Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Jo Townsend
There are few Australians who can be called a genuine living legend but Ron Barassi is, without doubt, one of them.
His achievements are quite incredible, a record 10 AFL premierships, a decorated public life, he's as revered now as the day he retired.
But in recent times, Ron has been quietly facing a burden that is slowly changing his life.
It's inspired an epic pilgrimage through a strife-torn country.
Michael Usher was privileged to join Ron on that emotional journey, and tells us, he's as brave and determined today as he ever was out on the paddock.
PHOTOS: On a pilgrimage with Ron Barassi
MICHAEL USHER: G’day Ron, Welcome to Libya! A long way from Melbourne, huh? This is the most unlikely of places to meet up with an AFL legend. But here I am – in Libya – with Ron Barassi. You looking forward to the journey?
RON: I certainly am.
MICHAEL USHER: Well, we’ve got a bit of a road trip ahead. Libya is still simmering from the revolution that overthrew the dictator Muammar Gaddafi – but we’re embarking on a very personal pilgrimage for the footy great. To Tobruk – where Ron Barassi’s dad, himself a great footballer fought and died, in one of our most dogged stands of World War II. Ron’s life changed forever on July 31, 1941. That’s when his father, Ron Senior, died here in during WWII. Now, Ron – the footy legend – is making an amazing and difficult journey through this country to come here to be reunited with his father, a war hero.
RON: What I’m doing is saying “thanks”. Thanks for putting life in me. I not only carry his name, I carry his blood and he did something that I believe he was very proud of and I’m proud of it too.
MICHAEL USHER Tobruk’s war cemetery is a sanctuary – the resting place for 559 of our men. This pilgrimage is all the more poignant because Ron is steadily losing memory. It is incredibly peaceful, isn’t it?
RON: Yes it is.
MICHAEL USHER Here we are. Ron has brought his son, Ronnie, on this journey. And there before them is Ron Snr – the army corporal from Victoria, killed when he was only 27.
RON: I’d love to be able to cuddle him. Which out here is a bit bizarre but that’s what I’d love.
MICHAEL USHER Have you had a lot of conversations over the years with him in your own mind?
RON: Not too many cause I always finish up in tears.
MICHAEL USHER Ron was just five when his father was killed – and now, there’s something he needs to tell his dad – as hard as it is.
RON: Well Dad, you know that I love you. We never had the chance to do too much of love between father and son, but you know that I love you.
MICHAEL USHER All his life, Ron Barassi’s been walking in his father’s football boots. Both men wore the number 31 for their beloved Melbourne Demons. And they both knew what it felt like to play a grand final at the MCG. In all, Ron collected 10 AFL Premierships – six as player, four as coach. And today at the G, AFL larrikin Sam Kekovich won’t let anyone forget that his former North Melbourne coach was as belligerent as he was brilliant.
SAM: When he eyeballed and he singled you out, let me tell you – the fear and trepidation...you would shiver. Now, you wouldn’t think men would shiver but they do. And one thing about him – because he was not formerly educated, he wouldn’t know what a full stop was or a comma or an apostrophe. There would be just rapid-fire like a gatling gun for about five minutes. By the time he had finished and spat all over you, you were just drained.
RON: That’s nothing I never did – I never did spit.
SAM: No, you didn’t spit.
SAM: Sprayed, sprayed.
RON: Well, I admit that I’m boisterous, you know – on the field anyway.
MICHAEL USHER: You bet you were! And as a coach too.
RON: Are you complaining? Who do you barrack for, anyway?
MICHAEL USHER: At 76, Ron has mellowed. But the man who fans say could walk on water still holds a captive audience as a motivational speaker. But away from the limelight, Ron’s been dealing with the quiet confusion of memory loss – that makes his trip to Tobruk all the more pressing. What have you noticed? Have you noticed changes in your memory?
RON: I’m forgetful. It’s not a worry, I’d rather be as pure in memory as I once was – even then I wasn’t good, by the way.
MICHAEL USHER In preparation for the rigours of our trip to Libya, Ron’s getting a check-up and physically, he’s in great shape. But Ron’s memory is not as strong as it was – particularly short-term recollections.
JOHN: Do you remember the name of the hospital? What did you have for dinner last night? Can you remember having dinner last night?
MICHAEL USHER John Tickell has been Ron’s doctor for three decades.
JOHN: I’d say he has a form of dementia – because dementia is an umbrella term that can involve 50 or 60 different neurological diseases.
RON: My first experience of it was about four years ago, when I couldn’t remember a guy’s name who I’d actually been overseas with him and I just couldn’t remember his name. Which was a bit embarrassing.
MICHAEL USHER: Frustrating too, I’d imagine?
RON: Well, I’ve – nah, I’ve gotten used to that.
MICHAEL USHER: Ron is surrounded by great mates, like Tony Healy – and when the gaps need filling, they step in but Ron’s usually first with a joke at his own expense. He’s almost like your back-up memory.
RON: Yeah. Well, not everything. I don’t let him know certain things. And not the sort of things you’re maybe thinking about, either.
MICHAEL USHER: Ron, you’ve always been an open book and certainly a straight-talker. But a lot of men who are suffering dementia don’t feel they can talk about it – they’re in denial. Not you, though.
RON: Well I can’t see the point in covering it. The fact that I’m forgetful, you know. I think you’d have more worries doing it that way than being open and honest about it.
MICHAEL USHER: Ron, do you miss your father more in the older you get?
RON: Yes, yes I do. I’m soft on the issue and more prone to tears more quickly than I ever was before. I guess that’s the one thing I haven’t had. I’ve had everything else.
MICHAEL USHER: Mmm.
RON: Well inverted commas, you know. Ah, but I haven’t had the company of a dad.
MICHAEL USHER: Ron doesn’t remember the last time he saw his dad – he was only four. The day after playing the 1940 Grand Final, Ron senior was shipped off to war. There were a few letters home – then that telegram.
RON: I can remember the telegram telling us that he had been killed. I’ll never forget that.
MICHAEL USHER: It’s hard isn’t it, all these years on?
RON: Yeah, I’m actually getting worse in that area. If you call it worse – I shouldn’t call it worse. All I’d have to do is think about is that night.
MICHAEL USHER: Now Ron’s walking in his dad’s footsteps – through the very trenches where the legendary Rats of Tobruk dug in against the Germans in 1941. The eight-month siege hamstrung Hitler’s advance across northern Africa – but it cost Ron Senior his life.
RON: Geez, it is just unbelievable what they had to go through – you’d have to overcome loneliness too. I mean, they’re stuck here. Boy, oh boy.
MICHAEL USHER: And more than 70 years after his dad died, the Melbourne footy club ties that bind are as strong as ever.
RON: Ron mate, here’s some of your mates. There’s about 20 men here, it’s part of the premiership photo of 1940.
MICHAEL USHER: And there are photos of the family Corporal Barassi never knew.
RON: The redhead is Susan, this guy you already recognise cause he’s looking down at you now. This is my second son Richard.
MICHAEL USHER: I think you would have made him very happy today.
RON: Yeah, I would think so.
MICHAEL USHER: Finally, one more precious item for a dad who never saw his son become one of the game’s best ever.
RON: That’ll keep ya warm.
MICHAEL USHER: Reckon that’ll keep him warm and happy.
OTHERS: Yeah, yep.
MICHAEL USHER: The Barassis are a family of heroes and legends. But out here in Tobruk, they are simply family – grandfather, father and son.
RONNY: Good on ya, dad. It’s like he’s come into my life now. And I know he’s my grandfather – he’s my dad’s dad. It’s like he’s a mate now.
MICHAEL USHER: You’ve got a direct connection with him now.
RON: Yeah I and I feel that. I’m the lucky one here cause I came here with dad and dad – he never had that opportunity.
MICHAEL USHER: Ron, I think they would have been overwhelmingly proud.
RON: He would be, Dad.
RON: I’m not questioning that, I’m just overcoming a moment. I think these are hardest interviews I’ve ever done.
MICHAEL USHER: There’s no doubt it’s been a hard road for Ron to travel. But now, the precious memory of his dad is safely with his son and hopefully, with future generations of the Barassi family. I’ve read that’s what your father would have wanted as well. That in fact, his last words when he left before going off to war he said, “if anything happens, look after Ron”.
RON: Yeah, well. Perhaps we’ll meet up one day, if he’s down there!
MICHAEL USHER: C’mon, Ron. Legends go that way don’t they?