In his own words, Michael Rowland is a ‘Johnny-come-lately’.
He didn’t grow up in AFL heartland and didn’t fall in love with the game until after the age of 40. But now, the veteran ABC journalist bleeds red, white and blue.
Rowland has become a fully-fledged Western Bulldogs tragic since returning from the United States to co-anchor ABC News Breakfast when it launched midway through 2010.
Before then, the 51-year-old had spent five years working as a Washington correspondent, where he covered Barack Obama’s history making election campaign, the global financial crisis and David Hicks’ release from Guantanamo Bay.
After growing up around rugby league and rugby union in Sydney’s inner-west, it wasn’t until Rowland, his wife, Nikki, their son, Tom, and daughter Eleanor returned from America and settled in Melbourne that our game became an integral part of his life. And it was all because of a then five-year-old, who unlike his old man has grown up in the Doggies’ heartland.
“We came back in the middle of 2009 with a five-year-old son and we moved back to our place in Yarraville. Our son started going to primary school and doing Auskick and, of course, we were right, smack bang, in Western Bulldogs territory,” Rowland told westernbulldogs.com.au.
“It was largely through him that I got into the AFL culture and started following the Dogs. I’ve been a passionate supporter since 2010 and it has continued for the last decade.
“The ritual of going to Etihad – as it was known then – on a Saturday afternoon, we really got in the spirit of the Bulldogs and got to know the players. I’ve really enjoyed being a member and supporting the team through the ups and downs of the last decade. We have really seen both sides of the coin.”
Most fathers and sons can relate to this, from kicking the footy in the street before dinner to going to the footy on the weekend to talking about footy every morning and every night.
Not long after Michael and Tom started becoming obsessed with football, a moment at a football clinic cemented their shared love for the Western Bulldogs and for two skippers; one past and one present.
“Tom used to play for North Footscray. It was 2014 and the Dogs send players down to clubs and schools, which is something I love,” he said.
“Bob Murphy rocked up and he was already a mega star with the Dogs, of course. There was this tall, gangly teenager standing behind him and it was Marcus Bontempelli, who had just been drafted to the Dogs.
“I’ll always remember that night. He did the drills with the kids. Bob did all the front of house stuff, spoke to all the kids. Bont was just there in the background and was quite shy. I always recall that moment. My son remembers that too. It is amazing to see how Bont has grown as a player. It is a nice memory to have on a very chilly night.”
Before Rowland became one of the faces of the ABC – and before he became a rusted-on Bulldogs supporter – he couldn’t have timed his run in Washington any better.
“In hindsight, it was a great time to be there as a journalist because there was a lot going on. I got to cover the election of Barack Obama in 2008 which was a huge campaign to cover. It was history making as well, of course, given he was the first black American president. I got to travel around the country a lot following him and his republican opponent, John McCain,” he said.
“I love politics of all description – Australian, American, whatever – so it was a great for me as a politics junkie. I got to travel around America doing lots of different stories; some serious, some less serious. It was a really good journalistic experience and life experience.”
One of the most memorable moments of Rowland’s professional career since then was when long-time Western Bulldogs president Peter Gordon made an appearance on his breakfast television program less than 48 hours after the club ended its 62-year premiership drought in 2016.
“One of my highlights in the ten years of doing this job was the Monday after the Grand Final, getting to cradle the premiership cup on the couch,” he said.
“Peter Gordon brought it in. We chatted to him about the win and I had the Bulldogs scarf on. From memory, Peter had to wrench the cup out of my hands; I didn’t want to let it go. It was an awesome experience.”
Rowland has dissected the implications of the coronavirus pandemic as closely as anyone on a daily basis since COVID-19 became part of our everyday vernacular.
The veteran presenter doesn’t think the game will be the same this year played behind closed doors, but believes the return of football will provide the community with a significant boost after a difficult few months across not only the AFL industry but the entire world.
“It is going to be interesting. It will be challenging. It is not the same without crowds. We all saw that in Round 1. But will be great to see football back,” he said.
“You certainly miss something without the atmosphere from the crowd. We live in unusual times. We’ve just got to suck that up.
“The AFL deserves a lot of credit in taking its time to get the game up and running as it needs to in terms of safety and health. I can’t wait for the first game back. It will be different, but it will be great. I think it will give a lot of people something to look forward to after what has been a really challenging few months.”
Rowland hopes he’ll get the opportunity to whip out his scarf on air again later this year. But for now, he is just keen to watch his beloved Dogs run out again. One step at a time.