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Tribute to Mr Jim Stynes

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 24 Jun 2012

Senator DI NATALE

I rise today to pay tribute to a wonderful footballer and an even better human being, Jim Stynes. With the passing of Jim Stynes, Australia did not just lose a great sportsperson but a wonderful Australian. The extraordinary flow of tributes in the last 24 hours is testament to the profound way in which the life of Jim Stynes touched so many of us. I did not know him personally. I grew up at a time when, as a young kid, I was mad for footy. I played VFA footy for a few years. I am a passionate Tigers fan, but I do remember watching Jim Stynes during my teenage years. He was one of my favourite players. I think everybody who watched the game at that time has a soft spot for him.

He came to the game in an unconventional way. He was part of that bold Melbourne experiment, being recruited from Ireland, and played what was essentially a foreign game. He came over as a gangly teenager, but sporting genius shows through regardless of the sport you play. It was not long before he became an established AFL footballer.

He is perhaps best remembered for what is now part of football folklore. He ran across the mark in the 1987 preliminary final. It was an action which supposedly cost Melbourne a spot in the grand final. If you actually look at the replay of that match you will see that the kick from Gary Buckenara would have sailed through the goals if he were 20 or 30 metres out, but, still, it is something that entered football folklore. It could have been the end of Jim Stynes the footballer. At the time it was one of the defining moments of the eighties in terms of individual acts of a footballer and the consequences of those acts. It was a bit like his response to his battle with cancer: he used that as an opportunity to grow and become a better footballer.

Over a number of years he went on to become one of the game's most decorated players. He won a Brownlow Medal in 1991. To achieve that honour as somebody who did not grow up playing football, who was recruited from somewhere else, taking up the game late in their teenage years, is testament to his wonderful ability. He became the prototype for the modern ruckman. He was a player who could run across the ground and almost play part ruckman and part ruck rover and part key forward. He was well ahead of his time. He was an incredible athlete and an incredible footballer. The great irony, of course, is that he set a record for the longest number of games without injury or illness. I think he played 244 games of footy. For anybody who has played the game, the thought of being able to play that many games consecutively is unimaginable—for me, certainly. He was somebody who would play with incredible injuries and often played as well as he did when he was fully fit.

Garry Lyon talked about it as the greatest football story ever, and it is a pretty good story when you think about it. If it were just about his football career, I would still be standing up here giving the same tribute to a man who had incredible abilities. But he was not just a great footballer; he was a terrific person—a wonderful person. Footballers often retreat from public life and often will spend many years trading on the fact that they were an elite sportsperson, but that was not the make-up of Jim Stynes. He went on and established the Reach Foundation, which was an organisation targeting young kids. His own upbringing was not the easiest upbringing that one would imagine, yet he used that as an opportunity to inspire young kids and to try to teach them about the things that they have that are valuable—their inner qualities—to try to bring out the hero that exists in each and every one of us. He spent a lot of time focusing on the issue of youth mental health and wellbeing and youth suicide prevention. He made an enormous contribution to the Australian community. In fact, we have quotes from a number of people whose lives he touched. One person said:

Jim created a world with a rich tapestry of people and experiences that I walked into when I was fifteen; one that supported, challenged and fostered me to "be my best self".

Jim always had a way to inspire greatness in those he met, and he also expected it.

He taught us to innovate, lead … love and find greatness in those we worked with.

So much of the person I am today and those I love most dearly have been moulded by him.

There are countless stories like that. He was a wonderful human being.

All through this, while he considered his work with the Reach Foundation his calling, he was saddened by the state of the oldest football club in the nation, the Melbourne Football Club. Despite the fact that he had a huge fight on his hands in his battle with cancer, he took on the issue of the Melbourne Football Club, which was in the doldrums. It was a club that was struggling and did not have much on-field success, yet he managed to return to that club and breathe new life into it. He helped to get the club back onto a stable financial footing. His work with the club was similar to his work with the Reach Foundation: he transformed it. He was a transformative human being. He really carried that club when he could barely stand.

I think it is really in his final years that the greatness of Jim Stynes was something that we were all privileged to see. He thrived in a set of circumstances that would have sent most people to a very dark place. He would have been forgiven for self-pity and for curling up and trying to spend his last days sadly with his family, but he did not do that. I have seen a lot of people who have been faced with that diagnosis through my medical career. Think of the strength of character for a human being to say:

I needed to live a better life and getting cancer has led me to a much better life.

He spoke of his experiences with cancer as a privilege and something that he could grow and learn from. His enduring positivity, his attitude, his compassion and his selflessness are all something that I think we are very privileged to have been able to witness.

It is a story that has touched me personally. I am a new dad: I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old—a young family, much like Jim. I would like to think of myself as being in the prime of my life, just as he was at the age of 45. I do not think I have even got close to the strength that that man had. To think that he has been taken away from us and from his family at such a time is something that I think that we are all very, very sad about. He is a man who gave so much. As I have said, I did not know Jim personally. My perspective is that of an outsider, but I do feel some connection to his story. I hope that I can do some justice to the life of a remarkable human being. We lost a father, a husband, a friend, a mentor and a colleague. We lost a gentleman, a philanthropist and an inspirational human being. I am sure I reflect the sentiments and thoughts in this place. Our thoughts are very much with his family, his friends and his siblings—who moved over from Ireland some years ago to be with him; he was that sort of human being. He will be sadly missed. He is a great loss, and we pay our respects to a great man, Jim Stynes.

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