Will & Neil Portrait

Where do I start with my old man? Hard to summarise the most significant relationship I’ve had in a short essay. Let’s start here. My dad, Neil Balme, is one of my best friends. I love him deeply. I know this will make him a little uncomfortable. Not the whole ‘one man expressing his love for another man’. I think love between a father and his son should be more openly expressed and explored. I love my father and I’m very lucky to have him. Very lucky. I always rib him about not spending enough time working on my left foot. I might have lived up to his grand stature and been drafted by Richmond if we did.

It hasn’t always been so rosy. I kind of resented his stature for a fair while. He never put pressure on me to perform. I did that enough in spades. I wish I had have been more open as a kid about how much I did struggle with myself. I’m a really sensitive person, and I was drawn into the whole narrative of the ‘father-son’ stuff. Kids would always ask if I was any good. I was small. A late developer. Not athletically gifted. There were a lot of talented kids in my year level in regard to sport. I was more of a natural in drama and the theatre but too often I listened to the hyper-masculine idealism. ‘Theatre is a bit of a laugh,’ I’d convince myself. Footy had to be my passion, right?

I hated sport for a while. I beat myself up about it a lot. Dad once came into my room after I’d been laughed at when I took my shirt off in year 9 at school. My self confidence and self esteem was shockingly low for most of my high school life. He noticed I’d been acting a bit strange and I’d written up a gym program. In hindsight it was a little over the top. A 14-15 year old running five times a week, doing 1000 pushups. I probably could have managed six at that stage in my life. Anyway, he pressed me on why I was doing all of this and I burst into tears. ‘I just want to play footy. I want to be as good as you,’ came my response. It probably sounded more like, ‘I… huffhuff… just.. wana… huffhuff… plaooty… I wannna… huuuuhuuuuu… be asgooasyou.’ There was a long pause and he looked at me and said something like, ‘Footy doesn’t really matter. It’s all about being a good person. And you’re a good person. I’m very proud of you.’ He’s good like that. I’ve heard people joke about how the only point of difference in his management style from others is his commitment to relationships and empowerment. If you ask me, that’s a pretty bloody good thing to excel at.

In all honesty though, Dad’s voice has always been the barometer for me. If he says something, I usually listen. Less now, because I’ve realised he doesn’t know everything, even though as a kid it seemed that way. One of Mum’s oft-repeated complaints is, ‘You Balmes know bloody everything, don’t you?’ I thought she was right for a while. Clearly she’s smarter than we are because I do have a pretty profound understanding of how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable we are.

It’s only in the past year that we’ve genuinely become great mates. Before that it was the ‘remember, you don’t have to always be the party leader. Don’t drink too much. I know I never listened to my father either.’ Not quite what people expect out of a guy who coached a club sponsored by Coopers and Penfolds for ten years in South Australia. The man who spoke about having a barrel after training in Richmond when he was 17. ‘Good way to grow up,’ he’d probably say. I like a drink too, but I think dad’s advice has helped me see I’m not so good at managing my intake. I’ve had a few issues there, but he’s really helped me navigate that.

Dad has been with me in some very difficult personal moments. He collected me from Thailand after I dissolved into panic after a mushroom shake. He’s been there to take me to the emergency room after a panic attack or two. He has always answered my calls, no matter good or bad. I know mum and dad have found it difficult at times with some of my stuff. I slipped into a pretty dark depression when I moved to London. Dad was always there to chat to. He picked me up from the airport when I moved back home. I fell into moods and fought through a lot of things in the first few months of returning. A lot of changes I have made to my life have been for him and mum, as well as myself, and I feel much better for it. His acceptance, openness and caring nature kind of saved me.

The other side of dad. He’s bloody funny. He loves old school blues and rock. He’s a lover of great literature – and we bond over good books. He particularly loves Richard Flanagan’s ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’. That book is truly amazing. Dad is really gentle. Geoff Southby and John Nichols might raise their eyebrows incredulously at that comment but he’s a big teddy bear. He smacked me on the ass once when I was 4 or 5 and I cried for a week. After seeing the impact it had on me, he swore never to smack any of his children ever again. We’ve probably only had one really heated argument, and that was about January 26 and what it means to celebrate that day in the eyes of Aboriginal people. He’s now adjusted his views because he’s stepped into other people’s shoes. We talk about social issues all the time. He’s a bit of a new age leftie. ‘A democratic socialist’ he’d say. Bernie Sanders, Jacinda Ardern and Gough Whitlam would be proud.

That’s why he is so amazing to record a podcast with. We started Generation Balme for our own relationship and I think anyone who has listened has come to understand Neil and his grand empathy and interest in others.

I’m a really emotional person. I think that’s had an impact on Dad. He’s not outwardly emotional except when he’s talking about umpires or the traffic. But that’s more anger and frustration… as you could imagine. But of late I’ve noticed he sheds tears a little more often. He’d probably hate me saying that. I’m crying now writing this. He means so much to me, and I am so desperately lucky to have such a full and interesting person as my father. He’s still growing as a person.

I don’t want to end with tears in my eyes so I’ll end with Neil’s usual response to ‘how are you today?’ ‘Very good. Any better and I couldn’t stand it.’

I try not to put the ‘hero’ tag on anyone, mainly because I know that Neil avoids it himself, but dad is my role model, one of my best mates and my hero. And I love him even more now that I know he’s not right about everything. He’s a rare gem.

But still, at the end of the day… I’ve won more senior football premierships than him.

—Will Balme 
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