There’s something inherently endearing about an old-timer cutting it in a young man’s world.
We all had that one mature-age student in our class at university. Well, us Arts graduates did, at least. The grey-haired 60-year-old who’s decided to dip their toe back in the murky waters of tertiary education.
Generally, they will be the most active of the students because they’re there for reasons other than the fact that, in this modern society, you simply need a degree to survive. They’re often there because a) they have a genuine interest in learning a specific subject; b) they are simply bored and have copious amounts of free time ever since old Harold passed away; c) they want to stave off early-set dementia by keeping their mind active.
Mature-age students carry with them a tremendous social stigma, but I believe they are an important part of the general university fabric. They have life experience, for one. Amid this sea of obnoxious bar-hopping, drug-taking teenagers who are all living in the moment, establishing ‘societies’ that are, often, just a front for sexual deviancy, the mature-age student provides a refreshing counterbalance to this obscene collegiate debauchery.
And while they probably disapprove of this behaviour, they know their place. Silently, they will judge, but never openly.
But while universities welcome the mature-age student with open arms (they usually pay upfront, mind you, which is good for the university’s cash flow), it’s a different story when it comes to our sporting codes.
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For the purposes of this article, I’ll turn my attention to the NRL (and possibly the AFL, too). For it is publicly acknowledged that both are a “young man’s game” now.
For in this modern sporting world of academies, U20 competitions and general ageism, where are the late-bloomers, the Adam-Mogg-debuting-in-Origin-at-age-28s, of this world?
Last year, Newcastle Knights winger Josh Mantellato became the club’s third-oldest debutant – at the ripe old age of 26. Several column inches were dedicated to how Mantelatto, a personal trainer, was just two years ago playing for Wyong in the local Newcastle competition. It was a great story, sure, but one that is becoming rarer with each passing year.
There is an over-emphasis these days on academies and junior development. That’s fine, I get the importance of cultivating and investing in young talent, but the unfortunate by-product here is that it has led to the Near-Extinction Of The Mature-Age Debutant.
Put simply, there are few things left in this world that are truly life-affirming. Therefore, watching a rugby league player debut after toiling away in the local Group 16 competition for 10 years while holding down a full-time job as an electrician/plumber/[insert any blue-collar job, really] is truly something to hold onto and cherish.
In the AFL, James ‘jPod’ Podsiadly was drafted by Geelong in the 2010 Rookie Draft. He played six seasons in the VFL for Werribee before moving to the Geelong VFL club, where he assumed a dual role as a player/fitness coach. He later debuted in the AFL for Geelong in 2009 at the age of 28.
Podsiadly lacked the shiny visage of the modern AFL player – and I liked that. He was hairy and had a body that seemed suited to park football, not professional AFL. He was large, but not in a Dolph Lundgren in Rocky kind of way, ala Chris Tremlett of the English cricket team. These are all good things. It gives the impression of an amateur-turned-professional.
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Ageism in sport is not a new thing. It is a phenomenon that has been most obvious in the Australian cricket team, where proven old stagers are cast aside for young shiny things without regard for near-term success. But if we look at the recent success of, say, Chris Rogers, who scored a mountain of runs before before and after his one-off test appearance in 2008, to finally be rewarded with a recall to the test side at the age of 35, we can see that experience matters.
I like the fact that a mature-age debutant knows who he is. He has defied certain odds to make the top grade and, as such, he will undoubtedly appreciate his opportunity. He has not been mollycoddled from a young age, or anointed as the Next Big Thing, or subjected to elite nutrition/gym programs designed to minimise his skin-folds while maximising his explosiveness and energy levels.
What’s more, coaches love them because they’re mature… plus the age gap is narrower, so they can connect with them easier. It’s like in Friends, when Chandler Bing dramatically quit his job as an executive specialising in statistical analysis and data configuration to become a junior advertising copywriter. Initially, he felt out of place during his internship among the young hungry advertising graduates; however, his future boss recognised his maturity and life experience, in turn promoting him to a full-time position.
There are shades of the sportsman vs the athlete in this debate, certainly. And yes, the mature-age debutant is rarely an exceptional athletic specimen, otherwise he would have been identified as such in his teenage years, enrolled in some form of youth academy and subsequently stripped of all his X-Factor.
But it is more about The Story. About how an average bloke who toils away for 10 years in the suburban competition can get an unexpected call-up to the big league and steer his team to victory. It’s Hollywood, basically.
I lament the near-extinction of this breed of athlete. And you should too.
By Dave Edwards