Old Kangaroo tour mates … Gene Miles, Royce Simmons, Wally Lewis.
Story by Neil Cadigan
Gene Miles, who developed a strong bond with Royce Simmons when they were Australian teammates in 1986, has a two-sided affinity with Royce’s dementia diagnosis and fund-raising campaign.
Big ‘Geno’ will complete day 10 on the road with his mate ‘Simmo’ this Thursday – with fellow border hoppers Wally Lewis and Trevor Gillmeister – after appearing as a guest speaker at Katoomba RSL the night before.
He watched Alzheimer’s disease slowly grind his father Tom from a strong, independent man to his death in July last year, so Royce’s big walk is personal for him..
He has seen firsthand how the dreaded condition can not only turn its sufferers into the shadow of their former selves but how it impacts on family and carers, which is at the heart of the motivation for Royce’s Big Walk which began on Tuesday, May 17 to raise funds for Dementia Australia and junior rugby league clubs en route from Gooloogong to Penrith.
“It brought my Dad down slowly and sadly; he was really active and living in in Townsville until his symptoms set in,” the 14-Test, two-time Kangaroo said. “He was 92 when he died but he was a very healthy man until he got Alzheimer’s which brought him undone over seven years.
“It is a terrible thing. And dementia doesn’t get enough publicity. When you’re personally affected by it, you get to understand what a terrible disease it is.
“Dad was in a nursing home and he became really abusive and wouldn’t let people near him in the end and you feel for people who are so caring and try to look after him. They just become different people and can’t help it. They can’t remember what they have said or done.
“There has to be more awareness about it and as soon as I saw Royce’s situation and what he wanted to do with the walk, I was aboard straight away.”
Miles first came across Simmons as a State of Origin opponent in 1984 when the Panthers legend debuted for the Blues. Ben Elias gained the jersey in 1985 before Simmons prized the Blues hooking spot from Benny Elias held the jersey for eight games straight from 1986-88 with the more flamboyant Elias always breathing down his neck.
His pinnacle season was 1986 when he played 10 successive Test matches against Papua New Guinea (one), New Zealand (three), Great Britain (three) and France (two) and held Elias at bay during the Kangaroo tour to Britain and France. Miles was in the centres alongside Brett Kenny in all those Test matches and Lewis was five-eighth and captain.
“I played against Royce in Origin and had so much respect for how tough and reliable he was,” recalled Miles. “And as mates, we just hit it off because I suppose we’re alike in many ways, just down to earth blokes from the country who enjoy a beer and a punt and a laugh. He played for Australia and drank for Australia too!
“Benny was at his peak then but Royce kept him at bay that year in all the Test matches because he’s just such a determined bloke and didn’t want to give the jersey up. He played it tough in the toughest part of the field and just kept turning up for you.
“After the Test squad was picked to face the Kiwis we had a four or five-day camp and we struck up a friendship quickly and it continued on the Kangaroo tour. We’ve been friends for life ever since.
“He was the perfect tourist, I tell you.
“And if there is any mate you want to help when he needs it, it’s Royce Simmons. I’m not surprised so many teammates and opponents, and the public too, have come out to support him in this because he would have been the first bloke to put his hand up if the boot was on the other foot.
“That’s one of the special things about footy; we’re there for each other even decades after we laced a boot in the same sheds.”
Miles and Immortal Lewis will fly from Brisbane to support their little mate, showing that interstate rivalry means little when it comes to great causes. With them will be ‘Gilly’, who played against Simmons in the 1987-88 Origin series and in club football.
They will walk the 29km leg from Katoomba to Faulconbridge on Thursday, alongside Great Britain’s legendary prop James Graham, which is the day before Royce and his family complete the journey by walking into Bluebet Stadium in the lead-up to the kick-off of the Panthers-Cowboys NRL clash.