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Town reels after the falling of a local giant

Danny Frawley on a tractor at a friend's stables.

Danny Frawley on a tractor at a friend’s stables.

He worked at a horse stables run by a friend, mending fences and bending that strong back that made him such an imposing footballer. He visited his mother Shirley. He was in close contact with his brothers and sisters who live in the Western District.

“He has got two lives,” said Michael Roberts, one of Frawley’s friends from their league football days with St Kilda. “He always went back to the country to get happiness and the jungle was the city. I know that to go back home was comforting for him.”

Yet, unbeknown to Roberts and other close friends, something within Frawley was dangerously amiss.

The day before he died, Frawley had planned to mark his 56th birthday by visiting family, but he didn’t show.

On the same afternoon his car veered off that lonely country lane, he was booked in to see a psychiatrist in Melbourne as part of his ongoing treatment.

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Frawley had spoken candidly about his depression, previous breakdown and mental health problems. His grief-stricken family, most of whom were gathered at Frawley’s family home in Brighton, issued a statement on Tuesday expressing their devastation.

“To some he was known as an AFL footballer, coach and media figure, but to his wife Anita and their three daughters, Chelsea, Danielle and Keeley, Danny was a loving husband and a devoted dad. Danny adored his family.

“Danny was one of six children, Danny was loved by his mother Shirley and late father Brian. He will be sadly missed by his brothers and sisters, Christine, Michael, Tony, Anne and Marita, who will have cherished memories of growing up with Danny on the farm in Bungaree.

“The Frawley families are totally shocked and devastated by his passing, but Danny provided us with strength, good humour and unwavering support during his extraordinary life – memories which will be cherished and help us cope with his tragic death.”

In Bungaree, it was like that giant, strong Manna Gum had fallen suddenly to earth.

“It is still very hard to believe that it has happened, that he is gone,” says John Wade, a stalwart of the Bungaree Football Club who has lived in the community all his life.

John Wade at the Danny Frawley Pavilion in Bungaree.

John Wade at the Danny Frawley Pavilion in Bungaree.Credit:Justin McManus

“It is something we hear too much about these days, but probably we should be hearing more about it so people learn to talk about it and bring it out in the open. I don’t know the answers but it makes you wonder whether more could or should have been done for Danny. It is hard to know. The worst thing is you don’t think about things like that until it is too late.”

Jason Frawley, a distant cousin of Danny’s who traces their links to the time of the Victorian gold rush, when the Frawley men first came to the western districts in their big, Irish Catholic droves, says he feels rattled by Danny’s death.

Jason gestures to the spot, not far from where he is sitting on the boundary line of the Bungaree footy oval, where his father killed himself 30 years ago. Jason was just 14 years old at the time.

“Mum was left on her own to bring up four teenagers,” he tells The Age. “We didn’t have much money and Danny and his father, they didn’t want to make a fuss about it, but they always dropped off a pair of brand new Puma footy boots that Danny had only worn once.

“Little acts of kindness like that you always remember. His father was a great man and he instilled those values in him.”

Frawley in his early playing days.

Frawley in his early playing days.Credit:Justin McManus

At the time Frawley was driving through the back of Bungaree, some of the community were gathering at St Patrick’s in Ballarat to farewell another local man,who took his own life last week. Such is Bungaree’s awareness of mental health and suicide that they play against Buninyong every season for the Resilience Cup.

“It has been a pretty bad thing in the district for a long time,” says football club president Darren Rix. “It affects lots of families and I know I talk about it, but we have got more work to do I think. It is really hard. We are trying.

“I assumed he was back on track …”

Georgie Harman, the chief executive of the national depression initiative, Beyondblue, said Frawley’s “amazing legacy” extended beyond football to raising awareness about mental health. “Danny talked honestly about depression,” she said. “He encouraged men to talk.”

At the Bungaree Football Club, a pair of Frawley’s football boots and socks caked in the fertile, red mud of the district were placed beneath the Danny Frawley Pavilion. Next to the boots sat a framed picture of the young, grinning football star in his St Kilda jumper and the guernseys he wore for his clubs, state and country.

Frawley's old jumper, boots and socks at the Bungaree Football Oval on Tuesday.

Frawley’s old jumper, boots and socks at the Bungaree Football Oval on Tuesday.Credit:Justin McManus

Jim O’Keefe played 346 games for the Bungaree Demons, more than any other player in history. He played alongside a teenage Danny Frawley when he played his first senior game for the club.

“He was always going to make it mate, just that determination,” O’Keefe says. “He was just Danny.”

Football and farming is at the heart of Bungaree. The football, netball and bowling club is the only place where local families gather to trade gossip, share a joke and a beer and, sometimes, to mourn.

Jim O’Keefe who played alongside Frawley in Bungaree.

Jim O’Keefe who played alongside Frawley in Bungaree.Credit:Justin McManus

O’Keefe said the thing that set Frawley apart wasn’t the footballer he was, but how generous he was to the club and its young players whenever he popped back in for a visit, took training in the lead up to a big game or helped out with a fundraiser.

“When Danny walked in, he was happy Danny. Kids he didn’t know, he introduced himself. He kept that connection right through.”

When Danny played for Bungaree, most of the team were boys who worked on the local farms. Jason Frawley would spend his school holidays picking spuds for Brian Frawley and his weekends playing for the Demons. Brian Frawley, who died three years ago, was a past player and club president. Danny’s brothers Michael and Tony both played.

Jason Frawley says there is little to be gained from dwelling on why Danny has gone. Having lived his life with the pain of suicide, he knows there are no simple answers. The thought that gives him comfort is that, in years to come, there will be still be football beneath the pavilion that carries Danny Frawley’s name.

“There will be some little kid that is running around at the U12s at Bungaree that looks at that and thinks that could be me one day,” he says. “All you can do is look at the positive things that people leave behind.”

If you or anyone you know needs support: Beyond Blue 1300 224 636. Lifeline: 13 11 14.

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