It had already been a week of emotional homecomings when Robert Muir returned to St Kilda Football Club’s Moorabbin training facility last Friday, but the Boon Wurrung greeting written in giant letters above the Saints’ new players’ entrance heralded an important new beginning: “Womindjeka — come with purpose”.
It didn’t need repeating that Muir hadn’t always felt so welcome in the 38 years since he played the last of his 68 games in the red, white and black.
Yet his passion for St Kilda is undimmed. Two years on from telling his painful and poignant story, his purpose was to reconnect and see what’s changed. St Kilda, after some false starts, was eager to show its progress.
Saints CEO Matt Finnis and the club’s Indigenous development manager Aunty Katrina Amon showed the way, guiding Muir and a strong contingent of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren around the rebuilt Moorabbin.
There was one hitch: in Muir’s wilderness years, much of the extended family’s allegiance had shifted to Hawthorn. A dozen Saints scarves quickly materialised and there was talk of a mass conversion, but a lifetime habit looked hard to break when they swamped Saints assistant coach Jarryd Roughead for photos.
His partner Donna Pickett at his side, Muir was wide-eyed at the club’s transformation from what he’d known in the bad old days — not just the sincerity of its efforts to reconcile with him, but its gleaming new facilities and the general air of professionalism.
An eager trainer in his playing days, Muir responded with amazement to the well-appointed gym.
“If I was playing now, I’d be in here seven days a week,” he says.
He didn’t want to leave.
Most important to Muir and his family was St Kilda’s embrace of them and the many visible displays of pride in the club’s Indigenous players of the past and present.
On the walls of the “Yawa” room, a key meeting place for the nine Indigenous players on the Saints’ current playing list, hang framed photographs of each of their forebears.
It gladdened Muir that Jade Gresham, also a Yorta Yorta man, could see the tradition he was part of. After training, Gresham was one of several players to stop by for a chat.
Building on work done by Nathan Lovett-Murray, Amon, a Quandamooka woman with more than three decades of experience in the education sector, talks of her work with passion and pride. It has made an immediate impact in both the club’s football and administrative departments.
Many small things St Kilda tended to get wrong in the past are now being done right. A voice among the Muir party summarised Amon’s approach well: “She gets it.”
“The club has been working really hard to make Indigenous people feel comfortable in our space — to feel welcome and that we honor and respect Aboriginal culture,” Amon says.
“We also want non-Indigenous people to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and investigate our culture, because our culture is their culture.”
The Muir family’s week of reconnection had begun days earlier with a trip back to Yorta Yorta country — an overdue and profound experience they hope is the beginning of a deeper connection to their culture.
“It felt good,” Muir says.
“I just sat there, watching the kids. They had a ball. We showed them all the canoe trees and made a walking stick. I told them stories and we had a smoking ceremony. It bonded them all.”
“We just need to do it more and get more of the family involved.”
Muir’s grandson Jai Walker, who lives in Victoria’s Gippsland region, said he was determined to make it a more regular tradition with his own son, Kaiden.
For Saturday’s game against Hawthorn, St Kilda asked Muir and grandson Nathan to enter the arena shortly before game time to carry out the club’s exchange of cultural gifts.
The crowd’s applause was nice, better still the highlight reel of Muir at his best that played on the stadium’s big screens. St Kilda’s media team had gone above and beyond to create it.
In a scrappy game, the Saints held on for a two-goal victory. Amid the worst of the fumbling and turnovers, Muir’s main frustration was that he couldn’t go back out into the middle, grab the ball and stride down the wing.
Afterwards, Finnis called it “a particularly heartwarming couple of days”, seeing Muir and his family reconnect with the club.
“At St Kilda we openly talk about the yawa (or journey) that we are on when it comes to reconciliation and developing a culturally safe and supportive environment for all first nation’s people – be they players, staff, supporters and of course former players such as Robbie,” Finnis says.
“It’s small steps and we continue to learn every day. Having Robbie back at the club last week and seeing the pride his family holds in his achievements inspires us to continue our journey with real purpose.”
The fans, too, flocked to Muir’s side. Both at Moorabbin on Friday and on game day, a procession of them sidled up to shake his hand and say thanks. At the footy, they’re Muir’s people. He stops and chats with every one of them.
Seeing the reception for his Pop, Muir’s Ballarat-based grandson Jackson Kanoa wasn’t surprised. In years gone by, he always felt the disconnect between Muir’s media image and the things he’d hear around town.
“When you meet people who really know him, they never have a bad word to say about him,” Kanoa says.
But more than anything, Muir is a player’s man. His right knee is giving him hell these days, but on Friday, he wanted to climb the stairs of the club’s new Danny Frawley Center and belatedly pay his respects to a fellow son of Ballarat.
At the top of the new building, Muir broke away from the group and limped towards a ceiling-high portrait of Frawley’s face made from mosaic tiles.
Lost in the moment, the old Saint reached for the tiles that made up his former teammate’s face. When he stroked Frawley’s cheek, it was with the tenderness reserved for the family.