The Carlton AFLW star reflects on a day, and night, like no other.
In this series of extracts and articles we highlight historical sporting turning points that changed the state of play forever. For this week’s edition we borrow words from Samantha Lane’s Roar, as she retells the story of Darcy Vescio’s triumphant AFLW debut – played in front of a ‘lock-out’ crowd of almost 25,000 fans at Carlton’s Princes Park, and a TV audience NEARING 900,000 people.
Wen you laugh togetha cos you know ur gonna smash the patriarchy.
Darcy Vescio thought twice before uploading the nuance-rich, purposely misspelt, meme-inspired caption with a photo of herself carrying a joyful girl wearing a Carlton footy club jumper.
In the hours before she became a hero of the movement that changed Australian sport forever, she sought one opinion on an Instagram post composed in her kitchen. Darcy’s housemate, fellow footballer Meg McDonald, gave an approving nod and asked a rhetorical question, ‘If you don’t write that, who will?’ So Darcy shared the image and her comment with the world, then resumed normal transmission.
Virtual endorsements of this latest take from @darcyvee ran riot – the smash-the-patriarchy post was liked more than 2600 times and was picked up and covered by media. But this was nothing compared to what occurred later on 3 February 2017, when, at a stadium only ever previously filled to worship kings of Australian Rules football, a 23-year-old woman up-ended history.
If the ghosts of Carlton’s Princes Park had not already been stirred by 24 500 spectators barnstorming the gates, they could not have slept through the thunderous heralding of this long, hard sporting labour. To the largest stage ever set for women to play Australia’s most popular game – a nationally televised AFL renaissance – Darcy Vescio brought four match-winning goals. It was as if she were possessed, delivering precisely what the event needed but not even the richest marketing budget could have manufactured.
Hair in a topknot, looking born to do it, Carlton’s number three embossed the AFLW’s opening night with a star. It empowered a player cohort historically denied such affirmations and validated the belief of their support teams. Audience cheers merged with primal screams and happy tears.
After the defeat of Collingwood, Darcy was first on the best-players list and the last to leave the change rooms post-match. She danced on a floodlit field of grass for an unforgettable two hours, and the dancing continued at a house party in Brunswick until the break of dawn.
The best game of football Darcy has played was actually prefaced badly. On a day she was determined to sleep in, given what was in store that night, her slumber was rudely broken.
Her housemates waited until 9am before knocking on her bedroom door. It was so unusual for them to be rousing her that she instantly feared an emergency. The actual reason – that someone had hacked and loaded a pornographic photo on her Twitter account – felt insignificant compared to what she’d imagined in the awful few seconds of suspense.
Carlton’s media bosses were much more stressed about the online security breach than Darcy, who was just relieved her family members were alive. ‘The photo was gross,’ she says, ‘but the only thing I was really worried about, once I knew that’s what we were talking about, were the kids who follow me on Twitter seeing it.’
Darcy switched on her phone to find her message bank in meltdown, but by the time she arrived at the Blues’ headquarters for the maiden AFLW fixture, the episode was already comedic material for her team. ‘They didn’t hold back, those hackers,’ Darcy grins. ‘They changed my name and profile picture to complete the porn-star transformation. They called me Judy Kelly, and my teammates thought it was only fair to do the same.’
From online to on-field, more than Darcy remembers sights, sounds or words from that beautifully balmy night, she recalls a feeling.
‘Everything just felt right. Everything just came together. It was like it just felt “on”. I remember feeling nervous when Collingwood got the first goal, but once we got started it was like they couldn’t stop us, no matter what they did.'
'We had so much confidence as a team, and from my perspective, I’d see the ball coming and just knew I was going to get it, that no one was going to stop me getting it.’
In the countdown to the AFLW’s launch, Carlton’s coach, Damien Keeping, set a theme for his team: freedom. ‘The emphasis was that we’d worked so hard throughout preseason and throughout our football lives,’ Darcy says. ‘So the first night arriving was all about playing with freedom.’
The concept was presented by Keeping at Carlton’s final training session before the game. He made a collage – not intended to be humorous – to help illustrate his point. It might not have met graphic-designer standards, but it was effective. ‘Damo is very funny,’ Darcy says. ‘There were some pretty interesting pictures he’d cut out and stuck on the picture he showed us, like a lady on the beach, birds flapping, things like that. There were no footy pictures – it was a lot of beach, mountains and even a lady in a sarong!’
Before running through their banner, Darcy remembers talking to the daughter of AFL champion Jonathan Brown – young Carlton supporter Olivia – and how that grounded her. ‘With the game getting moved onto our home ground, we were all so excited but also really calm at the same time,’ Darcy says. ‘We wanted this moment so much. I felt like the whole preseason was for that game. It was all we spoke about during preseason, that first game against Collingwood. Watching the replay, you can see it in our faces. We were just so focused and it was like we just knew that we had it. I wish I could just revisit that night, float above the stadium, have a look around and try to take it all in. It was hard to take it all in at the time, but it was just amazing. It felt like an out-of-body experience, a state of euphoria, as if everything you’d worked for and all the things you’d ever wanted out of footy were aligning.’
Darcy’s first goal, in the opening quarter, came after an umpire’s whistle. ‘I didn’t even know it was a free kick,’ Darcy says. ‘I can’t remember being held or pushed or anything, I just remember hearing the sound of the whistle and, watching back, you can see I’m really nervous. I’m blowing my cheeks out really hard because I know I need to get off to a good start. I know if the first two touches are good it sets me up for a match. If I’d missed that first one, who knows how the night would have ended up.’
Darcy’s second goal was also scored in the first term, after some unorthodox and inspired work at a ball-up. She directed Carlton’s ruck, Bella Ayre, to make way. ‘I would never take a ball out of the ruck normally,’ she says, ‘But I don’t know, it was just there, and I thought I had space so if I grabbed it, I could quickly handball it anyway. Then I looked ahead and it was open, so I just went for it. I would never normally think to do that.’
Goal number three, in the second quarter, was emblematic of the coach’s prematch message – a footballer running free. ‘The ball sort of surged forward and Bella Ayre had it again and I was screaming at her to handball it over the top because I was running though,’ Darcy says. ‘It was really fun but I had to run it all the way into the goal square. I wanted to belt it, but you can see I just kind of guide it through really low to make sure it goes through.’
Darcy’s last goal that night was a deft snap kicked with winner’s confidence. Her description of the third-quarter feat is simple: ‘I just went for it.’
It was a bag of four like never before, and the night concluded with an eruption that sounded like a movement landed and already on the march. The final scores were Carlton 7.4 (46) to Collingwood 1.5 (11). ‘Back in the rooms after doing a press conference with Damo, I remember getting told off by our welfare boss for not taking my recovery seriously enough. I was spending too much time talking and not going to the ice bath!’ Darcy says.
Knowing she had no chance of sleeping anytime soon, Darcy took up the invitation of a friend from footy who had thrown a house party to mark the occasion. ‘I didn’t drink or anything,’ Darcy says, ‘but we just danced and danced and danced. Being so silly. We were exhausted but it was weird, because it was like exhaustion but with energy because of what had happened. Like being on an endless supply of adrenaline.’
Crashing at the party, Darcy had maybe three hours sleep, then got up and did a media conference. ‘Even though I was really tired, I was so sharp for it,’ she remembers. ‘I just felt so happy that it went well and all of us felt so accomplished walking back in the change rooms, like we’d done everything we’d needed to do. We’d done it together and we felt unstoppable. I don’t know if we’ll ever feel that to that degree again. Maybe if we get the ultimate success.’