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I have a strange memory when it comes to sport.
A while ago at work the subject of the Canberra Raiders came up and a colleague said something to the effect of, “I think I’ve only been to one Raiders game. It was so long ago. Maybe 1998? I think they played the Broncos”. Without thinking I said “Yeah, Raiders won 24-18”.
People looked at me a bit odd and walked back to their desks but then later that day someone came over to me and said, “I looked up that game and you were right. How did you remember that?”
I can’t tell you exactly how I remembered it, but I have a theory.
It’s easy to remember the big moments in sport. Those are the ones that are replayed endlessly and retold in pubs amongst friends. I didn’t see the 1994 Grand Final live, but I have watched the VHS that my Dad taped many times. Off the top of my head I can remember the order of the try scorers (Furner, Nagas, Daley, Nadruku, Nagas, Croker, Meninga). But those aren’t the memories or moments I hold most dear. They are moments on a screen. They aren’t tangible.
The problem with the big moments is that the replays replace the lived experience. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the stands in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2014 when Tim Chaill thundered a volley on his left foot over the head of the Dutch keeper. It should be something that is burned into my brain. But it isn’t. The endless replays I’ve seen over the years have replaced that original memory. The angle that the cameras captured that weren’t available to my eyes in the stands are now easier to recall than what I saw.
The memories I hold most dear when it comes to sport and when it comes to the Raiders are those that I saw once and never again. Those that contained a nugget of something precious that solidified everything that happened around it.
In 2006, the Raiders played a home game against the Panthers at Bruce. The previous home game was the incredibly embarrassing 32-70 loss to Newcastle. I don’t remember most of this game, but I do remember the end. The Raiders were six points down and attacking the Panthers’ line with mere seconds to go. The clock was ticking down and the Raiders turned to the equivalent of the NFL Hail Mary: the cross-field kick. The ball went in the air toward where I was sitting in the inner bowl and up to meet it rose David Howell (a mid-2000s Raiders battler if there ever was one). He came down with the ball and scored in the corner.
As Clinton Schifcosfke lined up to take the kick from the sideline, the siren went. Choc stood over the ball, one eye closed, and then nailed the kick. What happened next is what solidified that memory. He turned to the crowd, looked right to where I was sitting, and beat his chest with his fist and screamed. It was pure emotion. It was a man who had given his all for the team, for the jersey, and was now pounding that jersey and bellowing his lungs out for the fans who cared about him most. That moment is why I remember the conversion. That moment is why I remember the try.
In the years since I’m not sure if I have seen a replay of that game, of that moment. I don’t need to. The replay can play in my mind whenever I want it to. It is those moments that make fans. Grand finals come and go (for some teams). Teams play well and the get bad and then get good again. But those moments never leave you. The Raiders can fight hard and give away a lead again and again, but that will never erase Phil Graham’s four tries against Brisbane, David Shillington’s 5th tackle bomb for a Josh Dugan try, Joey Leilua’s insane flick pass to Rapana, or Michael Weyman’s intercept and (failed) attempt to run 80 metres against Parramatta.
I remember that the Raiders beat the Broncos 24-18 in 1998 because Lesley Vanikolo (my favourite player at the time) took the ball down the right hand wing and put on a massive right foot step to leave a young Darren Lockyer clutching at air to break a 18-18 deadlock to win the game.
Raiders fans can complain about a lack of success and an era of frustration lasting 20+ years and I’ll afford them that. But the reason they are a fan, the memories that keep them coming back, are not contained in three grand final victories between 1989 and 1994. It’s the moments you can hold in your hand and watch in your minds’ eye as if they are unfolding live. And in those moments you remember why supporting this perpetually disappointing team isn’t so bad after all.