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Football’s divine call

First printed at afl.com.au

Alistair Macrae finds the line between football and theology

DREAMS don’t die easily. If football is your passion, the accumulation of years doesn’t seem relevant.

Alistair Macrae recently pulled on the boots for Rushworth reserves in the Kyabram District Football League. It was a one-off; the father of his daughter’s boyfriend is a club stalwart and knew Macrae might like to help make up the numbers.

Might like?

Macrae hung up his boots 15 years ago at the age of 36, leaving him with a footy itch he couldn’t scratch. “Barely a Saturday morning goes past when I don’t fantasise about the phone ringing: ‘Mate, have you got your boots?'” he says.

“In my head I’ve never given it away; it’s always been a provisional retirement. There are plenty of daydreams too, creating legends in my own mind.”

In his first and possibly last game for Rushworth ressies against rivals Murchison he played in the centre and got in the votes (“I had a ton of possession with very little effective disposal”), as well as earning a jumperful of cracked ribs after laying a heavy tackle in the third term.

Football is one of the three great constants in Macrae’s life, along with family and the church. He is the Executive Director of the Uniting Church’s Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne, and the President-elect of the church nationally.

Previously he was a minister in two rural towns and one inner-suburban parish.

His footy career began – and he suggests, peaked – as centreman for the Deepdene Primary School side which won the Victorian State School Premiership.

He was back pocket in a strong Scotch College side, and joined Old Camberwell after school to play alongside his brother Ian. The theology student had a robust approach to the sport.

“I remember playing one day against Elsternwick, a huge guy covered with tatts belted Ian. Honour was required so I went in to remonstrate, he belted me and I fell in a clump on top of my brother. It was unconscious solidarity.”

More embarrassing was a suspension for knocking over an umpire. It was a match played in filthy conditions and during a melee the man in not-so-white ran straight at Macrae. Thinking he was an opponent he pushed him away in self defence. The tribunal accepted his explanation and suspended him for ‘just’ six weeks, averting a much longer potential sentence.

After ordination he moved to a church in Mt Beauty and represented the local side in the Tallangatta and District League. “I loved it,” he recalls. “The mystique of playing Mitta United in Mitta, up against the mountain men, I had to pinch myself.

“I was used to a pretty fast style of play in the B-Grade Amateurs, and up there is was fairly slow and agricultural. I was faster than most so generally I could see danger coming.

“I was rubbed out twice up there for striking, which was a bit embarrassing in town but we all got over it.”

When he left Mount Beauty he retired for the first time, but spies in his new parish of Portland convinced him to turn out for the locals in the Western Border League. Not that he took much encouraging: “If the wind was in the right direction you could smell the liniment on the breeze from our manse.”

As a churchman dedicated to outreach and ecumenism, football was a great point of contact. “There is very strong bonding in country football clubs, more than in the city I think, and it was a really good way to meet people in the community.

“When I’d first turn up people would think, ‘Ah, here’s the minister’ and mind their language or whatever for about an hour, but after that you’re just one of the team. I got sledged a bit in the country leagues, but most of it was good-hearted.”

At 36, after 250 games, he mothballed his gear, save for a solitary comeback appearance when an E Grade amateurs side was short.

The self-described ‘very competitive’ sportsman restricted himself to daydreams, watching his sons’ teams and following Melbourne. (He was born in 1957 in the middle of the Demons’ finest era but, “I didn’t get onto them until 1964, and we haven’t had a sniff since”.)

He still runs three or four times as week and completed a half-marathon a month before the call came from Rushworth – but nothing quite prepares a body for its second game of footy in 15 years.

“The ribs were sore, the knees, the legs…it was great though,” he says. “I said to Clare (his wife) last night I reckon I’ve got one left in me – but I don’t think it’ll be this season.”