JIM STYNES, the Irish-born former Melbourne champion, Brownlow medallist and club president, has died aged 45 after his two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.
He died at home at 8.20am on Tuesday with his family around him.
Stynes is survived by wife Samantha, daughter Matisse and son Tiernan.
If a fiction writer was given a blank canvas and asked to create a rags-to-riches sports story, it is doubtful any could create a piece of work as audacious and remarkable as the tale of Jim Stynes.
Stynes travelled from one side of the world to the other to take up a sport he had neither played nor seen and rose to become one of the true champions of the game. Off the ground, he was a high achiever in business, while his philanthropic endeavours and messages of inspiration brought hope to thousands of young people.
Stynes was born in Dublin on April 23, 1966, and raised there. He was a standout junior Gaelic footballer. So much so that he caught the eye of Ron Barassi and the Melbourne Football Club, which had cast its recruiting network far and wide in the search for fresh playing talent.
Rather than follow his dreams to play in the All-Ireland Championship, Stynes headed to Australia to try his luck with the Demons.
From there it unfolded in astonishing fashion. He arrived in 1984 as one of the headline acts of what was known as 'The Irish Experiment', a project that left hardened footy people intrigued. Under the guidance of legendary junior football coach Ray Jordon, Stynes went about learning a new type of football.
At first he battled with the oval ball, but he was tall, fit and athletic and the junior coaches at Melbourne soon had him penciled in as a ruckman. He was smaller than some of the dinosaurs of the centre square but more mobile, and he knew how to find the footy, if not necessarily how to dispose of it.
He played in the under 19s at Melbourne in his first season and half, then spent half a season in the VFA with Prahran before returning to Melbourne for another year in the reserves.
He made his debut for Melbourne in round three of 1987 against Geelong at Kardinia Park (now Simonds Stadium) and by the end of that season had cemented a senior berth in the side that he would not relinquish for the next 10 years.
Initially the second ruckman behind Stephen O'Dwyer, Stynes soon made the no.1 ruck position his own. His strength, great hands and ability to get to every contest and have an influence soon made him one of the most valuable players at Melbourne.
Through enormous strength of character, Stynes overcame his only real football blemish, and it was a big one. With the Demons clinging to a four-point lead at the end of the 1987 preliminary final, Stynes followed his opponent across the mark as Hawthorn's Gary Buckenara was preparing to kick for goal. The ensuing 15m penalty brought Buckenara close to goal and he kicked truly to send the Hawks into the Grand Final.
There is a famous photo of a seething Melbourne coach John Northey gesticulating at a shattered Stynes in the rooms after the match. But he moved on from the disappointment and when the Demons played in the Grand Final the following season - and were thrashed by the Hawks - Stynes was generally considered to be among Melbourne's best players.
Within two years he was the leading ruckman in the AFL and in 1991 he collected most media awards en route to comfortably winning the Brownlow Medal. He finished with 25 votes, five ahead of West Coast's Craig Turley.
The story made headlines around the world, particularly in Ireland, where the locals couldn't get enough news of the local boy who had became a star on the other side of the world.
Stynes wasn't just an outstanding ruckman, he was incredibly tough and durable. Between 1987 and 1998 he played 244 games straight and in the process became the League's record holder for consecutive games played. Famously, he broke his ribs in 1993 in a collision with teammate David Neitz, survived a fitness test that included a boxing session against tough men Rod Grinter and Martin Pike, and played again next week. It had been regarded as a six-week injury.
When asked to explain his durability, Stynes reasoned that the biggest hurdle wasn't injury itself, but the mental demons that come with playing when hurt. Overcome those, he argued, and there was no reason not to play.
When Stynes retired at the end of 1998, his body of work was immense - 264 matches, 130 goals, a Brownlow Medal, an AFLPA MVP award, four Melbourne best and fairest awards (1991, 1994-95, 1997) and 10 Victorian state of origin jumpers.
In retirement the honours kept coming, including his selection in the Melbourne Football Club Team of the Century and his induction in 2003 into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. The Jim Stynes Medal was struck for the best Australian player in the International Rules Series and a function room in the redeveloped MCG was named in his honour.
Stynes attacked life after football with the same gusto with which he played. His passion for youth and for self-improvement drove him to create the Reach Foundation, an organisation charged with improving the mental health and wellbeing of children and youths aged 10 to 18. He was also involved in prominent anti-racism work inside and outside of football.
But he never remained far from the scene at Melbourne, and in 2008 he took over from Paul Gardiner as president, primarily charged with reducing the club's debt, which at the time was more than $5 million.
Melbourne supporters rallied behind the fundraising campaign, known as Debt Demolition, and within three years the club was able to balance its books. Stynes also brought Cameron Schwab back to the club for his second stint as chief executive and placed the club back under the umbrella of the Melbourne Cricket Club.
Much of his transformation of the club was achieved while fighting his own battle with cancer. The illness was first detected in 2009 and he went public with his condition in July of that year. Such was the affection that Victorians had for Stynes that most TV stations ran the news conference live.
His condition deteriorated in 2010, but he remained in his role with the Demons while handing over many of his duties to vice-president and close friend Don McLardy. He made it to the footy most weekends, often against the express wishes of a medical team who preferred him to stay home and rest.
In recent months his public appearances became infrequent. One was on August 1 when he presided over the media conference to announce the sacking of coach Dean Bailey, which came two days after a 186-point loss to Geelong.
Stynes struggled to read a prepared statement, with his vision failing, but spoke with great passion when he departed from the script. Frail and gaunt, he talked of the enormous dual challenges thrown up by his illness and the underperforming Demons.
"I haven't been that well," Stynes said. "I haven't been able to carry the load I should have been carrying. I wish I could be doing more, but I just can't."
A few days later, doctors chose not to operate after further tumours were discovered, instead sending him to rest and recuperate.
Stynes appeared again at the Melbourne best-and-fairest function in September, at which he declared the worst of his cancer fight was over, tossed the coin before the first International Rules Series Test between Australia and Ireland in October, and then in early November made a radio appearance to talk about his trialing of a new cancer drug.
Wife Samantha admitted during the radio interview that she feared Stynes would die two weeks earlier, but he felt he had turned the corner. "I wouldn't say I'm flying. I've been belted a bit in probably the last three to four months, but I'm just coming back up again. I can feel the last two weeks I've had a bit of a break and I'm starting to come back out again," Stynes said.
In February 2012, he stood down as Melbourne president
to devote his energy and time to his family and his health.
The announcement that he would depart, made by vice-president Don McLardy at the club's AGM in Stynes' absence, was followed by a standing ovation from Melbourne members to acknowledge Stynes' contribution, with loud applause filling the room for more than 30 seconds.
McLardy read a statement from Stynes, who was an apology for the evening after undergoing another operation.
It read: "As Melbourne enters what promises to be an exciting new season and an exciting new era I see this as an opportune time to step down as Melbourne president.
"It will give the football club the best chance to be 100 per cent prepared for round one and it will give me the time to fully focus on my health and my family.
"I am very proud of what the board has been able to achieve since I took on the presidency in June 2008, particularly bringing a greater sense of unity and purpose to our football club.
"I have full confidence that Don McLardy and the board will continue that work. Don has my full support to lead the club and the Demons can rely on me to help out in an advisory capacity at any time."
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