ONCE IN A while a person comes along who, by the very way they live their life, inspire the rest of us that we too can reach heights of which we never dreamed.
Jim Stynes was one of these people.
It is because of ‘Big Jimmy Stynes’ that we travelled to Melbourne, Australia, inspired by a documentary aired on RTÉ television back in December 2010.
It told the story of Jim’s ongoing battle with cancer while also profiling Jim’s life and work with his Reach Foundation. More of that later.
I was amazed that while I had heard of Jim, I really did not know much about him. How was that possible when this Irishman had become such a hero in one of the world’s fastest and most demanding sports.
How is that he was not more well known in Ireland — the place of his birth — while in Australia he was as well-known as Brian O Driscoll. I was fascinated to know more about who this man called Jim Stynes was and what was this group he had created called Reach. Those two questions were to change my life, forever.
It was the latter question that inspired a friend and I to board a flight last October bound for Melbourne and a journey of discovery.
Jim Stynes was a human albatross growing up in Dublin, playing his football with Ballyboden St Enda’s. Team-mates of his that I have met since have said it was like trying to get the ball from a elasticated armed action figure. Such was his wing span and determination that if he had the ball you sure were not going to.
From a sporting family, Jim got what was to transpire to be a life-altering (not just for Jim) opportunity to travel to Melbourne as part of an experiment that saw young Gaelic footballers being given the Willie Wonka golden ticket to start a life as a professional Australian Rules footballer Down Under.
The chance reputedly came when Jim answered an ad in a Dublin paper — this said everything about Jim. He never believed destiny was handed to us; he believed you went out and grabbed it with two hands. To come from Ireland at age 17 and go on to have such a celebrated career in a sport where the ball is shaped differently, at a time when that sport was notoriously physical, was a feat of gargantuan proportions.
But when you dig deeper you begin to see what an achievement it actually was.
In a country where Aussie rules or ‘footie’ as it is known is like a religion Jim’s achievements stand apart. The only player to come to the game from outside Australia to win the highest honour in the game — the Brownlow medal — holder of the record of the most consecutive games played (244) and having played with broken ribs and torn knee ligaments on occasion begins to paint a picture of how incredible his achievements were.
But what most fascinated me about Jim Stynes was not the external signs of success such as the medals. More so it was the quiet fortitude he had to summon to achieve his dreams.
His spirit was like a peg driven in the frozen ground – indomitable. Read that line about playing 244 consecutive games again. If you have not grasped the enormity of that just watch some of the old footage of Aussie Rules on YouTube. And if you are still do not understand what it took for a 17-year-old Dubliner to excel in this strange sport then you must be a Sherpa who works Mount Everest or you are the reincarnation of Tom Crean.
And all this resonates more deeply when you learn that at one stage Jim thought about packing in the sport he came to Australia to pursue. The reason being that he had stepped across the mark in a game that saw the other team gather possession and win the game. Distraught, he thought about retiring from the game but decided not to and returned to overcome his demons.
Perhaps it was this return and Jim’s indelible spirit as an athlete that caught the imagination of a nation. That warrior spirit housed in an umbrella like frame with a lightness of character that endeared him to everyone he came in contact with. Like us all he undoubtedly had those other human traits that probably drove his family, team-mates and friends crazy.
But having spent some time with many of Jim’s loved ones there was one impression that I was left with. Jim always had his eyes lifted upwards looking for the potential in every challenge. Let’s be honest, life can sometimes challenge us all at times. But the more his friends and family spoke of him the more Jim’s ability to inspire people that there was brilliance within them if they were only willing to scratch below their own surface became clear. He gave people that came to know him the greatest gift we can all give each other. He encouraged others to look in to their souls and live their dreams. To fulfil all the potential he saw in them. And they were willing to believe him because they had seen him find from deep in his core the strength to live his.
Jim Stynes leads his Melbourne Demons team-mates onto the pitch in 1999. Pic: INPHO/Getty Images
Jim Stynes was a man who believed in all that is great about us the human race. This moved him to create Reach a youth organisation that created spaces where young people could begin to fulfil their inherent brilliance.
That documentary Every Heart Beats True, the story of Jim’s life spoke to me. The same way a piece of video about a man and his son called Rick and Dick Hoyt inspired me to get on a bike and give up everything I knew to cycle from one side of Canada to the other.
Jim Stynes’ documentary made me realise that there was a generation of young Irish people growing up in a country whose pervasive negativity was dampening their ability to dream.
And I was not having that.
There were other people who also watched that documentary and became inspired by the work Jim was doing through Reach. Were we going to talk about doing something or actually do something?
Etihad Airways believed in us. They sent our small team to Melbourne . We walked in off the street, announced to Reach that the young people of Ireland needed their help, learned as much as we could about Reach and the programs they delivered and we realised something amazing. Jim Stynes had created an organisation that inspired 57,000 young people to do what we were all born to do but many of us forget; to be yourself. To look skyward during life’s challenges and dream big.
We came home from Melbourne in October 2011 and founded the Soar Foundation. Our vision was to carry Jim’s legacy by learning from Reach and delivering programs for young Irish teenagers where a safe space was created for them to explore who they were as people, to dream of living to their full potential and then facilitating the unearthing of the self-confidence necessary to go on this journey. Our intention was not to re-create Reach, rather learn from Jim and Reach and deliver Soar for all Irish young people.
We knew Jim was passing for the last few weeks.
My thoughts and love go out to his Mam, Dad and family. My thoughts are with his wife and beautiful children. To the rest of us Jim leaves a legacy.
It is simple.
Just as Jim stepped over that mark and came back to achieve the extraordinary both on and off the field of play, you too are capable of doing the extraordinary.
Don’t dare doubt the fact that you are capable of way more than you realise. I have seen what a man created for an entire nation by believing in himself and young people.
I have seen the face of his friends light up as they tell stories about a man who inspired them they too could be extraordinary.
To you Jim, travel well and thank you for giving us all the permission to dream. Your spirit will always live; anywhere people raise their eyes to the skies and dream of better.
Tony Griffin is a former All Star hurler with Clare. He is now the Director of the Soar Foundation (See www.soar.ie).