This Origin legend won’t die quietly
WHEN the first State of Origin game kicked off earlier this season, one of its legends was lying in a Central Coast private hospital bed preparing to die.
It takes a lot to stop commentating cult hero Darrell Eastlake in his tracks, but a combination of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and emphysema has flattened the big man who became part of sporting folklore for his outrageously colourful commentary of State of Origin and Olympic weightlifting.
Sadly, as Origin celebrates its 30th season, the man who talked former Channel Nine boss Sam Chisholm into buying the broadcasting rights will be lucky to see out the year.
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The 68-year-old is fighting for his life, bedridden almost 24 hours a day in his Terrigal home, struggling on a walking stick when he does get up - and recently forced to apply for a pension to pay medical bills.
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- Eastlake: Larger than life
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His marriage broke down and he was abandoned by many of his long-time friends because of angry behaviour and heated outbursts caused by the twin evils of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The big man started his career as a Qantas baggage handler, before making surfboards, running a surfshop, getting a job doing surf reports on 2UW - and eventually becoming close enough to score an invite to Kerry Packer’s 60th birthday party.
WE meet at Eastlake’s home high up on Scenic Drive, Terrigal, with beautiful views across the beach.
It’s an emotional but not difficult interview because you don’t need many questions for Eastlake - he just talks, talks … and talks … occasionally raising his voice to the booming levels that made his broadcasting legendary.
This journalist’s job is to leave the tape recorder running and occasionally interrupt the big man to move on to another topic.
EASTLAKE has been very ill since April. The 20-schooner trips to the Terrigal Hotel are no longer. His long-term memory is good enough to give us his life story but the short-term memory is shot to bits.
“I got a blood clot in my leg about 12 months ago - it gave me hell,” he explains. "I was on massive doses of blood thinners. It took the best part of a year to disappear, but it left me really weak and lethargic.
"Then I came down with this memory thing and the doctor at the hospital rang the RTA and said Darrell has to hand his licence in, he can’t drive.
“That really hurt me because I’d driven all my life in race cars and all that. I got really frustrated and I must have seen four or five of these brain specialists and memory specialists.”
His wife, Julie, is back living at home and joins us for the interview.
“We went to this place that tests his memory,” she says. “They’d say three or four words to him and they’d ask him again what the words were.” Darrell interrupts her to add: “I failed almost every one of those tests.”
EVEN as his condition deteriorated, Eastlake refused to go to hospital. If he was going to die, it would be in his own bed, in his own home. Eventually he had no choice.
“I couldn’t breathe and it scared the s … out of me,” he says. "I got down there to hospital and I was an absolute mess.
“They had to carry me into the toilet. I had oxygen going through me all the time. If I didn’t, I’d have been choking for air when I got back. I was just a mess and I s … myself in the bed. I had to wear a nappy.”
I ask him about the rumours he was dying.
“Yeah, yeah I didn’t think I’d get out,” he said.
"There were three others in the room around me. Blokes would get up and wander down halls. I said, ‘geez there’s no way I can end up like that and I won’t end up like that and I’m going to fight that forever’.
"They were vegetables, just vegetables. They didn’t know what they were doing.
“It gave me the motivation to get my act together and get out of the place.”
EASTLAKE has been home for a month now and doctors have prescribed him with medication to control the terrible mood swings that forced Julie to leave for two months earlier this year.
“I was terrible with the abuse and my wife just got up and left,” he says. “Never physical, but verbal stuff that was out of order. It was my sickness causing it.” Julie says: “Yeah, Darrell would blow up about absolutely nothing. He does tend to, because his short memory is so bad. He embellished on stories when he didn’t even realise he was doing it.”
For weeks earlier this year, this once powerful and healthy surf-lifesaver looked a tragic and lonely figure as he roamed the streets of Terrigal with unkempt shoulder-length hair and a beard almost down to his chest. “I used to say to him you look like a bum on a park bench,” Julie says.
"Darrell, being a beautifully clean, statuesque bloke on TV, he’d shuffle around town and put his wallet down somewhere and couldn’t remember where, or he’d lose the groceries somewhere.
“That’s how sick he’s been.”
Then, as she broke down and cried towards the end of the interview, Julie added: "It’s breaking my heart to see the man that I married, to see he’s not that man anymore.
“Darrell’s trying so very hard but he’s not going to get better with this dementia and he knows that.”
Sadly, many of his old friends from what he used to call “my office” - the Terrigal Hotel - are no longer part of his life.
“Not one of them has contacted me since I got crook,” he says.
EASTLAKE says Channel Seven broadcast the first game 30 years ago because nobody else wanted it.
“We went up and watched [Rex] Mossop call when it was only one game played,” he explains.
"Mossop ended up becoming a good friend of mine. He was very kind to me.
"When Beetson lays one on Cronin, I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, I came back and saw Sam Chisholm and he said, ‘Mate, what do you think?’ I said, ‘I think this is going to be a great series. If the club blokes start punching the s … out of each other, it’s going to be a war’.
“So I said, ‘it’s state against state, mate against mate’. And it stuck. It became the catch phrase. Channel Seven had seven cameras up there, Hilly and Morelli had a good look at that and we went in the next year and had 22 cameras around the ground.”
GET big Darrell started on former weightlifting champion Dean Lukin and he’ll talk all day.
“Oh, yeah, Deano lives on the Gold Coast. He got sick of tuna fishing and the family bought him out and he made lots and lots of money,” he says.
“But he lost so much weight I couldn’t believe it. Like two-thirds of his body weight. He ran a marathon, then dyed his hair blond. He said I’m sick of looking like a big fat Greek. Mate, he was a man’s man. The girls used to love him.”
“OH, mate, I loved [working with him],” Eastlake says. "Mate, he was a brilliant man.
"A lot of our stuff was rehearsed, but nobody knew. He’d say to me, if Garry Jack drops a high bomb, come straight to me. So I’ve gone, ‘Oh look at Garry Jack, he never drops the ball! He’s the safest fullback!’
“Jack comes in and says, ‘It’s a hell of a time to have a board meeting’. That was all rehearsed between us. Ettingshausen being so fast he could turn the light out and be in bed before it was dark and Peter Sterling kicking into the seagulls. They were classic Jack lines.”
ALTHOUGH he used to refer to Eastlake as “boofhead”, Packer had a real liking for the commentator who covered rugby league, the British Open golf, sport for the Today Show, international car racing, Olympic weightlifting, winter Olympics and co-hosted Wide World of Sport.
“I’ll never forget one day he came to a football meeting,” Eastlake says. "Ian Maurice and I were calling together then. He said, ‘Listen blockhead’ - that was Maurice - ‘you’re about as exciting as a dead f … ing mullet. This bloke is carrying you all the way’.
"He says to me, ‘Listen, boofhead’ - he called me boofhead all the time. He said, ‘I know when a high kick is a towering punt, I want that out. And I know when a five-eighth and a halfback run around it’s a run-around’.
"But I thought he was a wonderful man, he did some wonderful things. Jamie [Packer] used to come out with me when he was about 17 and he’d come up in the commentary box. He wasn’t interested in television.
"I ended up getting a start at [Kerry’s] 60th birthday party.
“He invited every major player in the world, like Viv Richards and Botham, and anybody who was anybody was there.”
HE has wonderful memories from more than 20 years of broadcasting that started with the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982, when he was given his chance by David Hill, now the boss of Fox Sports in the US.
"David had a relative in Newcastle and he heard a call and watched a sports show I used to do, " he says.
"He rang me and said, ‘Mate, I’d like you to come with Channel Nine to the Commonwealth Games’. I said that’d be wonderful. So I get up there and the two guys that picked me up were Mike Gibson, the sports writer, and Ian Chappell, two of my heroes. I s … myself. I had an NBN blazer on and they’re in board shorts and T-shirts and they said get out of that ridiculous stuff.
"They took me out to the hotel and Hilly introduced me around and I said, can I ask what sport I’m going to be doing and Hilly said weightlifting. I said, ‘Mate, I’ve got no idea, I’ve never seen weightlifting before’ and Hilly said, ‘You’re gonna be all right. I’ll go through the rule book with you’.
"So I get out there and there’s 14 commentators from around the world, and a bloke I didn’t know at the time, David Vine, who was one of the premier broadcasters of sport.
"I start really loudly, calling blokes power packs, mini battleships and all that stuff. But this David Vine takes me outside and he said, ‘Mate, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Mate, we call it the gentleman’s sport’.
“I said well that’s how I call the football games and that’s what I’m going to do. So I rang Hilly and go, 'Mate, I’m copping some s … out here and Hilly said, ‘Mate, the bloody rooms here are riveted, you’re gonna turn this sport upside down’. And we did turn it upside down.”
But not everyone at Channel Nine was his mate.
“Gary Burns was the biggest c … - he rang here yesterday but I refused to talk to him. He hated me that much, but he couldn’t sack me. I was very popular at Nine, very popular. They used to put all the old footage on, and he never included any tries I called.”
THE OLD WAYS
TO this day, Eastlake has never used a computer, which I discover when I offer to email him some photos.
“I’m still learning the mobile phone,” he laughs.
"I turned up for the Winter Olympics one year like an old dinosaur with my typewriter, while all the other media were working flash new computers.
“They were looking in my direction as though there was something wrong with me. That’s what I was like. I never used cue cards or anything. I just went for it.”
EASTLAKE has applied for a pension to help cover huge medical expenses. His superannuation is almost gone and he may have to sell his home to keep going.
“The house is my super - I reckon it’s worth $2.5 mil,” he says.
"I suppose my life is in the hands of the doctor, but I’ve got a lot of faith in him. He’s turned me around in four weeks from a vegetable, physically and mentally, to what I am now and what you see today.
“I’m not ready to die.”
Very sad to see, my Mum’s Aunty and Uncle both have dimentia/Alzheimer’s and its very sad to see their once great minds slowly disappear. All the best Darrell!!! An Origin legend! :master: