Having worked with Ben Cousins on his soon-to-be-published autobiography, I suppose I’m professionally disposed to like him. That’s my declaration of interest. But I think I’d like him anyway.
As has been emerging over recent weeks, and particularly with his retirement announcement yesterday, there’s a gap between Cousins’ public image and the reality. There always is, but it seems super-sized in his case.
When sportsmen retire, journalists are often very quick and humble in recognising this gap. Acknowledging their part in creating it, they overcompensate. The result is the Saint Ben portrayed in the week’s press, in some cases from the same typewriters that have depicted him previously with horns, tail and trident.
The Cousins I have got to know is neither a f-ck-you hedonist nor an NA-speaking repentant sinner. The most surprising thing, which should be the least surprising, is how normal he is. The aura of his talent, the mystique of having come from the far edge of the desert, and the ear-popping sky-dive of his descent from grace were all great theatre, but when Cousins’ self-perception is as an ordinary suburban kid from a loving family whose tendency to extremes brought him a lifetime’s share of wins and losses, fun and disgrace. There are a million other young men like him in this country who just don’t happen to be champion footballers.
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If you can tell the cut of a man from how he treats the little people, Cousins is one of those who act with common decency and friendliness, to shopkeepers, taxi drivers and even ghost writers. Charm, sure, at times, but most of all decency.
Cousins’ story, when it’s fully told, will show how the things that made him a great footballer sometimes contradicted and sometimes were in lockstep with the things that made him love to party. He’s a garden-variety addictive personality, set in circumstances that have been larger than life. Not everyone who hears his story will think “There but for the grace of God”, but many will see how thin the line is between professional sports and self-destruction.
It’s been good to see the elevation of Saint Ben, if only to redress the disproportion created by the luridness of his fall. It’s easy to forget that his life went off the rails for a couple of years, not the whole 32. The picture of him being hauled out of his car in Northbridge is indelible, but it’s been punching above its weight in competing with his achievements as a footballer.
The biggest recent misconception about Cousins was that he was some kind of desperate character hoping Richmond would offer him another year to postpone the dreadful day of reckoning of a life without football. As has emerged in the past 48 hours, Cousins has dedicated this season to helping a young team, sparing Richmond the grief of having to decide on his future, and leaving football with a season to remind us of his gifts. He didn’t want to go beyond that. Never have I seen a footballer who feels so indebted to a club.
Football with Richmond has helped him through his recovery, but nobody in the AFL community is more aware of Cousins’ condition than Cousins himself. There is a bit of condescension about the “Poor Ben, what will happen to him?” line. Just as few AFL people understood his slide into addiction, few understand how he is climbing out of it. Certainly he is aware, intelligent and insightful about what got him into trouble, what risks he faces, and how to deal with the temptations of the future. How well he survives post-football, only time will tell. But Cousins is many steps ahead of all the amateur psychologists, as well-intentioned as they may be.
More than anything, he wants to be remembered as a team man, at West Coast and at Richmond. In writing his book, he has been zealous in crossing out every reference to individual, rather than team, achievement. I have had to fight to get a few back in.
I come from Sydney, and know a lot of Swans fans. Most want to believe Cousins is a tosser, but they think that of every member of the 2005-06 Eagles. They think Chris Judd’s a tosser. That’s the beauty of footy tribalism. Hate your enemy. But, as I’m loath to tell them, he’s not the devil, he’s just a naughty boy. We all know a few of those, don’t we?
*Malcolm Knox has ghost-written the autobiographies of Adam Gilchrist, True Colours, and Bart Cummings, Bart. Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.