Alan “Dizzy” Lynch is supposed to have his gaze fixed ahead. Not directly at the photographer but just a little to the right, in his peripheral vision. He is largely obeying, until his wife Jenny is introduced. He cranes his neck towards the familiar co-subject posing behind him.
She gently prods him back into position. “He forgets sometimes,” Jenny says. Lynch, perhaps used to this tender teasing, does not miss a beat. “That’s what we’re here for,” he responds with such surprising zest that all in the room dissolve into laughter.
This is about as animated as he gets, for the man is a shell of who he once was: a Ballarat great, Geelong West 1975 VFA premiership winner, Richmond and Footscray rover and middle-distance runner of Stawell Gift legend.
At 67, Lynch is in the grips of Parkinson’s disease, one of numerous neurological conditions linked to repeated head knocks. Research, including a study published last year in the BMJ, has found concussion-specific injuries are associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s later in life.
When Lynch says “I’ve worn a couple,” he means 15-20 “solid” concussions, which do not account for the many smaller, often asymptomatic brain traumas that occur regularly in collision-based sports.
For some years, all seemed OK. Lynch ran businesses as a publican – he became a trivia whiz – continued to run and enjoyed life with Jenny and their four children Jess, Sam, Josh and Tom and grandchildren Spencer, Poppy and Harvey. But then he began to notice he couldn’t remember some things, and Jenny found herself having the same conversations with her husband several times in one day.
The confusion and anxiety became more pronounced, and was accompanied by an impulsiveness and obsessiveness that felt foreign to the person he knew he was. The outside world noticed, too. Family and friends remarked that he presented like somebody who had suffered a stroke, so frequently did he drift away mid-sentence.
“He was very vibrant, very out there and confident,” Jenny says. “Five years on, that’s certainly changed a lot. He’s still Dizzy inside but …”
Sam finishes the sentence: “Just a few paces off, Dizz.”
Lynch himself “just feels a bit empty”. “And,” he wonders, “how long’s this going to continue for?”
Discussions about the link between concussion – and subclinical concussion – and irreversible brain injury have engulfed collision-based sports globally. Australia, with its culture of contact sport, has found itself in a particularly troubling position and its governing bodies under ever-increasing pressure to do more, as the research and post-mortem chronic traumatic encephalopathy diagnoses pile up.
In 2018, Lynch was assessed by scientists and joined the planned concussion class action against the AFL also featuring former Essendon and Geelong ruckman John Barnes, Brownlow medallist John Platten and the recently retired Jack Frost.
The South Australian lawyer representing the group, Greg Griffin, will allege the AFL breached its duty of care by routinely letting players return to the field on the same day after a head knock, and almost always the following week.
Lynch, whose long-term memory is largely intact, can relate to such scenarios. One of those occurred at the MCG where, as a 26-year-old, he was knocked out while playing for Geelong’s reserves in the 1980 grand final.
When his team went to the huddles, he had no idea where he was. Still, he continued to play for a period before eventually being removed and sat down on a stool in the coach’s box with a dressing gown to keep warm. Hours later, after Geelong had finished their post-match celebrations, he was finally sent to hospital.
A fortnight after that, Lynch was having a hand injury treated by a doctor who, by coincidence, had also been at the MCG that day to watch his Collingwood play Richmond in the first-grade decider. He spent the reserves game in a seat directly behind Lynch and his stool, and remarked that he had never seen the back of a head remain so still for the good part of three quarters.
Lynch’s retelling of this story is so fragmented it is difficult to follow. The essence of the narrative is lost to subplots, steered back on track by Jenny, and then lost all over again.
“With the concussions,” Lynch starts in another thread, “you’ve got to play with your brain. And you go to yourself, ‘I represent the people of … ’ I don’t know what your electorate is back in Sydney, but then you spread out and represent more people. Then you get to a semi-final and you go, ‘I’m going to be the premier of New South Wales’.”
Over the subsequent minute it is collectively – hilariously – determined that Lynch means there is good to come from his devastating circumstances. It is, in a sense, his mandate to raise awareness, and to promote to other players past and present the importance of joining him in donating his brain to research.
“Dad always spoke in riddles back in the day,” Sam says. “People used to say dad had ‘Dizzyisms’. He was a coach, a motivator, but quirky. Now the quirkiness and randomness is probably amplified. It just takes a bit longer for dad to process what we’re all talking about.”
By the time that has been achieved, the discussion has often moved on. “Then the person I’m talking to, just moves into [another] conversation,” Lynch says. “They really sign off [from] the conversation, but nicely – they’ve got things to do, too.”
Lynch speaks softly, slowly, as words toss around inside his brain, evading capture like grapes on the end of a pair of chopsticks. Sometimes he retrieves enough of the slippery little suckers to offer compelling clarity and some genuinely outstanding one-liners.
Other times, the seconds drip by so slowly that Sam fills the silence. “Get it out, Dizzy,” he wisecracks. The sarcasm is always affectionate – this family have chosen to laugh whenever they can. But there are revealing moments of raw emotion, too, when Jenny has tears in her eyes.
“It is grieving for what was, because it’s not anymore,” she says. “You’ve got that, but then you’ve got the challenges of what that actually means, too. The unknown for all of us – definitely for Dizzy – is that’s very scary. But certainly grieving because it’s never what you thought was going to happen.
“Discussions about the future, or planning, are just not there. We try to make sure we enjoy every moment because we don’t know how long that’s possible, really. Probably 12 months ago we wouldn’t have thought we’d be at this stage.
“It’s really tough. Dizzy can’t do what so many other people can do. He’s got grandkids but he can’t take them by himself. You never plan for this to be happening in your life. Often, Dizz is there but he’s not there. He’s not present, it’s like his mind is just not there. That’s very sad.
“There are a lot of people a lot worse off than us. We have a great family, and we’ve got to be grateful for having some great memories. But it’s also scary to think where this has gone. It just seems lately – probably in the last four or five months – there’s been a decline.”
Jenny has Australian rules in her blood, quite literally, being the first cousin of VFL/AFL great Tony Lockett. The same can be said for North Ballarat Football & Netball Club – Lynch coached the side to two premierships, all three sons played there. Even so, she finds it difficult to enjoy the game now, and only goes along to watch youngest son, Tom.
Sam, 27, has tallied about eight concussions wearing the North Ballarat shirt. One, in 2018, left him “not right for three weeks”. Another big one in 2019 landed him in hospital. “The last few concussions I had,” Sam explains, “I would start getting shaken up just from little hits to the body.”
He played a full season after that but has now stopped altogether, in large part because of what has happened to his father. Twin brother Josh has also stopped due to unrelated injuries.
Sam’s pride in Lynch is apparent in the near-reverence with which he relates childhood memories, even when they involve his dad being greeted by every second person on the street in Geelong when he really just wanted to get to the beach.
“I have mates who I play with whose dads played against dad or with dad,” Sam says. “They would come up to me and say ‘we used to try and belt him and he’d just keep getting up’. Five years ago I would see that as a badge of honour, that it means you’re held in high regard. Now I think I wish they didn’t do that, but that’s how it was.”
This sparks something in Lynch. “Why waste your time to try and sling someone over?” he asks. “If I could have my career over again, I’d be trying to run for Australia, green and gold, instead of football.”
With good reason. Lynch is a Stawell Gift Hall of Fame inductee, having won six races across the 1600m and 3200m events, including a three-peat of the latter between 1980 and 1982. He used to train with Steve Moneghetti. To date, his fastest 10km time is 28:58.
Now the pace is meandering, but the very fact he still takes a regular turn about the lake near the family home has, doctors believe, kept his symptoms from being worse than they already are.
“He now runs better than he walks,” Jenny says. That isn’t difficult. Lynch has a pronounced Parkinsonian gait. Every rise in the pavement requires warning and a trip down an escalator is approached cautiously. The other week, he encountered a similarly challenging journey down the steps of Ballarat’s City Oval grandstand.
“I took a couple of steps and thought, ‘you’re all right’. I would take $5 a head off the other people on the steps who said ‘you right there, Dizzy? Do you want a hand?’ I make sure I slow down and enjoy the bit of goodwill. It’s beautiful. I only stumbled about four times.”
For his family, the illness is consuming. Sam describes it as akin to having a different father. There are definitely recognisable moments, when the jovial, energetic traits resurface. All in all, though, it is like “going from getting looked after to being the one who sort of looks after them”.
For Lynch himself, it means an almost complete loss of independence. He can no longer work, drive or cook. Showering and dressing is a slow process. He often feels anxious, especially in the mornings, when the day ahead is unknown. Mostly, it contains empty space, a daunting proposition for a head already feeling vacant.
He might walk up the road for a coffee, then walk back. Then repeat the process. He still watches the footy, but was never much of a reader (“To Kill a Mockingbird’s still got a chapter to go – and that was in year five.”)
Jenny, a school principal, gives her husband little tasks to keep him busy while she is at work. Even if no groceries are required she will assign him a couple of items to purchase from the supermarket.
“If he has a doctor’s appointment in two weeks’ time, he will ask me about it every day,” she says. “So I often don’t tell him now because it just becomes too stressful for him.”
Last week, he briefly could not place his wife at a Melbourne shopping mall and became disoriented and overwhelmed. When asked to describe how he felt in that moment, he instead recounts a story from 2019 about feeling stressed while on a train from Footscray to Ballarat, unsure of where he was or when to get off.
It is an unsettling tale, but one of many within this family’s unsettling tale. Perhaps, Jenny suggests, one too unsettling for sporting bodies such as the AFL.
“My thoughts are that it’s such a big can of worms that they don’t want to open it,” she says. “There’s more happening, but there’s still so much more that could happen to make it safer. Right across the board – not just in the AFL – there needs to be more education about what the effects look like for a family. I don’t think you can go against the science now – there’s just too much.
“And it’s what filters down. What happens to community clubs who haven’t got a video camera or a doctor or medico on the sideline? They have someone who’s done 15 minutes of first aid and are making these really serious decisions. We need intelligent discussion with no agenda.”