Barry Connolly sat reluctantly in the living room of his Shepparton home in the week before this past Christmas.
He wasn’t one to sit down if he didn’t have to. He was too much of a social animal. But his health was waning, his eyesight shot and with one ear on the television, he did his best to keep up with the revolving door of family and friends who popped in for a cuppa.
A visitor, recently returned from the UK, had dropped by to say hello. They talked of times past, inquired of each other’s health and swapped stories of mutual friends.
Before the visitor left Connolly reached into his wallet and drew a crisp $100 note.
“I can’t take that Barry, no way, put it back in your wallet,” the man said.
“Buy a ticket in the lotto this weekend,” Connolly replied. “If you win, you can take me to Wimbledon next year. We’ll sit on centre court, it’s a magical place.”
Connolly was, if nothing else, a dreamer. He was a man who could turn anguish into opportunity and never stopped thinking about possibilities.
He knew even with the $30 million jackpot, he couldn’t fly halfway around the world. Neither his doctor nor his loved ones would let him. But they couldn’t stop him dreaming.
Red Smith, a great American sports writer, once said at the funeral of a sporting friend: “Dying is no big deal. The least of us will manage that. Living is the trick.”
Connolly lived a life to be envied. Surrounded by love, filled with friendship, full of football and lined with success.
He wasn’t a paragon, nor a saint. As a God-fearing man, he would object to that label. It could only be given to his wife of half a century, Monica, who “chased him for years”; he’d tell anyone willing to listen.
The community is worse off for his departure. It’s like the sun has forever gone behind a dark cloud.
For all his success as a businessman, a father and in football, it was his charm, cheekiness and charisma that made him – those traits and his strong sense of justice, compassion and loyalty.
He could make a tramp feel like a prince and a king feel like a beggar. He could lift the helpless onto their feet and convince them the stars were the limit. Equally he could knock the confidence out of anyone who he’d thought had got ahead of themselves.
It was the old boxer in him – the street fighter who wore the underdog tag with pride. It led to some almighty rows but most were eventually patched up. He could be as stubborn as he could be kind, but he would never turn from a friend in their hour of need.
Listing Connolly’s resume tells only half the tale of his 72 years – more than 50 of them involved in football as a schoolboy star, as a courageous centreman with VFL club Footscray and as a champion of the bush at Benalla, Ardlethan, Shepparton United, Waaia and Nathalia.
More importantly to Connolly, his son Chris would follow in his footsteps as a VFL player and become an AFL coach.. His younger son Shane was a talented basketballer, inherited his dad’s sense of “a fair go” and became a police officer. His daughters, Jenny and Jo, were outstanding servants of football clubs in their own right, as netballers and as unflagging supporters of their husbands – Morrison medalists Peter Foott and Stephen Ash.
They all gave him grandchildren who filled his life with joy.
When he debuted as a 15-year-old in the Ovens and Murray league he was the youngest man to play senior football. Around the same time he helped establish a Benalla junior football competition.
He coached Nathalia and mentored a young Francis Bourke. Bourke developed into a great of the game.
Connolly became, as one scribe put it, the most dynamic president country football had seen when he took charge of Shepparton United. It would become the first club to win every grade on grand final day. Three years later, with the club broke; he’d take the coaching reins himself.
He led the Goulburn Valley Football League as chairman for 16 years, through an age of amateurism to its status as a powerhouse.
These things are well documented; less known are his deeds as a man.
Only those who were on the receiving end will ever know his many acts of generosity – the widows who were given money for bills or overdue rent or the young footballers that were gifted new pairs of boots.
Young men who saw coach Connolly as a father figure would turn to him if their lives had taken a turn for the worse – even those who felt wronged by him in the past. Even 30 years after he coached at under-18 level, ex-players wrote to tell him of his influence on their success in life.
His family joked that their home was a halfway house. Many were brought in for meals, for a bed or just for a cup of tea.
Until the end he had more concern for friends – some who had lost their wives or husbands – than for himself. He’d take them out for lunch, drive them to and from appointments or just check on their welfare. Those who loved him would become frustrated with his disregard for his health, namely diabetes, but they knew this was his style.
At times Connolly’s network of friends seemed too good to be true. He met Queen Elizabeth, was a sparring partner to Olympic boxer Max Carlos and could count Brownlow medalists John Schultz, Bob Skilton and Kevin Murray and premiership coaches Kevin Sheedy, Tom Hafey and Ron Barassi among his mates.
The most outrageous of his connections was with Hollywood actor Richard Burton, who he once befriended in the lift of a European hotel. Burton, the one-time husband of Elizabeth Taylor, shouted him lunch. He said he felt Burton appreciated the fact he was treated as “just another man on holiday”. It could only happen to Connolly.
“BC” had a common touch, whether it was offering his reserved seat at the footy to a stranger, or inviting a lonely bystander into an official function.
With a ruddy-nosed face full of mischief, only studious onlookers could detect his routine.
He’d grab two cups of tea and the first person he would run into he’d offer it up.
“Here, I got this for you,” he’d say.
To an unsuspecting person it was a random act of kindness.
When he’d come across someone whose name he’d forgotten, he’d grab the closest person nearby and say: “Have you guys met each other?” knowing full well they’d introduce themselves and he’d be reminded of their name.
On the odd occasion he was called on this, he’d laugh it off with an infectious giggle and change the topic. His humour was as legendary as his deeds on the football field.
As coach of Waaia, he inherited a team made mostly of farmers and he grew frustrated with them not training – their excuse was milking duties.
His lateral thinking came to the fore and he called compulsory lunchtime training sessions. Any hurdle could be overcome.
As a real estate agent, he’d show someone through a house and after walking past the bathroom, he’d turn and say: “Did you see the monkey in the window back there?”
The bemused house-hunter would turn around to see their reflection in the mirror. It never grew old.
Perhaps his kind heart stemmed from an accident that nearly took his life in 1965.
Connolly, then a tiler and plasterer by trade, was working in a NSW Riverina tin mine near 10 or so barrels of sulphuric acid when one of them exploded and burnt him extensively.
John Kelly, an Ardlethan teammate and father of Brownlow medalist Paul Kelly, was among those who dragged Connolly to the showers to wash off as much of acid as possible. He spent six weeks recovering in Temora hospital.
It was an act which Connolly – who became lifelong friends with the Kellys – spent the rest of his life passing on to those who needed it most. He did it with humility and dignity.
His father figure was the legendary EJ “Teddy” Whitten, who “took him under his wing” when he was a youngster at Footscray in the 1950s. The bronze statue of “Mr Football” outside the old Western Oval bears the name of the sponsors who helped contribute to its construction. Only one of Whitten’s former teammates’ names is on the statue. No prizes for guessing.
He continued with his love of travel until late in life and visited the Holy Land and parts of the Middle East including Jerusalem and Mt Sinai. He kept meticulous scrapbooks of his pilgrimages.
Despite his financial security and urging from family and friends to retire, it was not until recent years he did so. His health deteriorated not long after.
Countless more stories can be recalled by the many who have crossed paths with Connolly during their lives – through football, family, community and the church. All will consist of a common theme – the world is a better place for having Barry Connolly.
He leaves an indelible mark, for his is a life to remember.
Originally published in Shepparton News, Saturday, May 7, 2011