To grow up in a Geelong family in the 1990s was to be taught to expect two things – eternal disappointment, and the legend of Gary Ablett. For Cats fans who had not lived through the joy of team success, individual brilliance had to do. Gary Sr delivered that in spades.
Dad’s fondest memories weren’t about team wins. They were the days Gary kicked 14, hauled in mark of the year or otherwise inspired awe in all spectators – and fear in his opponents.
For my family, Geelong was an integral part of their Australian story. Dad was the fourth son of a Jewish refugee from eastern Europe who settled in Ballarat in the 1920s, a move that would eventually pass down to four generations a passion for the Cats. I don’t remember much about days at the footy in the 1990s as a kid, but I remember dad perched on my bed at night, foregoing bedtime stories in favour of recounting the legend that was Ablett.
His peak brought many thrills, and the heartbreak of four grand final losses. By the time I was old enough to enjoy the footy, there was a new Gary Ablett on the field – Gary Junior, as he was then known, but not any more. Now, his name needs no suffix – he deserves it as much as, if not more than his old man.
From the very start, I remember the excitement surrounding that baby-faced kid with long, blond hair was stratospheric. He was clearly gifted, but the enthusiasm for Ablett went far above his exploits on the field. It was like he was the second coming. Only years later would we find he really was.
Players and coaches come and go. Football clubs renew and refresh almost everything about their increasingly professional brands. They exist through the continuity of their fans, and the memories of their great moments and players – and nothing creates continuity like a family dynasty.
When Ablett was drafted he was not rated a likely superstar. His rapid rise from a crafty and dangerous but hardly dominant small forward to an elite midfielder happened almost overnight. In the 2007 pre-season, his teammates warned him he was lazy and at risk of squandering his talent. He came back the best in the league. He would be unrivalled for years. His explosive pace, freakish core strength, damaging long-range kicking and ability to find the ball at will made for long highlight reels.
His match-winning goal in the 2007 preliminary final, sending Geelong to a first grand final in 12 years, was only a sign of what was to come: an ability to grab the ball, burst out of a pack and snap a long goal at pace. We watched that game on delay at home – it was the solemn Jewish festival of Yom Kippur. As Dennis Cometti uttered his immortal commentary, “cometh the moment, cometh the man – the son of the man”, we yelled so loud we must have woken half the block.
A week later, the son of the man did what the man could not – he became Gary Ablett, Geelong premiership hero. And again, two years later, seemingly en route to endless dominance and success in blue and white.
But as sudden as his rise was, so too was his shattering the romance of the Geelong-Ablett story to take up a lucrative contract at the new Gold Coast. But he was still far and away the best in the game. The lowly Suns were worth watching just to see him play.
Years after kicking an impossible goal from the boundary for Geelong, he did exactly the same against his old club at his first visit back home. He got a standing ovation. You could take the son out of Geelong, but you could not take Geelong out of Ablett. So years later, when a battered and bruised Ablett returned home for one final shot at a flag, the prodigal son’s story was almost complete.
In 2018, I took my five-year-old cousin – the first fourth-generation Cats fan in our family – to a VFL final in Port Melbourne. The first year of Ablett’s homecoming had come to an abrupt end two nights earlier. He hung around all game, signing autographs and taking selfies.
When I told him how special it was to watch him live in a Geelong jumper with a cousin who wasn’t born when he was in his dominant prime – and one named after my late grandfather, at whose home I used to sit every weekend watching his early games – he chuckled with humble pride. Ablett and Geelong was a family affair for both of us.
Last year, our three living generations watched him fly high on Easter Monday. As he soared for a speccy over a Hawthorn player in the forward pocket, eerily reminiscent of his old man, it was not just an emotive moment, it was spiritual.
His final years have not all been a fairytale to script. He has endured heartbreaking personal tragedy. More than half his final season was lost to care for his sick son. He played his last and 350 AFL game at Kardinia Park in front of empty stands. Only a lucky handful of Cats fans interstate had the privilege of farewelling him live.
The rest of us have to make do with one last glimpse from home. He has one or two games left in him. He is not the player he once was, but no one ever will be. He is still our Gary Ablett. Perhaps he has one last piece of Ablett magic in him. We will never see his like again, but we will always have what he gave us.
Guardian Australia will liveblog Geelong’s preliminary final against Brisbane at the Gabba on Saturday. The game starts at 7:40pm AEST