Eels Farewell a Legend
This December, as retiring Education and Welfare Officer Kevin Wise prepared for his last day in the Parramatta Eels’ offices, his phone lit up constantly with calls and texts from the staff, coaches, players and families who know him from his decades at the club.
It’s no surprise for a man who has been part of the Eels family for more than 30 years, starting out in 1984 before joining in his first official role in 1987.
In those first weeks, Wise found a club with just a handful of full-time front office employees, the kind of place where it was a rite of passage for staff to sit behind the reception desk for a week to really learn the ins and outs of the footy club they’d agreed to become part of.
But stepping into reception was just one of the countless roles Wise took on for the Blue and Gold: from coaching the Eels Harold Matthews and SG Ball sides, to selling season tickets, to ‘house father’ for juniors living away from their families, to reserve grade manager, first grade co-ordinator or compiling annual reports, conducting medicals, even – in the very early days - mowing the fields at Parramatta Marist where the lower grades trained. It’s a place he remembers hearing jokingly described in the eighties as ‘the Kevin Wise Oval’.
And as Kevvy packed up his office, he filled one cardboard carton entirely with VHS tapes of players who he’d taken under his wing as a house parent for the Eels.
There were videos of first-grade appearances from Nathan Hindmarsh, who credits Kevvy with teaching him how to do a proper chin-up for the first time.
Andrew Ryan, who every night carefully laid out his meals for the next day on the corner of the Wises’ dining room table: three drink bottles, six sandwiches wrapped in three packages, three pieces of fruit.
Jamie Lyon, the ‘special talent’ who could never remember to wash his training gear instead of leaving it on the laundry floor.
Luke Burt, who still laughs when he remembers the pig-shooting trip Wise and Noel Cleal took him on when he first signed with the club. Thanks to a bump in the surface of a paddock up near Grave’s End, Wise toppled from the back of the ute tray and returned to Parramatta missing a small portion of his pinky finger.
Wise (at left) with the Eels' 1991 SG Ball side after their Grand Final win
Over the course of 13 years, the qualified teacher, his wife, Lin, and their family saw enough young players come into their home in Western Sydney to fill five footy teams.
They were providers, protectors, motivators, and steady, caring influences in more than 75 kids’ lives. And when necessary, they were stern, too.
In the case of Jamie Lyon, faced with the crumpled pile of blue and gold kit each afternoon, Wise simply loaded the washing machine, washed, dried and folded the gear, and placed it neatly in a box in the far back corner of the Wandella Avenue garage.
Five full boxes of clean laundry later, Lyon realised the ‘thief’ was house father Kevin Wise and the lesson was clear.
And in the case of Nathan Hindmarsh, who didn’t always stock his own pantry once he moved out on his own, the door to the Wises’ home - and fridge - was always open.
Luke Burt says you could sit for a lifetime and listen to Kev talk about the pride he takes in each and every one of those young players: the players who cracked first grade, the players who became teachers, the young men who started their own businesses.
“He has a thousand stories,” Burt says.
“He’s one of those guys who stayed young because he related to the young kids so much. He is deadset one of the smartest men I’ve ever seen, and his knowledge on Parramatta is unbelievable.”
“He’s just a quality person.”
Former Eels general manager, Greg Mitchell, says Wise’s influence didn’t stop with the players that he coached and hosted.
“He related not only to the players but to the parents that were supporting the players,” Mitchell says.
“The little things, which were so much a part of Parramatta culture that Kevin introduced, they were lasting. Like the provision of a meal after a match as a collective, the group would get together and have beautifully prepared chicken and a drink and really round off the day of competition with camaraderie, win or lose.”
“Little things like that set the culture that other clubs aspire to.”
“Those boys always left in better shape personally, and inevitably in their football, than when they arrived. He provided a very stable and caring environment for any of the players who lived with him and he took the interest of the boys beyond what might be expected.”
(L-R) Kevin Wise, Brett McKenna and Joey Grima celebrate with the Wentworthville Magpies after the 2008 Grand Final
Mitchell points to the teamwork of Wise and Cleal, and the steady influence of Wise as key to the Blue and Gold's competitiveness in a range of grades during his 11 years at the club.
“To have that recruitment success, it was all about the culture of the club and Kevin was integral in that.”
“He has that ability to work across generations that is not always easy. He’s been able to march across generations with dignity and understanding, and that brings a lot of stability to a club.”
Kaye “Aunty Kaye” Fitzhenry describes Wise as a gentleman, and Eels premiership-winning Captain Steve Edge defies anyone to sum him up better.
“What more can you say?” Edge says.
“He really is just a perfect gentleman. He’s a Parramatta man through and though; loves his football, his family loves the football and it’s been his life. He'll never let you down - you gave him a task and it was done.”
“He is just a champion bloke.”
But Eels Head of Football Operations Daniel Anderson says Wise could also be a “tough bastard” at times as a coach, and unfailingly honest.
Wise admits Ando is on the money when it comes to honesty.
“Growing up, my parents were such that I just had to tell them the truth. Tell the truth and you’ll be so much better off. And I’ve lived by that,” Wise says.
“Andrew Ryan told me that when the boys’d done something wrong I’d always make them sit at the table and tell them honestly.”
It’s the same quality Wise admires in Eels Head Coach Brad Arthur, a player Wise also coached in 1991 in the victorious Eels SG Ball side.
“It was a breath of fresh air coming back in November  and seeing Brad Arthur in the place.”
“I think he’s straight up, doesn’t say one thing and mean anything else. What you hear is exactly what he thinks.”
In recent years, Wise’s work in welfare and education at the Eels has included a literacy program for young rugby league players, which he cites as one of the projects he has been most passionate about in his career.
It’s also proof that his capacity to motivate and connect with young people hasn’t changed.
“I often wonder why, when I’m in my sixties, I still have a good relationship with the players,” Wise says.
“I don’t know what it is; I just had a great relationship with young people, even back when I was a teacher.”
The literacy program has added even more faces to the network of young Eels players Wise has supported and encouraged, from his days as a junior grade coach, to house parenting, through to his work with players on education, public speaking, literacy and career training.
And looking back on his decades here in Parramatta, Wise says the highs and lows both stand out.
“I’ve loved my time here, there’s been tough times and easy times but I always found that the time I was here, in everything I’ve done, I’ve been supported.”
“My biggest disappointment is probably that I’ve never seen this club win an NRL Grand Final. And then probably one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done here was time at Wenty [Wentworthville Magpies], making that connection from Parra to Wenty and winning the NSW Cup in 2008.”
“I think the club’s in a real good position going forward. It’ll be difficult, but I think I’m ready.”