The news hit when we were least expecting it.
It was a swift, deft punch to the stomach that knocked the air and the hope out of millions of footy fans across the world. No, not just footy fans. That’s not right. You didn’t have to know the sport to know who Jim Stynes was.
The last we’d heard was that he was battling, but holding on. Many thought he’d make it through. That he was in the last stages of his fight with cancer, but that he would be the one with his arms raised triumphantly when the final bell sounded.
It’s appropriate, the boxing analogy. He went toe to toe with the debilitating illness as we all stood and spectated and cheered. They went blow for blow, landing some mighty big hits on one another over the course of three years. But just when you thought one of them was on top, the other hit back.
It would have been easy to give in, but that was never an option for Big Jim. Not in his footballing life, and not after.
It was like the final scene of Rocky – Jim Stynes, a Demon himself, battling a demon that threatened to take over his body and never letting it win. The pair of them, battered and bruised, battling to sink the knockout punch.
Then, suddenly, the two of them hit the canvas at the same time and no matter how much we begged and cried, it wasn’t the hero that got to his feet first. It was the villain.
Jim Stynes was a warrior, on the field and off. He still holds the record for most consecutive games, a record that will likely never be bested. It’s symbolic that his body stayed as strong in the hospital rooms as it did on the field.
And it’s pretty appropriate that Big Jim named his charity foundation ‘Reach’, because that’s exactly what he did – he reached people. Even those who don’t follow footy were touched by the man and his plight, and were moved to tears by his death.
He did so much in his life after football, it’s almost easy to forget what a champion of the game he was. The man won a Brownlow Medal, AFL’s highest individual honour, and he didn’t even start playing the game until his late teens. He wasn’t even born in the same country as the sport.
He became a symbol of hope for the many that were themselves battling cancer, or watching a loved one go through the same thing.
We’ll remember him sitting in the cheer quad and marking the footy in the crowd after a goal. We’ll remember that ridiculous hat he wore during a game at the Gabba. We’ll remember the final stages of the ’87 preliminary final, and it’ll sting a littlemore than it used to.
We’ll all remember him in different ways, and we’ll remember him forever.