The siren sounds making me jump as I drive into the familiar space on level three of the place that feels like our second home, Etihad Stadium.
Stamping feet, clapping hands and waving flags surround me. I survey the rows in front looking for familiar faces. Another patron in a wheelchair down the opposite end of the row, a father and his two sons and dad and I display the only specks of blue and white in an otherwise crowded sea of yellow and black. I catch the usher's eye and we exchange smiles of recognition.
My first memory of barracking for North Melbourne is sitting on my auntie and uncle's couch, watching my first game with my cousin beside me teaching and then testing me on the names, numbers and positions of every player. The seed of interest that was planted that day quickly grew into a passion and then an obsession. In 2002 I became a member of the club and so have been going to games regularly since I was fourteen years old.
Mixing with club culture
A friend once said to me that AFL is too commercial and that she would much rather sit in the family car and watch a game at the local footy oval.
There is no denying, however, that while my passion centres first and foremost on the game, part of the fun of being a supporter is attending social events. Events like best and fairest ceremonies, family days, premiership reunions, meeting players and getting autographs. In these cases the wheelchair can be an advantage because players often remember me and address me by name, usually causing me to clench my fists and squeal in excitement.
Part of the crowd
The atmosphere intensifies as the umpire strides into the centre circle, holding the ball aloft. With eyes fixed on the ball, I reach my right hand out with downturned palm and slap dad's palm. We say
bang simultaneously and sit forward with anticipation, thus practicing our most recent superstition.
The familiar flutter of butterflies settles in my stomach, a combination of nerves and joy. Throughout the game, my passion attracts stares from small children and curious looks and smiles from adults. I can't blame them as when North Melbourne makes their charge, I lose my inhibitions and the built-up tension is released in noises resembling chants, whoops, yells and flat-out screams.
Some kind of magic
In a calm moment between plays, my logic and reason make an unwelcome appearance as I snap back and think
Why am I cheering? Can I actually make a difference? Why do I care so much?
Is it because in these two hours lies an opportunity for any player, no matter what his background or circumstance to elevate himself? To supersede what he believes himself capable of and become a champion to coaches, teammates and supporters at the place where legacies are carved, reputations are made and dreams realised. Looking at the scoreboard, the adrenalin rushes back and I make peace with the fact that, for me, football simply is more than a game.