The Best Sporting Moments Happen Off The Field
AFL great Neale Daniher is facing his toughest-ever adversary, and Australians are heeding the battle call.
“I’m realistic. This will probably be my last opportunity to talk," Neale Daniher said this week.
"Next year, if I’m alive, I’ll be grunting, trying to grunt funny jokes," he told AFL 360.
But as always, the AFL champion, husband, father and motor neuron disease sufferer and fighter is selflessly and fearlessly staring down the face of adversity with his trademark philosophy: "Just play on."
When Melbourne and Collingwood meet in the AFL’s traditional Queen’s Birthday clash at the MCG later today, a crowd of more than 80,000 will come together to cheer a hero.
But it won’t be big-marking Magpie Jeremy Howe, Demons goal kicker Jesse Hogan or the other 42 players who will take the field.
Yet he is courageous, much-loved and will receive the applause of every member of the crowd, regardless of the colour of their guernsey.
The Big Freeze at the ‘G fundraiser, in its fourth year, is former Essendon footballer and Melbourne coach Daniher’s day.
Each year, celebrities and sportspeople don fun costumes and make their way down a slide into an ice pool to raise awareness and crucial funds for the insidious disease, which slowly paralyses the human body, with no cure.
In an incredible show of support, all 18 AFL coaches will participate in the slide on Monday.
Last year $4.6 million was raised. This year, the federal government will match donations dollar-for-dollar with the money going towards new clinical trials.
Neale, 57, was diagnosed in 2014 and with the love and support of his incredible family -- wife Jan and children Bec, Lauren, Ben and Luke -- has since dedicated his life to educating Australians about the terminal illness and fundraising for Fight MND.
His selfless work surpasses his achievements on the field as a player and in the coaches’ box over the course of 305 matches.
In March, I had the great honour of being asked to host the inaugural ladies lunch for Fight MND.
Neale was guest speaker. I’d never met him before but we were introduced in the green room beforehand and he was warm, made sure I was ready and comfortable and thanked me for giving up my time to MC the function. It was the very least I could do.
I introduced Neale on to the stage and the room sat in complete silence watching a video then listening to him speak, hanging on every word. It was clearly taxing on him, physically and mentally, but he delivered a wonderful speech, moved the huge crowd and did what he always does, made everyone smile, laugh and feel better.
Neale appeared on television on Wednesday night and among his usual infectious positivity and great sense of humour was his heartbreaking reality.
“MND is a progressive disease, it takes things from you. All the things you love," he told AFL 360.
"I love to run, I love to play golf, I love to play tennis. You can’t do that. You can’t drive, I can’t dress myself, I’m struggling to talk.
“But there’s one thing it can’t take from me. MND takes everything from you except your last great freedom; and that’s your right to choose your attitude.
“You choose your own way and my attitude is don’t give up, don’t give in. It can’t take that from you.”
Well over 80,000 of the trademark blue MND beanies have already been sold this year with more available at the ground on game day which will sell quicker than hotcakes. Australians continue to donate generously all year round. This morning I heard a father ring talkback radio to say his four-year-old son wanted to set up a lemonade stand to raise money for Neale.
It’s truly special stuff and a reminder of how sport, a critical fabric of Australian society, brings people together, supports and lifts its own and wraps them in love.
We so often hear stories about sportspeople or fans behaving badly but this really is a tale worthy of all the headlines for all the right reasons.
And the best headline is yet to come: “Neale Daniher, 2019 Australian of the year.”