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True Blue

21 August 2019 Tess Pryor

True Blue

Craig by Nicole Reed

Craig reckons we have known each other for about 10 years. And I reckon up until mid-2017 he started all our conversations with: “How shit were Richmond this week?” I would counterpunch with a comment about his beloved Carlton, we’d guffaw, I’d hand over some cash and he’d hand over the latest edition of The Big Issue.

In mid-2017 Craig issued the ultimate challenge to me. “When Richmond wins a final, I’ll stop slagging ’em!”

If you are a regular in Lygon Street, Carlton, especially at Cinema Nova or Brunetti’s, you would have seen Craig. His pitch is near the bottom of the steps leading to the cinema and just outside Melbourne’s famous Italian eatery. He usually wears some type of Carlton footy club signifier, a beanie, maybe a jacket.

Craig’s life took a dramatic detour about 13 years ago when he was in his late twenties. Things were going fine, he had a steady job, but he began experiencing what he calls “brain events”. Diagnosis and treatment lead to the surprise discovery of a large brain aneurysm that needed surgery.

Now, his brain functions differently to before. But it still has the incredible capacity to store information about footy, cricket and any sport Australia features in. Craig will tell you exactly what’s going on in the news as soon as the headlines are published. And he will always be ready with a joke.

His Carlton site is an invaluable one for a Blues fan. One day he witnessed Blues legend Chris Judd being hassled outside the fish’n’chip shop a few metres away. Craig attempted an intervention, an event that gave him 15 seconds of fame on the nightly news and a story for a lifetime.

Spottings of Stephen Silvagni give him a regular lift and he speaks with gusto about the new generation of Silvagnis donning the navy blue.

Over the years our conversations have gone in many directions, way away from sport. The eternal struggle of trying to secure long-term safe accommodation, the stress of fluctuating visitation arrangements with his adored daughter (now a North Melbourne-barracking tween), and the strain of constant worry when nothing is constant.

Craig has lost most of his teeth. Some days I would ask him if he would like me to grab him something to eat from Brunetti’s – he would reply, “Get me something soft as I can’t chew!” I’d usually get him a chocolate eclair that he would devour with a gummy grin.

About six years ago I saw Craig at his pitch, and I readied myself for the usual Richmond barrage. But he was strangely silent. I asked if he was okay. He responded with an enormous smile, full of the whitest teeth you have ever seen. Full top and bottom dentures. I screamed: “Oh my god Craig, you look so handsome!”

He could not speak for a few seconds, overcome with pride. He had been waiting for months for the teeth and they had finally arrived. Gradually though, he stopped wearing them. He said they hurt his gums. That blinding smile was relegated to occasional appearances.

History shows Richmond went pretty well in the 2017 finals. Curiously, I didn’t see Craig around Lygon Street for that month. A week after Grand Final day I was having a coffee with a friend and Craig appeared a few metres away.

He came up with a huge smile, I think in anticipation of what he knew he was about to receive.
“Hey Craig, is winning that final good enough for you?”

He gave me a high-five. “Geez, Richmond did all right, didn’t they!”

The next September, in 2018, my birthday fell on Grand Final eve. Richmond had, of course, been obliterated by Collingwood the weekend before, after being premiership favourites all year. To us Tigers, a heavy pall hung over the next day.

I hadn’t seen Craig for months as he had changed his working days and was also now working another pitch part-time in a suburb south of the river. But, strolling in Lygon Street with my husband on the way to my birthday lunch, we walked straight into him at his usual spot.

“Craig! We haven’t seen each other for ages! And you won’t believe it, but today is my birthday. What a great present – to see you,” I laughed.

“It’s your birthday, really?”

I nodded.

“Hang on a minute!”

He walked a few metres to his bag and leaned down with his back to me. He returned, flashing his enormous beautiful white teeth-filled smile again.
“Happy Birthday!”

As we walked away, I looked back and saw him take his teeth out and put them back in his bag.
This year, with Richmond’s inadequacies no longer the focus, our banter wanders more generally from new Carlton coach David Teague and player Paddy Cripps to the cricket and Craig’s daughter’s love of playing footy.

Over 10 years, what started as a business transaction between us has morphed into something that can’t be costed. And demonstrates once again the powerful conduit of sport in the priceless act of human connection.

» Tess Pryor is a Melbourne-based journalist and health professional who loves writing about the unique role sport plays in the healing power of connection.

» This story first appeared in Ed#594 of The Big Issue, via footyalmanac.com.au.