‘Karen from Brighton’ might be bored of circling the same suburban streets, but Mervyn from Abbotsford has found a new passion when he sets off on the daily walks that fill the otherwise meandering hours of Melbourne’s second lockdown.
Mervyn has re-discovered the natural wonders of a country childhood in his city neighbourhood — native wildlife previously unnoticed when he took his daily exercise at a local gym.
Outside now, walking the Yarra river trails, a bee has lodged in his bonnet: he wants council approval to don gardening gloves and restore native vegetation to the bend of the river near his apartment. He says it will encourage the re-emergence of the area’s once-thriving population of insects and birds.
At the age of 66, as others huddle under blankets and scroll the Netflix menu, Mervyn is getting miles into a pair of knee replacements and experiencing an environmental “awakening”, joining the Yarra Riverkeeper Association, an advocacy group that lobbies for green spaces and biodiversity; he’s discovered the online Inaturalist community, learning more about the plant and animal life of his surroundings.
Mervyn from Abbotsford is better known as Merv Keane, triple-premiership Tiger.
Those who watched him in his Hafey-era pomp at Richmond remember unassuming ‘Merv the Minder’, the Hall of Fame and Richmond Team of the Century defender who took star forwards out of the game during the club’s 1973, ’74 and ’80 flag campaigns — a team man who, for most of his career, possessed more premiership medals than Brownlow votes.
Thus Wycheproof, the north-west Victorian wheat town with a three-figure population and a train line running down the main street, renowned mainly for possessing the world’s smallest mountain, had produced an unpretentious footballing equivalent.
“He just beat quality opponents with monotonous regularity,” his former teammate Kevin Bartlett once said.
Keane’s passage to the big-time still reads like Roy of the Rovers meets Marty Robbins.
In 1970, Tigers CEO Alan Schwab roared into the main street of Wycheproof in a Cadillac and collared the 17-year-old as he left Sunday Mass. Keane remembers a fierce northerly wind blowing a cartoonish tumbleweed down the road as Schwab fixed his stare on the boy and said he’d turn him into a champion.
Not long after, newly installed as the lodger at the home of a Tigers back pocket by the name of Sheedy, the wide-eyed country kid disembarked at Richmond station and ran across the footbridge to Gosch’s Paddock for his first training run. The only problem: it took him two hours to realise he’d joined Melbourne’s session.
Fortunately, the kid from Wycheproof eventually picked up his signing gift — a Richmond towel and badge — and found his way across to Punt Road Oval.
“History hadn’t been written then, but the start of it for me was Alan Schwab, Tom Hafey and Kevin Sheedy,” Keane says, pausing reverently to consider the historical weight of his mentors’ names.
A story to tell
Having resisted the pull of a memoir, Merv Keane is now an unlikely biographer.
Last year, he threw himself wholeheartedly into writing the story of Scott Field, one of his bravest proteges when he coached Sturt. Field lost his life in a mountaineering accident in 2014, at 45.
“At his funeral, we heard his life story from start to finish, and it became apparent that I’d played an integral role in his life,” says Keane, who’d never held any literary aspirations.
“I left thinking, ‘I’ve got to write this bloke’s story. He’s too good to be laid to rest forever.'”
To say obstacles lay ahead is a grave understatement.
In September 2017, Keane endured personal tragedies that sternly tested the fortitude that had been the calling card of his football life.
At the start of that month, his 36-year-old daughter Emily, a brilliant gynaecologist and obstetrician, died after a four-year battle with alcoholism and depression.
Three weeks later, inconsolable with grief, Keane’s wife Kaye took her own life.
In the three years since, Keane’s brave and dignified reinvention has been a source of wonder and awe to those who previously knew him as a quiet-achieving coach and AFL recruiter.
Publishing his first book has been only one step in the healing process, but it has been a crucial one, allowing him to confront his grief and create something that carried Kaye and Emily’s spirits forward.
“Kaye and I had started writing the book together, travelling to Adelaide and meeting Scott’s family,” Keane says.
“We were co-writers. There’s no doubt that a big part of writing the book was what happened to our family.
“It has been great therapy for our family. My son Joel became my ‘analyst’ and co-author in the later stages of the book.”
An unimaginable loss
In September 2017, before all the writing, the campaigning and the environmentalism, Merv Keane had to take his first steps forward.
In the face of unimaginable heartbreak, football provided the initial path.
Against his first impulse, Keane was convinced to attend the 2017 grand final with Joel, three days after Kaye’s death.
Wearing black armbands in honour of Kaye (a mark of respect Essendon had showed three weeks earlier for Emily), the Tigers won ecstatically, 37 years on from Keane and the club’s last lap of honour at the MCG.
Six months after that, Keane stepped onto the set of Fox Footy’s Open Mike and bared his soul — the most public and potentially uncomfortable phase of his recovery, but one he handled with supreme grace and dignity.
“What struck me when he came in to record that episode was his composure,” the show’s host Mike Sheahan says.
At that point, the mystery to Keane and everyone around him was what came next.
Counsellors warned against a slump. Keane found their approach unfeeling and academic, preferring to talk with people who knew the family.
“You could feel them really listening,” he says.
Keane’s “Richmond upbringing” came to the fore, as did the values of the farm boy.
His Sturt friends stood up. Keane moved out of the family home in Ivanhoe, shifting to his daughter’s apartment in Abbotsford and starting again.
“The other big thing was that our family knew that poor Emily was sick for four years,” Keane says.
“I would often say to the handful of people I took into my confidence during that time that I’d do everything in my power to help her get better.
“That drove me. It drove me for four years. So, as hard as it was, it wasn’t a shock.
“As a family, we’d been preparing ourselves for what would happen if she couldn’t change her habits.”
Keane could eventually trace hints of a renewed purpose back to that bittersweet grand final day in 2017.
As it progressed, plenty of arms were thrown around his shoulders and Joel’s.
One belonged to former premier Jeff Kennett, who has since opened doors so the former Tiger can agitate for change: the Victorian Coroner’s Office has now acknowledged that a template letter outlining an investigation of his daughter’s death — the letter he wishes that fate had placed in his hands, not in those of his late wife — was phrased insensitively, throwing Kaye further into a state of distress.
“We got the letter on the Monday, and Kaye died on the Wednesday,” Keane says.
“She was in such a fragile state, and she couldn’t help repeating those words in her head. She was blaming herself.
“If she hadn’t have read that letter, it wouldn’t have happened. I have no doubt in my mind.”
A new purpose
Now Keane is an advocate on that and other fronts, pursuing his causes with the same unswerving approach of his playing days.
What fires him up most is changing the workplace culture of hospitals, and promoting welfare programs that address the pressures young doctors are being placed under.
With the same zeal he brought to thousands of pre-game speeches, he addresses rooms full of medical professionals and tells his story as part of the Emily Keane Gumboot program; attendees receive a welfare kit containing a pair of the colourful gumboots that were Emily’s trademark in the birthing suite.
“It’s about being prepared to accept vulnerability,” Keane says.
“A very small percentage of junior doctors actually have their own GP. They have this sense of invincibility, and they’re very hardworking. But they’re overworked, they’re stressed and they’re vulnerable. I’m trying to change that and get money into welfare and wellbeing resources.
“It’s not good enough to have part-time welfare officers, many of whom are doing an additional full-time job as a doctor.
Keane’s large family and network of supportive friends have provided further ballast.
His bond with sons Joel and Zac has strengthened, and he’s found himself re-cementing his relationships with former teammates, opponents and his old coach Tony Jewell.
“I keep saying, ‘We’ve all been lucky in so many ways as well,'” Keane says.
“Our parents gave us one life and we will continue to live at full throttle.”
He’s reconnected with another Richmond flag hero, Mick Malthouse, who became a stranger when the two former Tigers were aligned to different AFL clubs.
Once a week they walk the Yarra trail together, picking up where they left off decades ago.
“He’s a very interesting and funny guy and has really informed views of the world,” says Keane, who is godfather to Malthouse’s son Kane.
There are also two more books in the works, but Keane marks his work like a coach might.
“I’ll give myself a pass with the first book, but I think I can do better next time,” he says.
Six weeks ago, Keane also became a grandparent for the first time thanks to son Zac and his partner Erin, proud parents to Beatrice Kaye, aka ‘Trixy’.
In these lockdown times, it has brought Keane both joy and frustration.
It has also raked up the feelings of nervous apprehension experienced when he first held his own children, feeling the unmistakable rush of family love but also sensing the fragility of life.
“It’s like handling a precious little piece of crystal, isn’t it?”