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Monday, April 06 2020 @ 09:24 pm ACST

Phil Walsh – A Light In The Room Has Been Dimmed

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Generally speaking, coaches do not coach because they are completely benevolent souls with nothing else to do with their lives. We coach because we enjoy it. We coach because we believe we have something still to offer. We coach because we believe that we can make a small difference. We also, no matter how much we want to deny it, coach because we still have a vicarious connection to playing the game…and that is not a bad thing. That’s a form of passion.

Those, like me, at junior level, often far from the madding crowds of the AFL big time, do not play for the same stakes as the 18 senior AFL coaches and, probably with few exceptions, are not in the same league as those coaches. Yet most of us look up to those 18 – an 18 which changes year to year, but is still the highest level in the land – and try to emulate them, either consciously or unconsciously.

Unlike some who hate other coaches because of colours or other differences, I admire all coaches and players. In my kit bag I like to think I have bits of John Kennedy, Barassi, Sheedy, Allan Jeans. In more modern speak, I like to think I can take some of Ross Lyon’s tactical thinking, Damien Hardwick’s hard-edged approach, Paul Roos’ people skills, the Scott brothers tenacity and passion, Ken Hinkley’s astuteness…and Phil Walsh’s deep understanding of the game.

And this is where today’s tragedy, the senseless killing of an AFL coach, hits home the hardest for me. I have nothing but incredible sympathy and despair for the Walsh family. Words cannot adequately express the feelings of sadness I feel for his wife, kids, family. But the only Phil Walsh connection that was personal to me was the coach. One of the lights in my coaching room – of which there are many.

Today, one of those lights has been dimmed.

The football world has not experienced this level or type of loss before. Yes, we have lost people in their prime – Darren Millane, Doug Tassell, Peter Crimmins, Trevor Barker, John McCarthy and others – but we have not had someone of the status of senior AFL coach or player taken from us mid-season at the height of their powers. This is an unchartered territory of emotion, whether that be at the highest level, or just mere junior coaches watching on and learning. But it is so difficult to think now what is learned. There is something – there always is at times like this – but we maybe just cannot see it at the moment.

My initial thought though is that time is our master. All people have much to offer others. Maybe it is something profound and great. Maybe it is subtle, gentle and born out of love. Maybe it is tangible, maybe it is floating on the wind. But we all have so much to give others, but only a finite amount of time within which to do so.

I chose to coach, for virtually all of the reasons I listed above and likely more. I just cannot delve deeply enough to express them at the moment. I was lucky. I was born into a great era of coaches (again, listed above) and my own father was my first junior coach for years. I had a strong grounding in coaching and what I saw I liked. Men and women prepared to give their time to pass on whatever talents, ideas, memories, skills, dreams or emotions they possessed in the hope it helped others. It wasn’t driven by glory, but that was a reward to savour if it came. It was driven by the pride felt when someone succeeds, smiles, laughs, conquers, grows and you proudly knew you had just the tiniest hand in that.

This would be, at an educated guess, what Phil Walsh gave to the game across more than 30 years as a player and coach at the highest level, and more through his youth. A pay check is not enough to keep going that long. Longevity in these fields comes from a love of what you do, and appreciation of what you do. Phil Walsh got into the game to give, and he just kept on giving.

And to me, the layman, that is the tragedy that hurts me personally – with absolute respect for what the family is going through. One of the elite that I looked up to in a bid to be better as a coach and better as a person has been taken away, and I cannot make any sense of that. Maybe one day I will, but not today.

I am not sure what I can give the family. My thoughts can join with the thoughts, prayers and wishes of others. But maybe the most valuable thing I can give to Phil’s memory, and his family, is to continue to be the best coach I can be. I will never walk in the same shoes as the elite. Never in the same circles as the 18 men charged with the dreams of the elite. But I don’t have to. To impact positively on the lives, careers and dreams of the players I coach would be in the spirit of what Phil Walsh gave to all of those he coached or impacted upon.

That will be my learning from today’s tragedy. The message, if you like.

Phil’s light dimmed today, I know. But it did not go out…it burns elsewhere now. It burns in me.
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