HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jim Stynes

AFL Round 1 - Collingwood v Melbourne

Jim Stynes has been cemented as one of the all-time greats in Australian football, winning a Brownlow Medal, earning two All-Australian honors, and holding the record for most consecutive AFL games. But Stynes didn’t know the finer points of Aussie rules until he was a young man, as the sport was entirely foreign to him growing up.

Born in 1966 to Brian and Teresa Stynes, he was raised in the southern suburbs of Dublin as one of six kids. He began playing Gaelic football and had a real passion for it, starting from the age of eight and continuing throughout his school days in Ireland. In addition to relishing the fast pace and ball movement in Gaelic football, Stynes also liked full-contact sports, competing in rugby union at De La Salle College, Churchtown.

In 1984, when he was only 18, Stynes led his team — Ballyboden St Endas — to a Gaelic football title in the All-Ireland Minor Championship division. While coming down from the high of this big win, Stynes wanted a steadier income. Since Gaelic football was an amateur sport, Stynes had to support himself by delivering papers for meager wages. While he wanted to go to college, it seemed like a pipe dream.

Soon afterwards, Stynes saw an ad in his newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. They were offering two scholarships for young Irishmen to come and play Aussie rules while studying at a university in Melbourne. Lanky and athletic, Stynes saw it as a great opportunity and was eventually selected, flying to Australia in November 1984.

In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences in Australia, Stynes had to learn Aussie rules from scratch. While both Aussie rules and Gaelic football feature similar ball movement and kicking skills, Stynes found it hard to transfer his football IQ right away. He needed to fine-tune his techniques, adjust to the full contact nature of footy, and attempt to compete with young men his age who were far more experienced.

However, after about a year or so with the Melbourne Demons’ reserves squad, Stynes began to settle in and be more comfortable with a footy. Coaches liked his athleticism and his positive attitude, and by 1987, he made his senior level debut in a night game between Melbourne and Geelong.

It didn’t go as planned; Stynes performed poorly on the grand stage and didn’t play much the rest of the ’87 season. Melbourne got to the AFL Preliminary Final that year and was leading Hawthorn in the final seconds. The siren sounded to end the match, but Hawthorn had one more shot and were given a free kick after Stynes ran across the mark. This critical error cost the Demons a shot at the Grand Final that year.

But once again, Stynes didn’t quit and the following year, Melbourne made it back to the postseason. This time, they did advance to the Grand Final and lost badly, but Stynes was showing rapid improvement.

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In 1991, Stynes had his best season yet, playing all 24 games for the Demons and leading the league in marks (214). He also won the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players Association MVP award, and was named All-Australian. To date, Stynes is the only foreign-born AFL player to ever capture a Brownlow, which is the game’s highest individual regular season honor.

Stynes was highly regarded for his relentless pursuit of the ball, out-hustling and maneuvering his opponents and using his quickness to be aggressive towards bigger players. In 1993, Stynes collided with a teammate and broke a rib. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but amazingly, he returned the following week and played with light chest padding for protection. He was holding the all-time record for consecutive AFL games when he suffered another severe injury — this time to his hand — in 1998, and he retired that fall as one of the best players in Melbourne history, playing 264 career games.

Following his retirement, Stynes remained involved in the community, both on and off the footy oval. In 1994, while still playing, Stynes co-founded the Reach Foundation with his friend, filmmaker Paul Currie, with the goal of starting community outreach programs. The foundation works with kids, families, and the like to help people in various ways, from mental health education, to violence prevention, to sports and athletic activities.

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Stynes continued his philanthropic efforts in 1997, when the Government of Victoria asked him to help assist their anti-suicide task force, helping advocate for youth treatment programs and compassionate outreaches. In addition to two autobiographies, Stynes also wrote children’s self-help books and was named Victorian of the Year twice (in 2001 and 2003). In recognition of his community activism and work with children, Stynes received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University. The AFL inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2003.

The Jim Stynes Medal was named in his honor, first awarded in 1998 to the best Australian player in the International Rules Series, which pits Aussie rules and Gaelic footballers against each other under hybrid rules.

Stynes became president of the Melbourne Football Club in 2008 to much fanfare, although the following year he announced a sabbatical after being diagnosed with melanoma. Stynes continued to work during his treatment, but soon the cancer had metastasized. He passed away at his home at the age of 45 on March 20, 2012 and was survived by his wife Samantha and two kids.

Former Melbourne team captain turned TV journalist Garry Lyon gave an emotional tribute to his former teammate on The Footy Show:

Jimmy refused to let the game define who he was. It was just a part of him and it allowed us to marvel at his determination, unwavering self-belief, resilience, strength, skill, endurance and courage….he was secure enough to know that displaying vulnerability can be a strength and not a weakness.

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