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Ben’s Road To Freedom

  • Tuesday, September 21 2021 @ 01:25 pm ACST
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Life has a habit of presenting second chances to people. Not all are taken, but there are many cases of people believing their chance to do something has passed only to be given a second chance and gleefully take it. I know it has happened to me – more than once – and my life has been changed and bettered by the experience.

The appearance of Ben Cousins at Sunday night’s Brownlow Medal count in Perth rated as one of the subtle highlights of the night. He didn’t say much to the salivating press, but what he said was, it seems, genuine, grateful and optimistic. Admitting that it had been a while since he had been to such an event (since his retirement from the AFL level in 2010), he was happy to state that it was “great to be here” and that he was “looking forward” to the night.

He even offered a concession, stating that “we all find ourselves in different situations along the way and it’s just great to be here tonight”. It amounted to a candid acknowledgement of his journey in life to date.

For the record, the baby-faced Cousins was recruited to the West Coast Eagles as a father/son recruit in 1995, at the end of one great West Coast era of success. He then became a lynchpin of their next great era of back to back flags in 2005/6. In 2005 he won the Brownlow Medal and in 2006 held up a premiership medal. Despite rumblings behind the scenes, Cousins remained a pin-up boy and a hero to so many – particularly kids – as a symbol of success.

Then it all came crashing down. The period from 2007 onwards saw him become a face of drugs in sport and saw him ultimately delisted by the Eagles and banned for a year by the AFL for bringing the game into disrepute. Whilst he would find a new home at Richmond for two seasons, by 2010 his AFL career ended with just too big a burden to carry. It wasn’t a positive burden either, still irrevocably linked to drugs.

The ensuing years saw multiple prison sentences, not just for drugs, but also domestic violence and stalking. His health was battered and despite olive branches being offered by West Coast in 2018 to come and work for them, it appeared that his spiral of drugs and crime had claimed Cousins forever.

In the loungerooms and bars across the country, opinions were polarised. For everyone who believed he deserved everything he got for what he did to the game and the examples he set to kids, there were also those who thought it all to be a sad, sad fall and that maybe he could one day recover.

The odds were probably 50/50, though as recently as 2019 even that was being generous.

But then things changed. The young man who had been a role model prior to his fall, began to show positive signs. Earlier this year he turned out for the Queens Park Bulldogs, a Perth suburban team. After 10 years absent from any team, Cousins ran out as a 42-year old to not only compete but show signs of old, kicking a goal and setting up others. Through a murky rear windscreen some could see signs of the Cousins of old running around.

Then came Sunday’s appearance at the Brownlow Medal count. Whilst the fact that the count was in his home city was a key factor in his invitation and ultimate attendance, it still showed incredible courage for him to tread the ground he once dominated and return to a very public event. He would have known that that polarisation of fans still existed, but somehow, he has the self confidence and belief to stand with head high.

That act alone is a new act of role-modelling. Bravery to come back to a place where his very appearance could be either a shining example of his new phase in life, or a sobering catalyst for relapse into his darkest times.

It is possible, and overwhelmingly uplifting, that Cousins might achieve something greater than his Brownlow and premiership medals, 270 games and 217 goals and the 1996 Rising Star award. He might just become a beacon of hope for anyone who has made poor choices or been placed in undesirable circumstances that no matter how bleak things may become, there is a road out if you are prepared to take it.

As it stands, this “second coming” of Cousins in terms of his influence on others is no longer a “Highway to Hell” or “Road to Nowhere”, but a “Road to Freedom” leading to a better place and a better life.

Let’s hope he continues on that road and takes others with him.