I think I always followed Kosi a little more closely from the start.
I was always aware at a young age of what was seen as “mainstream” and “alternative” (when your mind works that simply and reductively), and I always leaned a little to the latter. Kosi was just that, relative to the chart topping My Favourite Hair in the AFL.
As number 1 pick and with the eye-catching blonde hair (indeed, as mentioned every week, My Favourite Hair-t0-be) Roo’s talent and impact felt a bit more of a given. Kosi, even though he was a pick number 2, went under the radar a little. He did win the Rising Star Award in 2001 at centre half-back, but he was always the underdog after he missed most of 2002 and Roo took out the Rising Star Award himself.
Our paths crossed (very loosely) in the pre-season of 2003. My family received a letter from the club to say my brother and I were off to Moorabbin Bowl to go ten-pin bowling alongside a few other junior members with a whole lot of Saints players. I still can’t remember why exactly we found ourselves in that situation; the first thing my memory fills in that blank with is “raffle”, although my brother and I obviously wouldn’t have both been drawn by chance, so either one of us won this raffle (no idea when or where it was held) and the club threw in the other one of us, or some kid members were just chosen at random – i.e., they didn’t bother with the whole “pulling something out of a hat/barrel” thing. I don’t think Mum kept those letters we got, so I’ll probably never know.
I was awkward and shy (and pimply) as all hell, not yet turned 15. I remember walking up Nepean Highway to the venue with mum and my brother beside myself with nerves. As always, I’d taken utmost care before we left to make sure my hair looked half-decent. A strong wind was blowing and by the time I caught my reflection in the automatic doors of Moorabbin Bowl the wind had blown my hair straight up and the gel (it was 2003) had set. I looked ridiculous. Cue enormous blushing (I hadn’t even met the players yet) and a quick dash to the bathrooms to get things sorted.
No sign of the players from where we were. In my head I thought we’d probably got the day wrong, or this was some elaborate joke on us. Seriously, why the hell would we be bowling with St Kilda players? (As per the above paragraph, technically I still don’t know the answer to that.) I was a pessimist from an early age and as we stood there looking around I was already building myself up for a mixture of disappointment and (more) embarrassment.
But no, I was wrong. The person behind the counter pointed us to the end lanes, and over there I could see some guys wearing polos amongst a smattering of red, white and black. They were there, and for whatever freak reason, we were meant to be over there too.
We were the first ones to arrive, so it was a little more daunting as all of the players looked over to just Matt and I as we approached. There was Nathan Burke, Stephen Powell, Andrew Thompson, Max Hudghton, Justin Peckett and, of course, Kosi.
The PR girl pointed me over to the seats next to Kosi and told me I was in his lane. I walked over and plonked myself down.
“Hi, what’s your name?”
“I’m Justin,” he said warmly.
“I know,” I said, and smiled shyly. I genuinely said “I know” facetiously, but I’m not sure if that was noticeable through my radioactive blushing.
I didn’t have much to say at all that afternoon, really. I was too worried about making an idiot out of myself, so this isn’t one of those stories where I say “Yeah we spoke for ages about some bullshit”. But Kosi sensed that I was a bit spun out and he kept trying to bring me into things. I think my blushing nearly took the place into meltdown when he said to me about a girl in my lane, “”What about Claire? I think she’s alright”. Even with the (deliberately) cheesy stuff, he really did go out of his way to make me feel comfortable. It made being in that space comfortable and enjoyable.
But it was Matt that the players really liked of the 10 or 15 of us that were there. He had just turned 12 and he’s always been a “people person”. He was a bit more chatty and I remember his lanemates Thompson and Powell looking at each other after he’d cracked a bit of a gag. They liked him. In fact, it traversed lanes – he probably spoke more with Kosi than I did.
(I was actually surprised at how high the player to kid ratio was, but I think they might have genuinely enjoyed heading out for a bit of bowling on a pretty grey weeknight.)
A few weeks later it was Round 1 of the season and the Saints were away to the Kangaroos at the MCG. Kosi was out, though, and was spending the game in the coaches box with GT et al. The ground’s redevelopment had begun, with the Ponsford Stand levelled, but the old coaches’ boxes on the MCC wing were still in use. At half-time, GT and the staff had to come down to the field and walk along the boundary line towards the old players’ race near the Punt Road end.
Matt and I had been sitting close to the fence in the MCC, and I noticed Kosi in the group as they walked past our seats. He was just habitually scanning the crowd and saw Matt and I and, amongst GT and all the staff, yelled out to us.
“G’day Tommy and Matty, how’s the bowling going?” he said, accompanied with the bowling arm gesture.
I think I stood there blushing and smiling. I had trouble enough just talking to him face to face a few weeks earlier without having to scream at him over the fence and catch everyone’s attention (let alone yell out something not awkward). My brother just stood there as well, but I doubt he blushed.
I still can’t believe he did that. As just a 20 year-old, he could have raised the ire of the coaches for looking a little unprofessional, but amongst the senior staff he still went out of his way to do that. The thought of it now makes me want to tear up, for how good it made an awkward and self-doubting kid feel.
A whole eighteen weeks later – over four months later – Matt, his friend Nick and I were standing outside the rooms after the Saints had celebrated Nathan Burke’s last game with 80-point drubbing over Richmond (it was also the first Heritage Round, and saw the rebirth of the candy stripe jumper). Kosi eventually walked out of the room and Nick caught his attention.
“Hey Kosi, do you remember these guys?” and he pointed to Matt and I.
“Yeah, bowling!” Kosi said, and he did the bowling gesture again.
I’m not writing this as a “OMG THIS HAPPENED TO ME” thing. I am a bit, but this is more about the fact that I always hoped that little bit more that Kosi would find what seemed to be his destined place alongside My Favourite Hair in the annals of St Kilda history. There were times when it looked set to happen. Round 14, 2005 at the MCG saw a brilliant, spiteful game against the Bulldogs that claimed Roo as a scalp with a collarbone injury for the second time that season. Kosi stepped into the role as key mobile forward, and in Roo’s subsequent absence was handed the captaincy. As we all know, he put in a sensational several weeks of footy that saw him become arguably the most dangerous player in the competition, but after a quad injury in the “Whispers in the Sky” match against Freo on the eve of the finals and the Giansiracusa head clash in 2006, he never played at that level of footy, nor that consistently again.
That perhaps is a bit harsh on the 48 goals he kicked in a great 2009 season, but it was well and truly in the “other” forward role, and in only a couple of games did he truly present a mobile threat to the opposition. It felt he was ultimately the beneficiary of the good work of those further up the ground. Even in another Grand Final year, in 2010, his output dipped to just 30 goals and decidedly less of a presence way from goal.
I really did hope Kosi and Roo would be the leading lights when the Saints won that second flag. Kosi was the victim of expectation, some of which came from being the number 2 draft pick, and some of which he created himself in that short run in 2005 and then throughout 2009. Life can take you to all sorts of places because of and despite expectations, as a player and as a fan. As a fan, I head to tomorrow’s game to enter a time in which I know, because it’s in my past, how Kosi turned out. I will miss him dearly.