Wednesday 22 January 2020

Damien Lawlor: 'Jim Stynes is perhaps the greatest emigrant we ever had'

A footballing giant in Australia and the best of men, Jim Stynes leaves a lasting legacy

Damien Lawlor

LAST December, Bernard Flynn and his son Billy walked into a restaurant in Melbourne with Jim Stynes and his wife Sam. There were over 100 customers inside and they all stopped in their tracks to pay homage.

Although he wasn't feeling that well, Stynes stood for pictures and signed autographs until everyone was happy.

"Irish people just have no idea the impact Jim made in Australia," Flynn says. "A lot of Aussie sports superstars are arrogant and cocky, and ordinary people can't relate to them, but Jim was the opposite of all that. Sure, he enjoyed his profile and used it well for charity work but he despised the old bullshit that went with fame."

Flynn had been in Melbourne four days before Stynes, so sick he couldn't even leave the house, decided to get some fresh air. After lunch they strolled past the sea, stopping so Stynes could get in for a dip.

"I think he got a bit of freedom that day," Flynn says. "But I got an awful land when I saw him with his top off; his whole back and front had been opened to pieces and then closed up again. There were cuts all over his body. He had 19 tumours out of 21 removed and they just couldn't get the other two out. What his body went through none of us will ever comprehend. The man should have been dead two years ago but willpower kept him going.

"The next thing, two elderly couples came over. They couldn't but see the marks on his body and they just shook his hand and started to cry. Jim didn't know them from Adam but he had a few tears himself."

Flynn flew to Australia on December 30, stayed until January 7 and was amazed at what he saw. "It was like that famous documentary we saw on TV last year; he was draining all the vitamins from the vegetables and doing all he could to beat the cancer with all sorts of formulas and potions. He was obsessed with beating cancer.

"But what I took from the whole trip was how interested he still was in others. He could barely move around the house and yet he managed to drive an hour and a half to meet Tommy Walsh, who had arrived from Kerry to St Kilda. He spent a couple of hours talking, advising him and showing him things. I would say that was a very special moment for Tommy."

Flynn first got to know Stynes during the 1987 International Rules series. Stynes was on the Australian team but three years later he was on the Irish side. They remained close ever since, spending Christmases together over the following 12 years. Yesterday, Flynn left for Australia to bid farewell to his old friend.

"I learned pretty quickly that if Jim didn't like you that was the end of it, really, but we became real friends. Outside of my family he was the guy I would turn to, I suppose. He was great fun, extremely loyal. He loved a few jars in the off-season but wasn't a drinker at all. If he went on a session he'd be in bits for a week afterwards. He picked his pals very closely and in the last few years he kept a low profile and did his own thing -- he didn't like the adulation and materialism of the sports world.

"The truth is that he had done very well out of the 14 or so childcare centres he set up and was financially set and didn't need all that other stuff. He bought a beach house on the west of Melbourne but didn't really go in for the flash lifestyle.

"He was such a family man that the entire clan moved out, I think. The girls, Brian, David, his parents, Tess and Brian senior, relocated to Mornington, which is just outside Melbourne. It's a good thing that they're all close now and around to help Jim's two kids, Matisse and Tiernan."

Everyone knows Stynes' feats and achievements: those 244 games on the spin between 1987 and 1998 -- a record for most consecutive matches that still stands in the AFL -- and the Brownlow Medal in 1991.

It wasn't all good, it never is in sport. It was his temporary lapse in concentration in his debut season that cost Melbourne its first Grand Final appearance in 27 years. They were leading Hawthorn in a semi-final when their opponents were given one last chance to convert a long-distance kick. Absent-mindedly, Stynes ran across the mark, a technical foul that brought the kicker to within 15 metres of goal, and Melbourne lost. He could have gone home then, but instead he stayed put and beat the odds.

"The one thing I looked out for over the years was to see whether the superstardom had gotten to him but it never did," Flynn adds. "He was actually becoming a bigger name with every passing year and had developed into a brand at one stage, but he was still the same bloke on the other end of the phone.

"He called on Christmas morning; the family was on the way down to their beach house for a barbecue with close friends. It was basically a chance to say goodbye. He said the doctors were giving him two weeks and just mentioned that I'd be one of the first to know when he did pass. Of course, he rallied another five or six times, he just didn't want to let it beat him."

Over many of his visits Flynn saw at first hand Stynes' distress at some of the social problems that threatened to destroy his adopted country.

"I could tell how bitter he was about the youth scene there. There were drug problems, broken marriages, and he decided to do something about it. I think about 600,000 young kids in total went through the Reach Foundation that he co-founded to help teens overcome mental health and esteem issues. That's just astounding.

"A few of those kids were complete down-and-outs but through his programme they totally turned their lives around and some of them have become famous TV and radio presenters. On New Year's Eve last they flew in to meet Jim from all different parts of the world, successful business people, entrepreneurs, their lives totally transformed.

"Don't mind football -- that was the impact Jim Stynes had. That is his legacy. As I say, we just have no idea what impact he made down there. You can talk about Roy Keane, Robbie Keane, Bob Geldof, anyone, but no Irish person has made the impact in another land that Jim Stynes made in Australia. He is perhaps the greatest emigrant we ever had. To get a state funeral is absolutely massive. It just says it all."

Flynn is right. Many Irish people find it hard to fully appreciate what he did. Even saving an AFL club from extinction, extraordinary as the feat was, came at a time when there wasn't global saturation of sports news.

After watching the documentary on Stynes, Every Heart Beats True, Clare hurler Tony Griffin felt compelled to do something.

"I found myself and a close friend, Karl Swan, boarding a flight for Melbourne," Griffin says. "I had watched the documentary about Jim's life and was so inspired by a clip on Jim's work with the Reach Foundation that we decided to travel Down Under to learn as much as we could and bring the lessons learned back for Irish teenagers.

"Jim dedicated much of his life to inspiring young people to scratch beneath the surface and discover their greatness and we were keen to do the same with young Irish teenagers. We purposely declined to meet Jim. He was not well enough and we decided not to. We were in Melbourne to bring what Jim created back to Ireland, to ensure that the young people of this country would benefit from what he created, and we did not want to tax him or his family.

"We just told his closest friend, Don McLardy, that we had come and we would bring back the spirit of Reach to Ireland so that he would never be forgotten. We set up the Soar Foundation in October and over the next three years Soar aims to reach 362,000 young Irish people between 10 and 18 with early-intervention positive life-skills programmes. It will cost €2.9 million but thanks to Jim we dare to dream.

"Jim showed that you can achieve things beyond your wildest dreams if you realise your potential. He inspired me to believe in the impossible again, something I had lost over the last two years living in Ireland."

If Griffin was temporarily losing faith in Ireland, Stynes always kept well tuned into the affairs of his country of birth. He wasn't back on these shores for close to four years but was constantly asking about the health of his native land and, more importantly, the Dubs.

He played midfield on the last Dublin minor team to win an All-Ireland and in 2009 that squad held a 25-year reunion at Castleknock Golf and Country Club. Stynes wasn't well enough to travel but his old friends Skyped him for over half an hour. Last week Paul Clarke, their captain, sent a text message to all 24 members of the panel telling them the news. A few days later, the Australian media reported that it was Stynes' dying wish to have his ashes scattered in Rathfarnham. The bond was never broken.

But if Ireland never left him, Australia was his home. Flynn tells a funny story about just how highly he was regarded there. Stynes was on his own a few months back and wasn't feeling well. He might even have sighed when the doorbell rang. When he answered he found the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard at the front door.

"Jim would take all that in his stride because he was just the most laid-back man in the world, but he must have been a little flustered this time because he rang Sam and asked her to bring home some groceries, saying that the prime minister had just popped in. Sam thought he was only joking, but she stopped off at the shops anyway and just got an unmerciful land when she arrived home and saw the VIP guest in the lounge.

"He was a guy who could get things done and he didn't take no for an answer. The other area of his life that I haven't even touched on yet was the financial overhaul of the Melbourne Demons. To reduce that debt he had to hurt some highly regarded people but after his first official fundraising efforts they were Aus$4m better off. He transformed that club across the board too."

There is no doubt that Stynes stepped on toes. He saved a 154-year-old club from extinction. He took on a new game and became a champion in his chosen field. Through his work and fundraising he gave hundreds of thousands of kids a future.

When Jim Stynes arrived in Australia, the plan was simple: see the world, go to college courtesy of the club and go back home a better player. He never did come back home for good but he did become a better player. And there were few better men.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: The Saracens scandal, Leinster's nightmare draw and Andy Farrell's tough calls

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport