Physically distant, socially connected

By James Parker

Instead of listening to Elvis, which he enjoys, Jim Schroder and his wife Joy were waiting patiently in his Aged Care Facility, for the phone to ring on the 22nd of April 2020. They would soon receive a phone call from another Rugby League legend, and it would help to lift Jim’s spirits. In Sydney, Garry Jack was sitting in his backyard, relaxing on his outdoor setting, with his black pug Rupert comfortably on his lap and a coffee by his side. The bright blue sky filled his view. After a matter of moments, Garry dialled in ten digits, pressed call, and the phone began to ring. For the next 27 minutes, Jim and Garry would reminisce on
memories, compare players of history, and escape the world of isolation to spin yarns. Even though they were physically distant, they were socially connected.

Under normal circumstances, Wellbeing Officers would travel around their communities to help increase the mental and emotional wellbeing of rugby league family members facing hard times. Smartly dressed in navy polo shirts with embossed gold logos, they would provide smiles, lend an ear, share laughs and offer their support through heartfelt conversations with those that are doing it tough. However, due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, social interaction has been limited, but fortunately, social communication hasn’t decreased.

The Men of League Foundation has recently established the Virtual Visitation Program to combat the inability to visit homes, hospitals and aged care facilities. The program utilises phone calls and visual tools like Facetime and Zoom so that Wellbeing Officers can still contact those in need. Utilising this program, Jim Schroder and Garry Jack were able to reconnect and reflect on their careers and their uncanny similarities.

The man receiving the phone call has often been described as an “a very kind bloke and larger than life”. Jim Schroder, player 566, represented the North Sydney Bears Rugby League club between 1961 and 1970, accumulating 32 first grade games. Upon retiring from Rugby League, Jim served on the North Sydney Bears Executive Committee, he became a first-grade selector and was honoured as a Life Member. Later, Jim would transfer to Tumut, where he returned to the Rugby League field as a player for the Tumut Blues Rugby League Club, briefly coming out of retirement. He then transferred to Wollongong, where he coached the Port Kembla Rugby League Club reserve grade team. At the same time, Peter Fitzgerald (of St George Dragons and Sydney Rooster fame), was coaching their first-grade team. Jim would join forces with Peter, to help form the Men of League Foundation Committee in Wollongong. A few years ago, Jim was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. Jim, however, doesn’t forget people, but instead of speaking, he enjoys listening. The Men of League Foundation has helped to assist with his care and the wellbeing of his family, through visits and calls, and they have previously helped to renovate his home.

The man making the phone call, on behalf of the Men of League Foundation, was Garry Jack. Reminiscing on his successful career, Garry is proud that he was able to represent his country in the green and gold, as he performed in the undefeated Australian Kangaroos tour in 1986.

Even in the bittersweet moments, like both the 1988 and 1989 seasons, he was still thankful that he had the opportunity of reaching back-to-back Grand Finals with the Balmain Tigers.

Disappointingly, without the Premiership win. For the Balmain Tigers, he also holds second-place for most appearances, with 244 games. Garry represented NSW in their first winning origin series in 1985, and then again during the NSW three-game win in 1986. Having been judged as the ‘Best Rugby League Player in the world’ in 1986, he has sat in a custom glass box, his Golden Boot trophy. However, Garry doesn’t let his successful career go to his head and enjoys giving back to his football family.

The pair, who played Rugby League with a space of two decades between them, soon found out that they shared a lot more in common than they expected to. Their first encounter of each other occurred not at a Rugby League match, but at a bank in Wollongong. “I’ve known Jim for over 30 years. He worked in the Rural Bank. I bought a unit in Wollongong, back in 1987. It was Jim Schroder who organised the loan for me”, recalled Garry.

Together, they would soon be comparing players of different decades. Garry, pushing his luck, asked Jim, “What about Billy Slater? Is he a better fullback than Churchill?” Without a second passing, he heard an assertive “Nooooo!” through the phone. Garry knew the answer, but for a bit of light humour said, “What about Changa?” and just like before, he heard a “Nooo way!” from Jim. Garry said, “I can’t argue with you there, Jimmy”, as they shared laughs.

When Jim was just a young man, his friend had organised a blind date. Jim and his friend headed to the local Leagues Club to meet the two young ladies, and grab a drink. In another part of town, a young lady named Joy was with her fellow nursing friend, and they were making their way to North Sydney Leagues Club to meet two rugby league players. This was the first time that Jim and Joy placed eyes on one another. Joy said, “I bagsed the other bloke, originally, but I ended up with Jim”, which inspired chuckles from the pair. The date must have gone well because they have been married for 51 years and been blessed with two
daughters, two sons and three grandchildren.

After hearing the story, Garry replied, “Well fancy that, the first time I saw my wife was at North Sydney oval. She was sitting behind me. Then a few months later I met her again, and I asked her out, and here we are married 35 years later. In 1982, before the game, she was there with Kathy Roach (wife of ‘Blocker’ Roach), who was a nursing sister and they did their training together.” Roach had asked Garry to come along to this nurses party, and just like Jim’s ‘blind date’ with a nurse, Garry officially met his future wife at the same venue.

After the 27-minute conversation, Garry said that the hardest part was saying goodbye. He explained that when you speak to people, you build honest connections and it can become quite emotional saying your farewells, but he did notice that when he ended the phone call, “Jim was in very good spirits. He was having a laugh and a joke.” Garry said, “I see all these blokes who love their footy and it’s nice to be remembered at this time of need. It is nice for the Men of League Foundation to give back and thank those players. Just a phone call and it means the world.”

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