Authors: Rio Sports
“Mateship” is an Australian expression that stands for friendship and equality, even in times of great challenge. Mark Smith and Jarryd Haines, two young boys from Sydney, embody this ethos of close friendship. The pair have known each other for most of their lives and always enjoyed playing sport together. If there was a ball involved, they would be in the backyard, acting out a crucial Ashes test or taking a spectacular mark in the Australian Rules Grand Final for their beloved Sydney Swans.
A few years ago, when Mark was only nine, he was diagnosed with cancer of the brain and spine. It robbed the young boy of many things: his sight, part of his hearing and his ability to play the sports he loves. Throughout the gruelling medical treatment that left Mark nauseous and exhausted, Jarryd remained his close friend, sharing their continued love of sport, particularly the Sydney Swans.
Two weeks ago, as normal, I took my seat at Sydney Cricket Ground with my fiancée to watch the Swans in their last regular game of the season. The old stadium was packed with fans dressed in red and white. Shortly into the second quarter, with the Swans edging away from their opponents, the Carlton Blues, I heard some remarkable commentary from a young boy. Play by play, Jarryd was bringing the game to life. I turned and saw Mark clutching a Sherrin football, grasping it tighter with every cadence in his friend’s voice.
Although Mark cannot see anymore, his passion for the Swans has not ebbed. Armed with his cane, which he calls “Michael” – his favourite film is the Italian Job – he goes to the stadium and normally listens to streamed radio commentary that complements the roar of the crowd. Unfortunately, in the second quarter of the match the stream died. Thankfully, his friend Jarryd was there to step in with his own unique brand of commentary.
Sydney loves its winners and no one embodies that strength more than Lance “Buddy’ Franklin, a towering colossus of a full forward who is considered one of the current greats in Aussie Rules. He is brash, bold and incredibly talented at kicking goals. Mention the name “Buddy” in Australia and you will get a knowing nod. Buddy was having one of his great days with the red leather football, kicking 10 goals to keep the crowd in raptures.
I barely looked at Buddy as I was focusing on Jarryd and Mark behind me. “What’s happening, mate?” Mark implored as Buddy strutted around the 50-metre line looking for the ball searching for his tenth goal. “Don’t worry Mark. I’ve got this,” replied Jarryd calmly. “OK. Buddy’s got it. He’s quite far out. Will he go for it? He’s going for it. It’s good and it’s his tenth goal! Buddy is on fire.” Mark hugged his football on his knees, feeling the defined stitching and laces with fingers, lost in the magic of Australian football brought to life by his friend.
At the end of the game, I turned to Jarryd’s father and told him I had enjoyed his son’s commentary very much and that he should be very proud of his boy. He told me this was typical of Jarryd; he’s always looking out for Mark. As I turned around, Jarryd was helping Mark navigate the stairs as Sydney Swans winning anthem reverberated around the stadium. I got on the bus home and tapped out a tweet:
Within hours, I was contacted by the Sydney Swans. They desperately wanted to find the boys and give them an experience to remember. I hadn’t thought of taking their names; I had simply appreciated the incredible colour commentary that had brought the game to perfectly to life, not only for Mark, but everyone sitting near us.
Sport can be banal at times, filled with salary negotiations and histrionics that appear laughable in a challenging world. But sometimes sport can do incredible things. It can help us forget our worries. Through wonderful moments on the field, we can live in the moment and share camaraderie with perfect strangers.
The Sydney Swans had helped Mark before; they just didn’t know it. When he woke up in the morning feeling nauseous from exhausting and relentless treatment, he always had the next AFL game and the roar of the crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground to look forward to.
After a few days of searching for the boys with the help of the Australian media, the Swans found them and invited them to training. Mark and Jarryd were given a hero’s welcome when they arrived at the player’s entrance of the stadium last Tuesday. The players stood in a semi-circle before them and clapped loudly when they heard about their friendship. The boys were presented with jerseys and told that on Saturday afternoon, in the elimination final against Essendon, they would run out on to the pitch with the players before taking their seats with their families in a box that had been laid on by the club.
Mark stood smiling, lightly holding on to his friend’s elbow as the players came up and introduced themselves. “Mark, this is Buddy,” said Jarryd when the huge player came over to say hello. “Wow,” was all Mark could muster. Midfielder Kieren Jack crouched down and told Mark and Jarryd that they had inspired all of the players and they were going to a key part of the game.
When Saturday finally came, the boys arrived at the imposing arena where Donald Bradman had once made his home. Luke Parker, playing his 150th game for the Swans, insisted on taking Mark by the hand and gently escorting him through the players on to the pitch. The largest crowd of the season roared in unison as the boys’ names were shown on the big screen. In a game known for its brawn and bravery, the two mates had touched an emotional chord.
Sydney completed a 65-point demolition of Essendon to the delight of the two friends. Jarryd insisted on commentating the whole game for Mark once again and had run out of superlatives by the start of the fourth quarter. The boys were invited into the changing rooms to celebrate the victory and sing the club song but were both too exhausted after a week immersed the culture of the Swans.
The Swans will continue their finals quest against Geelong Cats on Friday. If they need any encouragement for the task at hand, they can look for the two young boys who have shown them the importance of mateship on and off the field.
• This article is from Behind the Lines
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