The Swans do it for Casey Tutungi
QUADRIPLEGIC co-coach Casey Tutungi spoke in little more than a whisper to the lads standing with arms laced in a circle of strength around his wheelchair.
The summit of an extraordinary season was within view and with a perspective shaped by a life so radically changed he implored them to do one thing.
“Take the opportunity,” he said to his South Barwon players, and the power inherent in his words could not be lost.
Out on the ground the Swans held it all within their hearts as they defied repeated challenges from a gallant and gutsy Grovedale in a Geelong Football League grand final laden with emotion.
Grovedale was striving to complete the rare and epic journey from bottom rung to premiership within the space of one storied season.
South Barwon was striving to complete a mission for the joint coach and teammate whose approach to life with quadriplegia, following an on-field accident in June, has inspired all those around him.
As players acted out their heroics out on the ground, a banner running 10m along the Reg Hickey Stand fence in South Barwon’s red, white and blue shouted what it was all about.
“#SPIRIT” it read, referring to Tutungi’s nickname from days playing with Geelong’s VFL outfit and pointing also to so much in a man that defies definition.
Tutungi is undergoing treatment at Kew’s Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre and the fact he was even at the final was itself a triumph.
With regulation of his body temperature a constant challenge, he analysed the game from the AFL coaches’ box but steered his way on to the ground at each break to share advice with groups of players.
Their intent focus on his words was clear.
On the scoreboard Grovedale refused to go away.
The Tigers pursued their opponents like heat-seeking missiles, defending with valour, attacking with daring.
Fans roared and chanted for them from the stands and, as all of the season crystallised during a hectic last quarter, the side was just unable to contain an outfit bristling with match-winners and fuelled by something profound.
After the siren Swans players mustered near the middle of the ground in celebration, surrounded by their families and fans.
Tutungi took several minutes to join them as he made his way down from the stand.
Chaperone and mate Mark Enright shouted out to draw players’ attention to his arrival at the edge of the throng and players rushed to him in an emotional embrace.
They sang, they rejoiced. They were at the summit.
“He’s been an inspiration to our playing group,” Swans defender and Geelong Cats champion Matthew Scarlett said.
“Even him being down here today just lifts the boys. He’s such an incredible, positive person. Love him.
“We were thinking about him all day.
“We dedicated the season to him and we didn’t want to let him down.”
Tutungi’s coaching partner, James Garvey, looked back to initial visits to Tutungi after he had emerged from intensive care in Melbourne.
“Incredible bloke to stay involved in coaching the football club from day dot and that’s all he wanted to do,” Garvey said as he peeled tape from his wrists in the rooms after the game.
“Ever since he came out of intensive care and into the hospital he just wanted to make sure everything was still in place.”
“Most of the boys got up there and every single one of them walked out of there feeling better about themselves because of the way he’s approaching things,” Garvey said. “He’s so positive and all he’d talk to them about was footy and how everything’s going in their life rather than worrying about himself.”
Garvey said Tutungi had insisted on attending the Swans’ second semi as his first game back to avoid any distraction of team focus on the grand final.
“I think what he did is he galvanised this group,” Garvey said. “You could see there wasn’t a lot going right for us out there and for this group to stick tight like they did and just keep coming I think is a reflection of the respect they have for him as a coach.”
Swans skipper and best afield medallist Anthony Biemans described Tutungi as determined, inspiring and respectful.
“We hold it really tight. Before the game was pretty emotional with him here,” Biemans said.
“We didn’t want to lose with him here and we wanted to win it for him, and we did.”
Tutungi’s reward was sharing pride, achievement and triumph with his teammates, and in having the hefty premiership cup placed in his lap.
“It’s a pretty emotional day. It sort of builds up and builds up,” Tutungi said.
“Then you get to the result and it is just sort of a relief in a way. I’m just rapt for the boys.”
Tutungi said making the most of every opportunity was so important.
“Not many players get to play in grannys. Some players don’t get that chance during their career, so it’s a big part about any grand final, making the most of it,” he said. They did.
His family was around him during the day, his partner, Bridget Ure, by his side, and his brother, Troy, spent the day manning a stall inside the Bob Davis gate pointing to next weekend’s Show for Casey money-raiser concert at Simonds Stadium, offering an Australian music A-list for a mere $50 a ticket.
Concert organiser Simon Daly said he would fine-tune planning with the City of Greater Geelong this week, with the Cats’ exit from the finals likely to free up opportunities including increased parking.
As Troy Tutungi and Mr Daly spoke, pint-sized kids came up and dropped coins into collection tins. Casey’s story has captured hearts of all sizes.
Over behind the #SPIRIT sign a woman who preferred not to be named reflected on what Tutungi embodied and his journey within the space of a few months.
“He’s like a pillar of strength,” she said.
“It’s amazing how someone can see their future and be so positive and optimistic.
“You can’t ever let go of hope.”