Having covered sport for several decades, as a reporter and website editor, I’ve seen under the hood of that world. Yes, it’s glamorous and exciting, intoxicating and a lot of fun, but it also brings stresses and mental anguish that more everyday jobs don’t. Sure, a paramedic, trauma doctor, soldier or cop could laugh this entire paragraph off, and fair enough, but for all the glittering highs sport can deliver, it can also beat people up and spit them out. Some handle that better than others.
Retired AFL identity Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson is going through that right now, in the glare of the media spotlight, and it’s not unreasonable to fear for his wellbeing. Without even forming an opinion on the potential criminal charges the Essendon premiership captain and flag-winning coach for Geelong is facing, for using or even maybe trafficking serious drugs, the 54-year-old is clearly extremely lost.
It’s been that way for some time, since Thompson – always an interesting cat – became more and more erratic over time, as detailed in an excellent but sad piece by Martin Blake, a good journo, who co-wrote Thompson’s autobiography. What struck me the most is that Bomber has been quite upfront about how badly he was falling into the pit, telling entire sportsmen nights that the fallout from the Essendon drug scandal, in which he was caught up, might kill him because he couldn’t let it go. Cries for help, failing relationships, not answering attempts to make contact by friends and former teammates: all the signs of somebody disappearing into a dark place. If you see any of those behaviours in yourself, please seek help.
I don’t doubt that Thompson’s former Essendon and Geelong workmates have tried their hardest to reach into his darkness and it’s also true that, as a 54-year-old, sometimes you have to look in the mirror, no matter how hard that is, and decide to act to save yourself, know when to hit the handbrake and ask for help. GiantsAmongMen tries not to be judgemental about mid-life crises, having been there ourselves, but we will say that while it sounds like Thompson, at a vulnerable time, has taken up with exactly the wrong crowd, you’d hope he hasn’t gone to some of the places the police are alleging.
Like I’m sure many in the AFL world, I deeply hope that, if there is any substance to the substances reported, that the charges Thompson potentially ends up facing are for ‘personal use’, with a hope of rehab and counselling, and not the more serious and much harder to excuse raps for trafficking.
Thompson’s case is even sadder when reflected against recent articles in The New York Times and USA Today, chatting about the post-retirement life of a celebrated NBA coach Don Nelson, most famously from the Golden State Warriors. To read about his career, Nelson was actually extremely similar to Thompson as a player and coach, with some left field thinking and plenty of charisma.
The Hall of Fame basketball hero now lives in Hawaii, where he happily plays poker and smokes joints (purely for medicinal purposes, you realise), while hosting music star Willie Nelson and actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson in an epic man cave.
‘Like Willie told me, it’s hard to be depressed when you’re smoking pot,’ Nelson said.
Let’s hope Mark Thompson can take note and find a happier place.