going on to win by 10 points in a victory that would keep their finals chances alive for 2013.
We left the ground with Jack leading, confident we had done as we set out to do. We had done the job.
The rooms after the game were one of those special times when you realise how much you and those that love you give up so you can do this gig, and that’s why it is so important to share the highs with them especially when they are so rare.
With 63,000 in the crowd to watch this game it felt like most were in the rooms with us. Friends, family and many of those who had shared the journey with Jack were there to reflect on the moment, the achievement, the man.
General Manager of Football Operations Mark Evans, summed it up beautifully when he addressed us all after the game. Many people talk of the effort it takes “to make it”, but that is nothing compared with the effort it takes to stay there as the demands, challenges and expectations increase over time.
In the modern game football careers are often short. This has been one of the long ones.
On driving home that night I couldn’t help feel privileged, even blessed, to have been able to share in honouring such a great career and such a great bloke.