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Tony Chandler: Sharks have heart

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

The ocean may sit 200km to the east and Cronulla 808km south-east from the small suburb of Warwick in rural Queensland, yet Tony Chandler is still a Cronulla Sharks supporter at heart. His passion didn’t begin in the Shire, but like a lot of young kids growing up, parents are usually the role models and persuaders of team choice. If they go for the sharks, then you go for the sharks.

There had been a brief moment where Tony thought that maybe he would follow the Broncos, but decided to stay a loyal Sharks supporter like his father Neil. “I’m gonna follow what dad’s doing”, said Tony. His sister didn’t follow suit, and decided to support the Broncos. This resulted in the family dedicating a special trip to see her in Yeppoon, to gift her with a wooden spoon.

Nine weeks ago, 33-year-old Tony’s life changed in a split, unexpected second. “I had woken up on the ground, and I reached for my taser, thinking that I had been king hit”, said Tony, a Senior Constable in the Queensland Police Force. He had been sitting next to an incinerator trying to keep warm in Stanthorpe’s freezing conditions, logging 350 videos of body camera footage into the server. Ironically, he had been given explicit instructions to return the laptop he had borrowed, in “one piece”.

“You think you are tired after a game of footy, but I couldn’t even walk”, said Tony, who hadn’t been king-hit, but had experienced a couple of seizures, knocking him to the ground.

At St Vincent’s Hospital, his doctor stated that it may have been a once off, and that he would receive some medication to control the seizures, followed by an MRI to ‘check’ for any abnormalities. During his second night in hospital, the doctor approached Tony and said, “We have found something in the MRI, it appears to be a tumour.” Tony’s heart sunk.

Upon recalling the moment, Tony said, “That’s when the doctor pointed to ‘Terry the tumour’. About the size of a golf ball.” Tony likes to put a lot down to humour and doesn’t like to dwell on matters. In stating why he chose the name ‘Terry’, Tony laughed, “I do know one Terry and he’s a pretty good bloke, but I don’t know any other Terry’s.”

Tony’s neurosurgeon, Dr Jason Papacostas, said that there were two options to choose from. Firstly, he could monitor the tumour for six months, or he could have surgery almost immediately. After his wife, Alison, arrived at the hospital, the pair walked outside to talk. “The doctor seemed adamant that I should have the surgery tomorrow”, said Tony to his wife. After having a night to sleep on it, they called the doctor and booked surgery for three weeks’ time, so that they could prepare for the changes to come.

Over the next three weeks, Tony spent time with his wife and two young sons. They took family photographs, shared laughter and made everlasting memories. The things he should have done ages ago, but never had. He, like many people, thought that there would always be time to do those things in the future.

During a normal working week, Tony is a Senior Constable, also referred to as a General Duties Officer, and is part of the first response team. He says that he joined the police for the thrill of the chase, “We get a job, gather the evidence, follow a lead, and tie someone down to it”, laughing, he continues, “Catch baddies and lock ‘em up.”

Jamie Deacon, Officer-in-Charge at Warwick Police Station, describes Tony as the “absolute dream. He’s not a difficult man to be the boss of at all. He’s up there with the best workers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. A likeable larrikin. Always entertaining, and the life of the party, and he backs that up at work. A credit to the Queensland police.”

Jamie is also a diehard league fan, however he, surprisingly, doesn’t follow the Brisbane Broncos either, or any other Queensland Team (except the Maroons in Origin). “I was obviously a young fella, born in ‘69. Used to follow the Queensland Rugby League (QRL) with Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga and those fellas. Then, when Raiders joined the comp in ’83, a lot of players moved to Canberra and I started going for them.”

When Jamie and the station had heard about Tony’s tumour, they wondered how they could help and decided on trying to get him a signed ‘Sharks Jersey’. A dominos effect occurred when Jamie called fellow officer Mark Lyon, who called his good mate Barry Ford from Men of League Foundation Narrabri, to see if he could pull some strings.

A phone call was made to Roxanne Moates, National Wellbeing Lead, at the Men of League Foundation. After hearing the details on Tony’s condition, she sent an email to the Cronulla Sharks. Less than a week later, an Australia Post satchel arrived at the QRL head office addressed to Roxanne. Inside was a 2020 signed Sharks jersey; an item that was going to provide more than just smiles.

After arriving at Warwick Police Station, where a surprise morning tea was being prepared, Roxanne presented the signed Sharks jersey to a grateful and speechless Tony.

Roxanne didn’t expect that a jersey would arrive, let alone a signed one in such a short time frame. However, she has found that different people require different help. Many are thankful for the ‘social and emotional support’ they receive when they are found in new waters. “Sometimes all it takes is grabbing a coffee and talking about football”, she says.

Alex Biceski, Programs Coordinator for the Cronulla Sharks’ charity Sharks Have Heart, says, “Of course, you can have a jersey. By all means. We are not going to settle for a hat and a flag. No way! Kids at our holiday camps get more than that.”

The Cronulla Sharks pride themselves on upholding their three pillars: diversity, inclusivity and social impact (charitable works). Sounding like a broken record, Alex kept reiterating that it was the “least we could do.”

To some, a signed jersey is just a piece of fabric with some scribbles, to others, it is a priceless memory. When players send video messages, “It’s not a case of ‘ahhh, maybe’, but rather, ‘yes, when do you need me?’”, says Alex, “It’s built into the core foundation of the club.”

Confirming that the Cronulla sharks have hearts, Alex says, “We are all things community. We want to make our community better. We want to be there from grassroots stuff all the way up to elite level. Wherever Shark supporters are, wherever people are that love rugby league, that’s where our community is.”

Tony’s surgery was very successful, and this neurosurgeon was able to remove the bulk of the tumour. Much to the surprise of the doctors, Tony didn’t receive any of the issues that had been foreseen. He didn’t have a black eye, he had no speech difficulties, and his vision was fine. “No time for black eyes mate”, said Tony, who is thankful that he came out of it relatively scot-free. It will be two years as ‘water-boy’ until Tony is able to reunite with his mates in a player’s footy jersey, on the field. He is going to be the best water-boy possible.

Growing up, Tony’s mum, Cathy, didn’t want him to play a contact sport, so he ended up playing soccer. By 14, Tony began playing for Wattles rugby league club. However, during the final two years of schooling, an attractive substitute teacher and an AFL poster on the wall, resulted in a change of heart and a change of sport.

His newly found ‘lust’ for AFL resulted in a first game loss, followed by the season undefeated, probably showing off to the teacher. After trying to juggle AFL on Saturday’s and league on Sunday’s, his body was feeling the brunt and the bruises. So, his boss said, “Pick one”, and unfortunately, league was dropped. It was only until he joined the police force eight years ago, that Tony started playing league in the police teams’, Southern ‘Beefer’ Boars and the Queensland Police Crocs.

Tony, emotionally, said, “Thank you doesn’t cut it. I am so privileged to have my wife, family, friends and support throughout the whole ordeal. People are supporting my whole family, not just me.”

An admin officer at Warwick Police Station who had planned the surprise morning tea, prior to surgery, had gone to the local fruit and vegetable grocery store to buy some food. Tony was a coffee-buying regular, so the shop owner asked the admin officer, “Is this for Tony?” She replied, “Yes, it is”, before hearing the shop owner say, “Nup, I’m not taking your money. You can have it”. And she walked back over to the Station with platters of food.

It was now four weeks after a successful brain surgery, and Tony’s car sat idling and preparing itself for a holiday; a 4,867km journey through Queensland. Tony realised that the ‘number one’ most important thing in his life were the memories he gets to make with the one’s he loves. Something that he would have taken for granted nine weeks earlier. When it came to luggage, his wife Alison utilised her Tetris skills, since their SUV was “packed like a Prado LandCruiser with no ounce of room left”.

Tony is currently sitting in the passenger seat, probably wearing a 'bright yellow safari suit with pineapples over it'. Jamie, his boss, says that this fashion choice is “Terrible, but he rocks it”. Tony turns around to see his two sons in the backseat excitedly waiting for the opportunity to see the dinosaurs in Winton, especially the dino statue 'Banjo'. His wife Alison, in the driver’s seat, sits forever thankful that her husband is there to continue making memories with her, with them, with everyone. Family truly is number one.

It may be a stretch, but perhaps the signed Sharks jersey that he received from his mates back at Warwick Police Station and Sharks have heart, that is currently tucked away in a suitcase, comes in a close second.

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