As evening approached on October 21, 2018, an emaciated, sickly man with hollow eyes and an agitated manner staggered along Bay Street in Port Melbourne, limping and muttering, scattering startled passers-by.
Could it really be him? The once-great AFL footballer? Was it really Rod Owen?
Times had been tough, sure, but everyone still knew the face and the name. In a bayside town of wharfies, dealers and toughs, he could out-drink and out-brawl them all. They knew him as “Rocket”, the perfect nickname for a human missile.
On good days, Owen could hide his problems and carry on like everything was fine. But this was not a good day. He was unemployed, disorientated and angry. Those who still cared about him feared the end was close.
For 36 years he’d been a gambler, a fighter and an addict: alcohol, amphetamines, marijuana, cocaine, morphine, Endone.
This time it was OxyContin.
Owen was taking as much as he could get his hands on. Doctors thought it would help with his broken body — his hip and lower back were the latest to go. Instead it scattered his mind. He endlessly replayed his darkest memories, succumbing further to the self-destructive lifestyle he found impossible to escape.
Did the passers-by know he’d taken every pill in the container? Were they looking at his swollen, deformed knuckles for signs of fresh blood? Could they imagine the fist-shaped indentations in the wall of his tiny rented apartment? Did they know he’d recently tried to take his own life again? Had any of them seen him unravelling at the MCG a few nights earlier?
Owen only remembers that he was off his head again and letting people down. Back then, he’d say so in tearful, self-lacerating tirades: “I know I’m insane … I know I’m on another planet … I know you’re sick of me …”
So there he was on another lost afternoon, feeling more desperate and disturbed and other-planetary than ever before. Only now he stood on the brink of total catastrophe, pacing around town with a knife down his pants.
But he hadn’t counted on the figure approaching him from behind.
Warning: This story contains details of child sexual abuse which may disturb some readers, as well as references to suicide.
‘He has the ability to be a devastating player’
The traumatic secrets Rod Owen spent five decades running from can be found inside a shabby, beaten-up briefcase that has followed him from town to town, state to state, through 38 years of fame, partying, addiction, illness and despair.
The briefcase is insignificant to the naked eye, made of leather-look plastic in mission brown, with a stained cardboard interior. Its greatest qualities are its undesirability to a thief and its indestructibility. In the 1970s, it belonged to Graeme Owen, Rod’s father, the man of whom he has said: “When he died, I died too.”
One wonders what Graeme would make of its contents now. His two great loves were his family and the St Kilda Football Club, so it’s filled with reasons for cheer — medals and newspaper clippings which confirm his wildest dream, which he died two months short of seeing for himself: his boy really did become a Saint.
There are also clues from which he would piece together a life of quiet desperation: paltry income statements; pub loyalty cards; gruesome X-rays; stained business cards from lawyers and physical therapists; scraps of paper with unfulfilled promises of jobs; an expired licence to perform “high risk work”; a certificate of completion for a drink driver education program; character references from a criminal trial; an AFL Players’ Association membership card; letters to and from prison.
Most arresting is a pair of black and white photographs taken a fraction of a second apart at Arden Street Oval on March 26, 1983, when St Kilda played North Melbourne in the first round of the VFL season: Rod Owen’s league debut.
It is hard not to be swept up in the aesthetic purity and obvious symbolism of the first photograph. Owen leaps for a mark with feline grace. The ball, as it might have been painted by a master of the Renaissance, hovers perfectly at his fingertips.
Likewise, he is depicted at the cusp of the life he’s been promised: fame, fortune and football success are within his grasp. A day earlier, Herald football writer Peter Stone had spoken to St Kilda coach Tony Jewell and written:
In the second photograph, Owen descends to earth, an opponent lamenting being beaten by his man. But the man is not a man. He is a fragile boy. Owen is two months past his 16th birthday. He’s the 11th youngest player in league history. No player will ever appear at such a young age again, for reasons that become obvious when Owen starts talking about his life.
‘When are you going to play bloody footy again?’
If you know a rough outline of Rod Owen’s football career, it probably goes something like this: he was a greater talent than Tony Lockett, the Saints great who debuted in the same year. But what wasn’t destroyed by Owen’s gruesome knee and ankle injuries was squandered to a lifestyle of hard partying.
His career of 78 games and 143 goals was over by the time he was 25.
The injuries, from which Owen still experiences breathless pain, accumulated almost immediately. He’d played only nine games when he tore his right Achilles ligaments, missing the rest of 1983. Soon after his 17th birthday, he sunk to the Moorabbin mud with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, missing two full seasons.
St Kilda’s official publication of the time admitted: “There are some sports medicine experts who believe that teenage bone structures are not sufficiently developed to cope with physical contact sports at adult level.”
Owen was never the same player. A champion high jumper at school, his early league games were characterised by soaring leaps across and over packs. Robbed of the spring in his step, he never repaired his shattered confidence.
“If it wasn’t for him doing his knee he would have been a nightmare for everyone else,” Jewell said in a history of St Kilda.
Drunks on the Moorabbin terraces taunted him: “Hey Owen, when are you going to play bloody footy again?” Then the club’s culture devoured him.
St Kilda was then the most penurious of the VFL’s dozen clubs. Owen remembers a teammate arriving at training and asking: “Have we still got a club?” What it infamously did have was a wild Friday night — a $15-for-all-you-can-drink disco, where players frittered away money they hardly had.
In 1991, after he was traded to Melbourne after eight seasons with the Saints, Owen conceded to a journalist that the nightlife had taken a toll:
Some of Owen’s scrapes seemed more like myths. By 23, he’d accrued a $150,000 gambling debt — 10 times his annual wage for most of his career. His four-day drinking sessions would begin on Friday afternoon at the Beaumaris Hotel, move to the Saints Disco, power through Sunday sessions the club promoted to members (“All players in attendance”), and carry on into Monday.
Newspapers told of his infamous 63-day bender. A teammate recalled the morning he found Owen lying unconscious and bloodied in a gutter outside the Portsea pub. For Rod Owen, back then, it was nothing unusual.
It earned him a reputation as the VFL’s answer to George Best, a version of history that has always suited football, because it made Owen his own worst enemy, whereas onlookers were powerless to protect him from himself.
The reality was something closer to an unending act of self-harm. Owen would drink and drug himself into oblivion. He remembers endless brawling with bouncers, 20 broken noses, court cases, and drunkenly driving at 150 kilometres per hour down the Nepean Highway.
When he woke from his teenage binges, Owen would experience the suicidal crises nobody saw on the dance floor.
“I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he says.
“I’d walk down the street and wish I wasn’t here.”
One story that isn’t told so often occurred after a practice match loss in Perth, in 1986, when a drinking session got out of hand. Eventually, Owen lost consciousness in a hotel garden bed, never making it back to his room. Roused the next morning, he walked straight to a nearby pub and resumed drinking.
Some present remember an exchange that night, when the late Bill Stephen, a kindly newcomer, asked the intoxicated Owen if he’d like to talk about his father or anything else troubling him. Blind drunk, Owen threatened to smash a glass in Stephen’s face.
Owen remembers it too.
“I get embarrassed talking about it,” he says.
When he thinks of the Saints Disco now, he remembers his first drunken courtship of young women, when he’d unravel and ask himself a heartbreaking question: “Am I normal?”
‘She put up with an awful lot’
Family and lifelong friends of Rod Owen will tell you many stories of his kindness, sincerity and depth of character. Mick Hamilton, the Noosa boxing coach who pulled Owen through his darkest hours, summarises him: “Good bloke. Great mate. Loyal. Bloody loyal.”
Andy Simon, who met Owen during his one-year stint at Melbourne and forged a lifelong friendship, says: “Every time I speak to Rocket, he tells me he loves me, and I tell him I love him too. We are family.”
They also tell a far less flattering story: Rod was a completely different person when he was drunk, high or overwhelmed by mental health breakdowns — angry, self-destructive, heading for early death — and Susan and the girls went through hell as a result.
Susan was Rod’s partner from 1998 until 2015. To identify her as merely a mother, or the partner of a footballer, would misrepresent her self-image and achievements. She is a fixture of the Port Melbourne hospitality world, and often worked three jobs at a time to hold her family together.
“She put up with an awful lot,” Rod’s mother Adrienne says.
The girls are Layla, 21, and Zoe, 18, wise beyond their years. They love their dad but weathered the disappointments and teenage embarrassments that came with Rod’s addictions.
Layla, principled and sensible, saw and understood it all, inheriting Rod’s fierce loyalty and self-critical tendencies. Zoe looks and acts so much like Rod that friends call her “Little Rocket”. Rod’s life has made her focus exclusively on his and everyone else’s positive character traits.
Rod was five years out of the AFL when he and Susan got together. They’d worked together at Port Melbourne’s Railway Hotel, owned then by Rod’s brother Chris. Susan had seen Rod at his worst, but invested in the abundant qualities that shone in his periods of sobriety.
Asked for Rod’s strengths, Susan says: “Everything. He’s very loyal, even though he can let you down. You were always protected. He’s funny. He’s very good company. He’s very clever — a lot smarter than people think. He could talk with anyone about anything.”
But after picking up the pieces for almost 20 years, she can’t deny the chaos. She remembers midnight trips to the ATM to intercept pay cheques that could be gone in hours, the broken promises and the four-day benders that would leave her fending for herself. There was Rod’s prison stretch. There was the frustration as he transitioned from footballer to concreter, swapping one alcohol-soaked job for another.
Two particularly bad moments stick out.
Number one: unconscious from another bender, he missed Zoe’s christening.
Number two: his binge following Zoe’s birth. Carrying her two-year-old and newborn through a pharmacy, Susan had to return vital supplies to the shelves when all her cards declined. It would happen time and again in supermarkets, indignities she will never forget.
Toughest was the move to Noosa, where the family lived between 2004 and 2011. It was going to be utopia. Rod could escape bad influences, restore his soul and ride waves in solitude. Instead, concreting work vanished and he spiralled further into his addictions. “Melbourne came with him,” a friend says.
Of those years, Zoe fondly recalls lying on Rod’s chest — not just for the feeling of security and warmth it gave her, but its symbolism of the calm and happy times when her dad wasn’t drinking and drugging himself into despondent rage.
That little bit older, fretful and painfully observant, Layla remembers more of the latter, and her realisation as an eight-year-old houseguest of other families that her friends’ fathers didn’t tearfully rip their shirts in half, headbutt poles, or sell items from the back shed for gambling money.
“I’d get to a stage where I’d lie there — and this is an awful, callous thing to think — but I thought if the police knocked on the door and said he was dead, it would be a relief,” Susan says.
“And that is so bad, because I loved Rod. But I thought, ‘At least I could say to my kids that something happened to Daddy in an accident’, rather than the possibility that he’d had a drug overdose or done something stupid and hurt himself.”
When Susan reached her limit, no-one blamed her. As early as age 10, Layla had begged her to leave Rod. “You don’t understand,” Zoe would say. “He’s got a disease! He’s got an illness!'”
“I probably hung in there for Zoe,” Susan says.
“I thought it would affect her too much. She couldn’t see anything wrong, whereas Layla would say, ‘Everything he does is wrong.'”
It still makes Susan sad to think of Rod’s addictions — not just what they did to the family, but what they said about his life before they met.
“For Rod, it was always about escapism,” she says. “He’d say, ‘I don’t even like beer, I just like to be numb.'”
And she knew precisely why he wanted to be numb.
‘It was just complete and utter lies’
When you ask Rod Owen’s teammates and coaches where it all went wrong, you often hear that he never recovered from his father’s death. Rod doesn’t dispute this. The youngest of three, he was coddled by Adrienne as a toddler. By his primary school years, he clung to Graeme’s side.
“Guys like Rocket think their fathers are immortal,” Owen’s friend Andy Simon says.
No parent’s death is easy for a child to bear, but for Rod the loss of his father was emotionally disabling. The sudden absence of guidance was one thing, Owen’s desire to live out the football dream he shared with Saints fanatic Graeme quite another.
St Kilda’s motto is ‘Fortius Quo Fidelius’ — Strength Through Loyalty. Rod didn’t just inherit his father’s love of a team, it became a central aspect of his identity and his connection to his father. It’s why, to this day, he says: “I still support the colours, just not the people.”
And it’s why the behaviour of St Kilda administrators in 1982 and 1983 has marked his life so drastically.
In December, 1982, Rod was 15 years old, Graeme gravely ill with cancer. The family agreed on one thing: Rod would finish his schooling at Mentone Grammar before senior football was considered. They made it clear to St Kilda powerbrokers Ian Stewart and Ian Drake, the latter of whom was in charge of the club’s junior development program.
Graeme was literally on his deathbed when St Kilda commenced its recruitment campaign, as suggestible as a father could be. When St Kilda granted his dying wish to see Rod train with the seniors, it became clear that a major talent was blooming.
Adrienne, on the other hand, was a Queenslander who despised football. The season before, she watched a Geelong under-19s opponent king-hit Rod, knocking him unconscious and shattering his jaw; coaches feared he was dead. Adrienne paints a vivid scene of St Kilda’s wooing:
Contacted by the ABC this week, Ian Stewart denied that Rod was pressured to leave school.
Graeme died on January 4, 1983, four weeks before Rod’s 16th birthday. Rod remembers two aspects of his father’s funeral with a clarity that still makes his voice tremble and break.
The first is that most present sat in stony silence as he emotionally unravelled, his uncontrolled sobbing and heaving chest drawing the attention of the room. The second is that a St Kilda contingent, including Drake and Stewart, sat quietly at the back of the room.
On a Saturday morning in mid-March, Rod told Adrienne he was off to the country with some mates. Instead he boarded a 30-person aircraft, flew to the Victorian country town of Heywood and catapulted himself into league football. It was a VFL seniors practice match, St Kilda vs Collingwood. The unknown teenager ran onto the ground at the end of the first quarter, sized up Billy Picken — one of the most brilliant defenders in the league — and kicked seven astonishing goals.
Owen summarises the aftermath: “Life changed as soon as I’d reached the dressing rooms. Players who didn’t want to know or talk to me beforehand were throwing me beers. People wanted to take me out that night. My head was spinning.”
A $30,000 contract was placed in front of Owen. He signed it, lined up at Arden Street the next weekend and quit school for good, ignoring the Mentone headmaster’s prophetic words: “You’ll regret this day for the rest of your life.”
More than 20 years ago, in evidence tendered to court, Adrienne recalled the period:
Stewart has since conceded some culpability.
“I’d say the club, myself included, let Rod down,” Stewart admitted to the Herald Sun in 2000.
Speaking to the ABC this week, Stewart said he was at the club for only 18 months and was in charge of 70 to 80 players during that time. The club was operating under financial administration, and on a shoestring budget.
“A lot of talented players would have slipped through the web because they weren’t given support,” Stewart says.
A while back, Rod tapped out a summary of his first weeks at St Kilda: “I was yearning to find a father figure after the old man died, and to wear the red, white and black, the team we’d grown up loving. It’s what I thought would save me from my pain.”
It ties in with an account of the Heywood game he wrote in 2000, shortly before he was handcuffed in front of his tearful mother and led away to a jail cell:
In fact, the trouble had started long before.
‘He did it to everyone’
St Kilda people who feel guilty about Rod Owen’s careening journey through life tend to console themselves by pointing to uncontrollable factors. Who knew that a son’s grief could be so profound? What could have been done differently with such meagre resources, and by whom?
Perhaps they could have asked a few more pertinent questions. Like what was really fuelling Owen’s reckless lifestyle? And what was the true source of his anti-authoritarian rage?
When Rod discusses the first eight years of his childhood, it is impossible not to be struck by the frequency and vehemence of his use of the word “normal”.
The Owens were a “normal family”, he says. Adrienne and Graeme blessed him with a “normal upbringing”. Rod’s extracurricular activities, like playing the drums, were “normal things”. Summarising those times, he says: “I was just a normal kid.”
But what happened to Rod Owen and untold numbers of children at Beaumaris Primary School in the 1960s and 70s was nothing close to normal. In 1976, when he was nine years old, Rod was preyed upon and sexually molested by the school’s librarian and sports coach, Darrell Ray.
“In grade four,” Rod says, “everything changed forever.”
It was the school’s yearbook photo day — a time to snap portraits to be displayed on grandparents’ mantelpieces. There would also be class photos and Rod’s favourites: sporting team photos. As a junior member of Beaumaris Primary’s swimming, cricket and football teams, Rod had a busy day.
His mood can be traced through the series of frames in his childhood photo album. In the portrait, the mop hairstyle of the era covers his ears. His mouth is closed, but his grin genuine.
When 4W students line up for their class shot, Rod’s clowning around at the back, and much the same among the swimming team.
In the A-grade cricket team coached by Darrell Ray, Rod and others look to the right of the frame, distracted by the sort of fleeting moment that fades quickly from the memory. What Rod will never forget is the feeling of revulsion and fear that followed, and the visions it still gives him.
As Rod changed from his cricket whites to his footy gear to be photographed with Beaumaris Primary’s premiership-winning team, Ray approached silently from behind and began molesting him.
The image taken moments later conveys his discomfort. “I didn’t want to get in the photo,” Rod says.
“I was shocked. He came up to me and said ‘Get in the photo now and shut up,’ aggressively. I had to sit next to him. I remember so vividly what happened …”
When he looks at it now, Rod notes his vulnerability. The pained expression, he says, is the look of an innocent boy’s entire world crumbling, and foretells 42 years of resentment and anger.
In an impact statement given decades later, another of Ray’s victims spoke of the depraved bargain that boys at Beaumaris Primary accepted, saying the abuse was the “price he had to pay” for attending the school. Another student had told him that Ray simply “did it to everyone”.
Among that 1976 Beaumaris Primary School football team was Phil, who asked the ABC not to use his real name. He says his life, like those of many other victims, has been plagued by substance abuse, intimacy problems and fractured relationships.
“I could have done a lot more with my life,” he says.
“I try not to beat myself up too much about it.”
In 2000, Phil testified in the Melbourne County Court trial in which Ray was found guilty of 27 counts of indecently assaulting 19 boys at Moorabbin Primary School and Beaumaris Primary School between 1967 and 1976 — abuse so frequent and ongoing that many victims engaged in successful civil litigation against Beaumaris Primary for its negligence.
For Rod, the enduring emotional power of Ray’s betrayal was twofold: school teachers, once pillars of his life, became his most despised adversaries; Ray was a ubiquitous presence in Rod’s early footy endeavours, so football and abuse became impossible concepts to separate.
Phil explains the latter dynamic: “We were mad sportsmen, and being your footy and cricket coach, you didn’t want to do anything to upset him.” Phil has a copy of the team photo too. Years ago, he cut out Darrell Ray’s face.
In the grip of Ray’s betrayal, Rod acknowledges, he developed a lifelong obsession with violence and retribution. He remembers the howls of outrage from spectators who couldn’t stand the sight of him mowing down junior opponents.
“I was getting called an animal by parents,” he says.
“They’d say, ‘Bash him!’ I was just a brute. I always wanted to fight.”
But at the end of 1976, his most alarming acts of violence and retribution were yet to come. For reasons unstated by Beaumaris Primary, Darrell Ray was gone. Rod recalls: “I remember kids sitting around and asking, ‘What happened to him?'”
He was not long to find out.
‘They gave me a feeling of invincibility’
By round six of his debut VFL season, Rod Owen was an emotional tinderbox. St Kilda would lose by 41 points to Fitzroy at Moorabbin, another bitter afternoon in lean times. In the home team locker room beforehand, there was a moment of further-reaching consequences.
Following an argument with his mother Adrienne at the Owen home, Rod’s preparation was a frenzied sprint to the ground. He arrived in a flood of tears. Four months on from Graeme’s death, he says he unravelled in front of Ian Stewart, his replacement father figure.
Instead of withdrawing the teenager from the line-up, however, St Kilda officials offered Owen a fistful of tablets they claimed would see him through the game. Sure enough, he performed amazingly well for a grief-stricken child. Among those pills, he says, were Catovit – pharmaceutical speed, then available over the counter.
Ian Stewart told the ABC he didn’t see such drugs being administered to players.
There was no VFL drug code at the time, so such practice was widespread and normalised. A Richmond player once revealed the unacknowledged ubiquity of speed “bombs”, claiming that half a dozen of his 1980 premiership teammates regularly took them. But none of those players were emotionally unstable minors.
“The tablets didn’t just calm me down, they gave me a feeling of invincibility and superiority,” Rod says.
“To run out the race with the crowd screaming was the best feeling I’d ever experienced in my short life.
“Only 38 years later have I learned that as addicts, we spend the rest of our lives chasing that first high and never finding it. I’d been given those drugs to overcome emotional trauma, but it provided a rush, and soon they became part of my life. You don’t go back to your second-best feeling, or your third best.
If Adrienne thought the drunken vomiting after Rod’s early under-19s games was bad, the behaviour that became the norm in 1983 would scar the family for decades. Rod discovered that as well as pulling him together on game days, speed allowed him to power through marathon drinking sessions. Afterwards, he’d careen through the family home like a tornado, smashing everything in sight.
“As a 16-year-old, the drugs just blew his brain,” Adrienne says.
“He just fractured the whole family. I rang Ian Stewart one day and said, ‘Roderick is under age, he is not to go out with these guys.’ He said, ‘You have no right to stop him.’ There was absolutely no guidance. I don’t think I ever got over it.”
Ian Stewart told the ABC it was “absurd” to suggest he condoned such drinking.
“It’s just not true … I was a disciplinarian,” Stewart says. “I wouldn’t encourage them (players) to drink.”
Asked if he was aware of the extent of Owen’s drinking during his time at the club, Stewart says:
“No, of course I wasn’t.”
Left with no other choice, Adrienne kicked Rod out of home and told St Kilda to find him a responsible teammate to live with. Thus began his life of couch-surfing, of joints and cask wine for breakfast, afternoons at the TAB, and all the other squalid habits it would take a lifetime to break.
Over the years, friends listened to Rod’s lurid revenge fantasies about St Kilda. “He just was a kid,” one says. “It was a form of abuse as far as I can see.”
Not everyone knew the extent of the abuse.
‘I didn’t even get close to it’
An overlooked aspect of Rod Owen’s early years in football is that between 1976 and 1978, he played a remarkable tally of 52 games for St Kilda’s Little League team — that era’s equivalent of AusKick.
Little League games were played in replica VFL uniforms across the full length of the ground. A premiership cup was on offer, and the diminutive stars aped their heroes by changing in the same locker rooms as the senior teams. Among Beaumaris schoolboys, a spot in the St Kilda team was coveted.
In a photo album that sits beside Rod’s brown briefcase, a few shots outline his dominance of a Little League game against Footscray at Moorabbin. In one, Rod takes an overhead mark. In the other, he dwarfs a Bulldogs opponent. He thinks they were taken the day he kicked seven goals.
His other memories of his early life in St Kilda colours are not so positive.
In those times, St Kilda’s Little League team was managed by the late Albert Briggs, a backroom helper who’d eventually serve a few decades as the club’s Reserves timekeeper, performing other odd jobs until the late 1990s.
When Rod was a boy, one of Briggs’s jobs was presumably to appoint the coach of the Little League team, and that seemingly insignificant power would have disastrous consequences. In 1976 and 1977 — as in several previous seasons — Briggs chose Beaumaris Primary School librarian and sports coach Darrell Ray, the sexual abuser of Rod Owen and countless other boys in the district.
It means that instead of harmless fun, the first thoughts that come to Rod’s mind when he thinks of that time are shredded nerves, locked doors, the looming threat of molestation, and a very particular rule set down by the coach: no parents in the changerooms.
It means that instead of his first goal in front of his home crowd, or a pat on the back from Trevor Barker, Rod’s first memories of Moorabbin are being trapped in a room with a man who performed “depravities” on him.
But Darrell Ray was not the only problem Rod had to contend with.
When men who suffered abuse in that time mention a “paedophile ring” in the Beaumaris region, they’re usually referring to Ray and two other male school teachers. When Rod says it, he is referring to Ray and Briggs, the latter of whom would remain a fixture at St Kilda for Owen’s entire senior career.
Accordingly, there is a photo of Rod from his Little League days that conjures far different memories than his performance against Footscray. Visibly apprehensive, with pleading eyes and a crooked smile, he stands with a teammate near the end of the players’ race, about to play his first game on the MCG.
It was a dream day for a nine-year-old: a final against Richmond, the sort of scenario Rod would create in his backyard fantasies, wheeling around to kick the winning goal. But there was no winning goal that day at the MCG — nothing close.
There are two things Rod remembers clearly. The first is his breathless confusion as Albert Briggs started molesting him. The second is the paralytic effect it had on him once he ran onto the ground.
“I didn’t even get close to it,” Rod says.
“I was looking around going, ‘F***, what’s going on?’ I was bewildered.”
His bewilderment has endured. He is stalked by a mental image of Ray and Briggs driving around town together.
“It makes me wonder,” Rod says.
Among the Beaumaris victims, there is general agreement that plenty of other boys suffered abuse they refuse to acknowledge, preferring to bury their trauma. If that was ever an option for Rod, it disappeared one day early in his senior career, when Briggs arrived at his locker with a message.
“He came up and said, ‘There is someone who wants to see you.’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Down the race.’ I got down the race and turned around, and here he is from a distance but within earshot — Darrell Ray.
“He looked at me and went bright red. I yelled, ‘I’m gonna f***ing kill you.’ I ran back through the rooms and out and around, but someone stopped me. By the time I got out there, he’d gone.
“A psychologist told me that that’s what paedophiles like to do. They like to see their victims again in person. I don’t know what’s wrong with humans.”
In the decades that followed, Rod Owen lived with inner turmoil that went close to killing him. Albert Briggs, on the other hand, left St Kilda with life membership.
‘An affectionate family thing’
It was inevitable that Owen’s St Kilda career would end acrimoniously. So it proved midway through the 1990 season. To the press, St Kilda stated that Owen’s knees were no longer up to the training commitments required in St Kilda’s new era; they would allow him to play at VFA club Frankston until he regained fitness.
Privately, Owen started sharing a few of his problems, but within the football culture of the time, the abuse was the last thing he could lay bare.
“Back then, if you said anything about your anxiety, depression or fears, you were labelled weird or soft, and banished,” he says.
“I never had the courage to ask for help.”
It’s easy to see why. In a crisis meeting with St Kilda, he tearfully admitted his amphetamine addiction, and said he was struggling to stay above water. St Kilda sent him home to Adrienne, and he was sacked a few hours later. A club-approved history is clear: “The official line was that Owen would be out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. He had, however, effectively been sacked.”
Years later, Susan would describe the two modes Rod’s binges would take: “a roll” was when a party was starting; “a spiral” was when things had turned bad to even the slightest degree. The end of Rod’s St Kilda career was a spiral that wouldn’t end for years.
At Frankston, his $700 match fee disappeared over the bar and he’d be broke and suicidal by Monday. Within months, he piled on 12 kilograms. But he played some brilliant football, too, so Melbourne coach John Northey came calling.
A deal was struck: if Rod could sober up and stay clean, Adrienne would take him back at her home and the Demons would offer him a one-year deal for 1991. In a rigorous pre-season, the weight dropped off. Melbourne colleagues from the time say he was determined to prove the Saints wrong.
The results flowed: 19 goals in the first nine games and Victorian selection. The club was everything St Kilda had lacked: professional at every level, brimming with strong leaders on and off the field, and full of people with good intentions. Owen was “adopted” by club powerbroker George Simon and his son Andy.
“At St Kilda, he never had what he got when he came to Melbourne, which was an affectionate family thing,” Andy Simon says.
“I’m sure if Dad and I were St Kilda supporters, it probably would have been a little bit different for Rocket.”
Yet the worst-case scenario still played out: a serious knee injury in round 10 not only robbed Owen of his State of Origin guernsey, but finished his season. His alcoholic spiral was immediate and alarming.
The end of the line was the 1992 Brisbane Bears, who promised little and left Owen to his own devices. In the last years of players holding down day jobs, Owen became one of 35 unemployed men on the Bears’ 52-man list, living in a drug-filled share house and riding a BMX to training. He eked out his last nine games in the AFL.
The stunning performances of which he’d always been capable were in surprising abundance given his wretched lifestyle. In his fourth-last game he kicked 8.6 and lit up Princes Park. In his last, an almost lawless whitewash at Kardinia Park, he was dragged at the beginning of the final term, trotted to the bench and signed off on the AFL by punching a wall and breaking his hand.
Another 60-day bender followed — the one that nobody wrote about. Owen and his friends spent two months surfing, drinking and getting high. For a while, he thought it was the beginning of a stress-free life. Then the binge ended. Soberly appraising his failures and anxieties, Rod entered a period of despondence and self-harm.
“He rang one night, very late,” Adrienne says, dismayed to think of what football had done to her boy.
“He said he was on the roof of the casino at Surfers Paradise, and that I probably wouldn’t see him again.”
‘A sad commentary’
October 2, 1999, was another bad day for Rod Owen. Police carefully photographed the blood that had sprayed up walls and across the curtains, spilling so freely that it pooled in multiple locations.
A year later, in the Morwell County Court, Judge Betty King concluded that it belonged to Lindsay John Burgess, and had flowed in almost deadly quantities thanks to the “cowardly, barbaric” behaviour of the defendant, Roderick John Owen.
Football fans read that Owen, a binge-drinker since the age of 15, had been indulging heavily again the day before the 1999 Phillip Island motorcycle Grand Prix, where he was working as part of a crew installing seats.
Reports claimed Owen attacked his defenceless boss, Burgess, without provocation, and “just kept on hitting him”, until Burgess’s head resembled a flattened basketball, his nose and upper jaw broken so badly that his face had to be surgically reconstructed with microplates and titanium screws.
It was the moment Rod was referring to when he began writing his memoirs with the words: “I take full responsibility for my actions after my 18th birthday … “
Pleading guilty to recklessly causing serious injury, Owen was sentenced to 18 months in prison and would serve nine. Burgess told reporters he would never forgive his attacker: “I think of it every day … I almost lost my life. I’ll never forget.”
At the time, much was made of Judge King’s assessment of St Kilda’s culture of heavy drinking, and its failure to stop Owen’s descent.
“It is a sad commentary on the values and macho status of our sporting clubs that they did not prevent such a young man from becoming involved in drinking of such amounts and duration,” King said.
Certain elements of Owen’s defence also drew attention. He said the worksite had filled with crass jokes about paedophilia. He claimed he’d engaged in drunken retaliation against another colleague who’d seen the Aboriginal flag on Owen’s chest — tattooed in honour of his son from a relationship prior to his meeting Susan — and provoked Owen with a vile racial slur.
In that version of events, stepping in to defuse the situation, Burgess was simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
The last eight words seem the most accurate.
To this day, when Rod talks about the incident, the whole story emerges only cryptically, across dozens of conversations spread over months, and thanks to Susan’s careful reconstruction of the events leading up to the weekend of the crime.
At the time, Rod had relapsed into heavy drinking. In a period that bore all the hallmarks of a spiral, Susan knew he needed routine. Instead he took a temporary job, sharing dreary lodgings with sketchy characters.
The year preceding had been acutely stressful to Rod, Susan says. “He rang me one day and said, ‘I think I need help. There is something wrong with me. I’ve got a rash all over me.'”
It was a horrific case of shingles.
Susan wondered whether it was the accumulated stress of Rod’s frequent upheavals and nomadic lifestyle. Here, there was a detail of significance: for three months before the job, Rod had lived with and confided in an old Beaumaris Primary schoolmate — a fellow victim of Darrell Ray.
Rod was also discovering that after more than 20 years of sinking into similar lifestyles, Ray’s other victims were beginning to talk. In 1998, Ray had been confronted by such a victim and it sparked the police investigation that would eventually lead to the abuser’s arrest and prosecution.
As part of that investigation, Rod’s housemate gave a statement to police, prevailing upon Rod to give one too. But fearful of living in a world in which everyone knew what had happened to him, Rod wouldn’t unburden himself of 23 years of anguish.
It’s why, even to this day, you need the help of those around Rod to understand how he could dismiss such an unspeakable act of violence as a “psychotic episode”, yet also claim he would “never justify what I did”. It’s why it makes sense that he was so triggered by his colleagues’ jokes about paedophilia. It’s why, when you put it all together, you begin to understand why he lashed out at an authority figure.
And it’s why it rings true when he eventually says this:
‘He knows he’s got to help himself’
St Kilda’s neglect of Rod Owen in the decades following his playing career is best summarised by the events during and immediately after his stretch at Dhurringile prison farm.
“We have to accept some responsibility,” said Rod Butterss, St Kilda’s president of the time.
“We can’t just blame the individual and say he mucked up or that he is a ratbag. The fact is, he was in our system. He was with us for eight years and if anyone leaves the place less able to deal with life than when he arrived, we’ve failed.”
What still angers Owen is that it amounted to little more than a public relations exercise. In 2001, Butterss paid Owen a 20-minute visit in prison, then gave an expansive interview to the Herald Sun:
What it meant, in reality, was that St Kilda offered Owen no practical help at all. He had no idea how to “help himself” and wouldn’t for almost 20 years. Far from “very positive”, his prospects were nothing brighter than a lot of backbreaking work as a concreter and a return to his addictions.
Twenty months after his release from prison, Rod went public with his disappointment: “It wouldn’t worry me if they hadn’t said anything, but many people, including president Rod Butterss, said a lot of things about helping me when I got out. Nothing has happened. Why make a big deal about it and then do nothing?”
In 2017, Butterss made an admission of his own: cocaine abuse and alcoholism had clouded his judgement during his time as St Kilda’s figurehead.
At least Butterss showed up. Others at St Kilda promised to make visits and never fronted.
Rod’s friends would eventually view his prison time as the dividing line between two eras of St Kilda’s failure — the first, its dereliction of duty to a vulnerable teenager, the second, its decades of neglect after Rod’s release, when he was overwhelmed by the traumas football created.
But the burden was not Rod’s alone.
‘Is he kidding?’
Rod’s last spiral reached an acutely uncomfortable phase on October 19, 2018 — the Friday night of his daughter Layla’s high school graduation dinner.
Susan had drawn a line under the relationship in 2015, and the ensuing years of Rod’s life were a disturbing blur of drug abuse and chaos. In 2016, he’d met his partner Kylie Clarke. Immediately, they were on what Rod calls “a downhill spiral to hell”, enabling each others’ addictions.
By 2018, Rod’s most hellish addiction was painkillers. Botched varicose vein surgery in 2015 and the 2017 hip replacement and back surgery that ended his concreting career introduced him to Endone and OxyContin, the drugs that would almost finish him off.
Layla’s graduation was a $150-a-head function at the MCG. Susan was happy to cover Rod’s place at the table because he’d made a special effort, getting a suit made for the occasion to show his daughter how much he cared.
Schooled in the same bayside region of Rod’s adolescence, Layla had politely weathered years of uninformed judgment of Rod by her peers’ parents, who repeated the party monster cliche, lamenting Rod’s squandered talent and volatility, ignorant of the torment Layla had seen tearing him apart.
On graduation night, Layla was buoyed by Rod’s intentions and promises of good behaviour, but edgy once she noted her father’s erratic mood — he’d smoked marijuana to settle his nerves — and his skeletal frame.
She recalled all the other broken promises down the years.
Following an anxious taxi ride to the MCG, Susan let Layla and Rod lag behind to talk, but Layla soon sped up to her mother’s side. “Is he kidding?” she asked. Rod was sobbing, having admitted to another suicide attempt only days earlier. “Don’t worry about it,” Layla told her mum, pulling everyone together.
Inside, drinks and entrees reached the table, along with the usual procession of fathers — Saints supporters who wanted to talk about the good old days. Susan had seen it all before. Rod would oblige them, hold back his resentments, politely tell them what they wanted to hear. Eventually they’d leave him alone.
Not this night.
“F*** St Kilda,” he snapped at one polite inquiry. “Who gives a shit about footy?”
Word reached the table that Rod was looking for cocaine. Layla’s worst fears were materialising. What had she done to deserve this? Why couldn’t he hold it together? Deep down, Susan knew what was probably happening: it was the graduation night Rod never had, and there were reminders of footy all around him. She knew it might not end well.
A father introduced himself and walked away. ‘Who is he?’ Rod asked. Susan told him: just one of the dads. ‘Is he a teacher?’ No. Susan told him again. But Rod was obsessed: the man just had to be a teacher. It was all he could talk about. He was convinced: not only was the man a teacher, he was a paedophile teacher.
School graduation. St Kilda. Kids. Teachers. Paedophiles. The MCG. Alcohol. Drugs. All of it was swirling around Rod, and he couldn’t cope.
Susan noticed something else happening. Like a lot of gamblers, Rod saw great significance in numbers. The 27 he wore on his back for St Kilda was in honour of his father’s birthday, and he looked for it everywhere he went. Another was 154662: Rod’s prison ID. The number at play on Layla’s graduation night was 52 — Graeme’s age when he died. Rod was a couple of months away from his 52nd birthday.
“Rod had this understanding that he was going to die at the same age as his dad,” Susan says.
“For years, he basically had a death wish. He had these sayings that would drive me mad: ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.’ He had it in his head that he was going to die, and I think that might have been what he was trying to do.”
Just as things seemed certain to turn ugly, Rod excused himself and left. When Layla discovered his departure, she wasn’t sad to hear it. For the next few hours, it was other kids who felt pangs of embarrassment when Mum or Dad had a few drinks too many.
Layla and Susan exhaled and managed to enjoy themselves, but their relief was short-lived.
‘You’re a disgrace’
October 21, 2018. Rod Owen was out of his mind on Bay Street, Port Melbourne. The figure approaching him from behind? Layla, much older than her 18 years. Two days on from Rod’s meltdown, she was still seething with anger — even more so when she saw the state he was in.
“You’re a disgrace,” she said, then punched him in the stomach.
His initial reaction was the same old Rod. He staggered home and punched another wall. But with the other hand, he picked up his phone and called his mate Darren ‘Crab’ Harland, a former Port Melbourne footballer who’d escaped addiction and hard crime.
Crab heard the words he’d been waiting for from Rod: “Get me into rehab.”
Rod had always talked it down, using another of the stupid sayings that drove Susan mad: “Rehab is for quitters.” But four days after Layla’s punch, Rod’s partner Kylie drove him to a facility for a three-month stay. The AFL Players Association footed the bill, sparing the couple from losing their apartment.
Two weeks later, Kylie’s own recovery began. Two and a half years on, the couple have achieved something most around them thought impossible, staying sober together for as long as they’d previously been gripped by addiction.
“In recovery, they talk about rock bottom,” Rod says.
“I hit it that hard, I’ve stayed hit.
“It’s confronting, but I wish I’d done it when I was a kid. It’s amazing what I learned in those three months, then doing the 12-step program and meetings. I’d lost a lot of people’s respect, and I was determined to only do it once.”
“When you’re an addict, you don’t realise how bad you are until you come out of it,” Kylie says.
“We went for a walk along the beach recently, and laughed that we weren’t in a pub. Just enjoying the sun, watching the waves — simple, normal things. When we were addicts, we weren’t doing anything normal.”
Among the aspects of Rod’s current life that would most surprise people, his burgeoning spirituality and interest in eastern philosophy would be up there. Central to his recovery is a routine of twice-daily meditation and readings from the JFT (“Just for Today”).
“You can get it on your phone,” Rod says.
“It’s called the Clean Time app. It’s got readings. You read it and it goes through different lessons. ‘Principles over personality’ was yesterday’s. They call it enlightenment. I was reading about the first flower on Earth the other day. It’s been life-changing. I wish everyone could grasp it like I have.”
The other pillars of his sobriety are cold showers, morning swims in the freezing waters of Port Phillip Bay, and an almost daily lawn bowls ritual. The bald head, crooked nose, wrist brace and the tattoos protruding from his board shorts make for an unconventional sight on the greens, but by midday most days, Rod’s enjoying fresh air, engaging his competitive instincts and staying as active as his battered body will allow.
In pursuit of closure, he has also launched legal proceedings against Darrell Ray and Beaumaris Primary School.
Slowly, he is mending relationships.
“I feel so sorry for my kids,” he says.
“What they went through and saw with me, through alcoholism, concussion, drug abuse, all that, I never wanted my kids to see it. But the addictions got hold of me.”
Now he’s even undoing the anxieties of those around him. When Layla and Zoe were struggling through Melbourne’s stage four coronavirus restrictions, they joined Rod each morning in the ice-cold beach water at Port Melbourne.
“He was a massive help,” Layla says.
“He was giving me books to read. His bible is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It says that what’s in the past is in the past, and you can’t dwell on it if you want to move forward and become a better person. I think he reads it every day.”
Loved ones say Rod has two looming challenges. The first is managing the wince-inducing pain from his many injuries without the painkillers and surgery they require, but which he refuses for fear of a relapse.
The other — the one that preoccupies Rod most — is managing the effects of concussions suffered during his football career. Last year, he pledged his brain to the Australian Brain Bank.
Rod’s mother Adrienne used to tell journalists it was pointless telling a story with no happy ending. Now it’s happening.
“He’s like a human being again,” she says.
“We’ve got a really nice relationship. He brought Kylie down the other day, and I think she’s a lovely girl. He’s very lucky and I’m extremely proud of him.”
Zoe hopes her dad is no longer misunderstood.
“Once I knew what happened when he was young, and why he was so angry, I just understood him a lot more,” she says.
“Nobody knows the extent to which that can ruin someone’s life. I’m always reminding him how far he’s come, and how much better he is.”
‘I couldn’t have let it go’
St Kilda is finally grappling with the 36 years of chaos that began in January 1983, although it was only informed this week of the context and legacy of Rod’s abuse as a child.
In February, after meetings with the Saints, addressing his time as a St Kilda senior player, Rod received a sincere, long-overdue written apology.
“We are sorry that your playing days with our club involved the types of experiences you have described,” wrote Saints CEO Matt Finnis in a two-page letter, granting that “words are just that and our actions will ultimately influence your true feeling of reconciliation with your club”.
St Kilda’s suggested actions include career support, connection to its past player network, and physical and mental health support, the latter via the Frawley Centre initiative — its response to the concussion-influenced suicide of Owen’s former captain, Danny Frawley.
Finnis said he was devastated to learn this week of Rod’s experience at the Saints Little League.
“I have been talking with Rod about his experiences playing senior football, but my apology and support offered on behalf of the Club in that context now feels deficient given this disclosure and his story.
“That Rod suffered this abuse is so upsetting and that he has carried this terrible burden for so long is heartbreaking.
“For the Club, that some of this happened under the name of the Saints is shattering, and I promise Rod and his family, and our supporters, we will do everything we can to right this wrong.”
When Rod showed St Kilda’s letter to friends and family, reactions varied. “It’s a good letter”, Layla told him. Those who’ve known Rod the longest were more sceptical, wondering how you can quantify the damage done to a vulnerable boy, let alone expect the man to feel comfortable at Moorabbin, the scene of so many traumas. Rod is mulling the best path forward.
His old boxing pal Mick Hamilton says most of St Kilda’s suggestions are the small but important things Rod is already doing for himself. He sees a future in which his sensitive friend plays counsellor to other addicts, passing on priceless knowledge he’s gained the hard way.
Rod agrees. He wants to tell those who are facing similar battles that if he can get through it, they can too, no matter how overwhelming their difficulties.
“I couldn’t have let go if I hadn’t brought it up,” he says.
“If I become a face of it, I don’t care anymore. It nearly killed me, because the resentments got too much. The disease of addiction is just so progressive. I was either going to kill myself or kill someone else. Nothing surer.”
The “helping others” phase has already begun. He’s tackling Certificate IV in alcohol and other drugs as a step towards counselling others, building a framework for his extensive practical knowledge.
In the week he finished telling his story, his neighbourhood meetings resumed after nine months’ absence but the first guest speaker was a no-show. Fifteen minutes before start time, the organiser asked Rod to fill the breach. Only a few years ago, he says the prospect of such exposure would have engaged his fight and flight impulse.
Rod thinks nobody who knows the rest of his story could be squeamish about the very human events that followed, before he commanded the attention of the room and powered through an inspiring speech: he rushed to the bathroom, his stomach more upset than it had been in years.
“It’s like something inside of me was getting rid of the devil,” he says.
“Then I spoke. People came up and said it was great. I can tick if off. But I also thought, ‘I’d love to have another crack at it.’ That’s the self-worth problem addicts suffer from.
“I didn’t think it could be this satisfying. There was a lot of hatred in me — the school teachers, St Kilda, the resentments went on and on. Whether this does anything else, at least my kids will know the honest truth and know, deep down, that their old man loved them.”
The women who walked beside Rod through his lost decades do not see themselves as the heroes of his story, but his triumph is theirs too, and he knows it.
He says his guiding principles will be compassion and forgiveness, of himself and others. He will try to proceed without judgement, even of those who say he was the architect of his own misfortunes.
“I’ve done some terrible things in my life and I don’t remember everything,” he says.
“So, I give people the benefit of the doubt.”
And he will hold on to his father’s battered brown briefcase, which is more like the black box of his life, full of the darkness that once consumed him, but no longer secrets.
At the bottom sit a pair of certificates, unremarkable at first glance — the kind that many boys accumulate. One is from 1976, the other from 1977. They were issued “as a memento of your playing for the Saints Little League”.
Each certificate is signed at the bottom with names that should spark fond recollections of faraway suburban ovals, the crackle of laughter, and the beginning of a notable sporting life.
The signatures belong to the men who granted a child his most cherished dream — to play in the colours of the team his father loved. The men who handed Rod Owen his first St Kilda jumper, then showed him the price he had to pay.