Father’s murder haunts Demons champion
"Pay up or you're off …"
The chilling death threat delivered to David Schwarz sits uneasily with him almost two decades on from the nadir of his once destructive gambling addiction.
As his punting - and his life - regularly teetered on the brink, he used to change his mobile number almost as frequently as his betting fortunes oscillated.
But those unnamed heavies whom Schwarz owed money to always knew how to find him.
Schwarz told the Herald Sun's Sacked podcast about the threat: "You are not offto Texas or anything like that. You are off to permanent sleep."
Few things have ever shaken the resolve of the one-time Melbourne star.
In a personality test he undertook for the club under then coach Neil Balme at the height of his football powers, his blinding optimism measured off the charts.
That shone throughout, despite the most traumatic of personal circumstances he had endured in his life.
As an eight-year-old, he saw his father killed before his eyes as he scrambled through a breakfast servery to escape the gunman in a motel room in Mt Beauty.
As a footballer, he underwent three knee reconstructions that almost killed his career, before resurrecting it when most doubted he could.
He rode the soaring highs and plummeting lows of a gambling addiction that saw him turnover more money in a single race meeting than most people earn in a year.
But that threatening call was a metaphoric punch to the stomach that still leaves him breathless today.
"It wasn't great," Schwarz said. "It is probably the worst pressure I have come across.
"Running out in front of 60,000 fans and having a shot at goal, that's shelling peas sort of stuff.
"(But) when you get a phone call saying, 'Pay up or you're off', that's not good."
Schwarz borrowed money and paid up. The threat disappeared. Then he carried on punting …
It wasn't until later, at his son's christening, that he was forced to make the biggest stand of his life.
DEATH OF HIS DAD
Schwarz's memories of his father are "vague", yet recollections of his death are all too "vivid".
"Mum and Dad had separated. Dad was seeing a new partner, and he (the gunman) didn't like it," Schwarz said. "He came in and took retribution.
"It is pretty vague, but some things are as vivid as waking up and seeing Dad beside you and knowing, 'This is it'. You see the gunman in the room at the front of the bed fighting with his (ex-) partner and (I remember) thinking, 'How the hell I am going to get out the door?'.
"There was a breakfast servery there. It was lucky I was small enough to get out. I went and raised the alarm to the people who owned the motel next door."
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Schwarz was only eight. Neither he nor his sister received counselling - the norm in the early 1980s - and it has only been in recent times that they have been forced to confront those traumatic memories.
"I was too young to comprehend fully, I just thought I would see Dad later on, but my sister … it affected Bec in ways that we had to deal with later on," he said. "There is no doubt we hadn't dealt with Dad's death … I think you need to do that from a professional point of view.
"We got told not to talk about it (at the time). That's how families dealt with it back then. From that point on, you learn resilience … you learn about dealing with the hand that is being dealt to you, and it was a really shitty hand."
He doesn't use his father's death as an excuse for his own excesses later in his life, even though he conceded "Dad was a punter".
Schwarz's family eventually moved to Sunbury, which he describes as "like heaven" for an active kid.
"You had two choices in Sunbury, you go down the sporting path or you go down the dickhead path."
He chose the sporting pathway, and never looked back.
Footy came easily for the immensely talented, mobile key forward in his early years at Melbourne.
He took his game to a new level in 1994 - his fourth AFL season - highlighted by a breathtaking 9.0 performance against Sydney on the eve of the finals.
"Footy was easy that year," he said. "I was fit, I was healthy, I had good belief, no matter how bad I was going.
"It was one of those days (against Sydney) when everything worked. They were going in from the boundary."
Melbourne won its first two finals and a preliminary final beckoned against West Coast in Perth.
"That was my best chance of winning a Grand Final," he recounted. "I think pound for pound we were better than (the 2000) team. It was a seriously good side."
But the Demons were hit by a West Coast steam train, losing by 65 points.
"We probably underestimated the West Coast Eagles," he said. "They bullied us … they were a bit more hardened than we were."
Still, Demons fans - and Schwarz - had every reason to believe that with an ounce of luck they could go a step further the following year.
Schwarz inherited bad knees, but couldn't have imagined their impact on his career.
"I just had dodgy knees, my Mum had dodgy knees, my sister had dodgy knees and hopefully my kids don't have dodgy knees," he told Sacked. "It's our genetics."
So when he landed awkwardly in a pre-season game in 1995, he figured it was just another hurdle to overcome.
"I went up for a mark and my leg didn't bend, and I thought 'Shit, I am in trouble here'," he said.
"They couldn't diagnose it on the spot as the leg was in spasms.
"I went away up to Lake Eildon that weekend and I just knew everything was wrong.
"I went in and got it tested and it moved about four inches. I went in for a reco and within four days of the reco, I was back up.
"Within six weeks, I was in full training. Within 10 weeks I was doing everything - no swelling, no nothing."
By Round 9, the Demons couldn't hold Schwarz back any longer. He kicked three goals in the Queen's Birthday win over the Magpies.
Then a week later his world - and his knee - crumbled again.
"I went to turn (Sydney's) Andrew Dunkley inside out, which wasn't that hard, and fell over again," he recalled.
"I knew straight away … I had guillotined it.
"I was at home the following afternoon and about 10 boys came around and they were moping about. I was like 'It's a bloody knee injury, get over it'."
The second recovery went to plan, but it was determined he would wait until the following pre-season.
The venue was Lavington Sports Oval, on the outskirts of Albury, in early 1996. The weather was 40 degrees.
"I came on at three-quarter-time in the reserves," he said. "I had gone from 107 kilos to 123, as I had only pumped weights.
"The ball came out and as I went to take off, my leg blew up … I blew my PCL, my ACL, medial, they were all torn off the bone. I had both cartilages removed and had a broken femur in three spots."
Schwarz had the security of a guaranteed contact until 1998, but in the minds of many, his career was over.
Schwarz credits surgeon John Bartlett with the physical rebuild, but he must take the credit for mental demons he banished.
He never wavered.
"(My view was) we will prove them wrong," he said. "I had about 14 pieces of surgery by the time of the reco and getting back (in Round 11, 1997).
"I was nervous because I was wearing this big knee brace.
"I got through to the finals in 1998 and thought this (brace) has got to come off. I just couldn't play scared anymore, and thankfully it didn't go again."
Schwarz's "proudest" football moment came when he won the 1999 best and fairest - a huge achievement given how much he had to change his approach to the game.
"To get back and play another five years of footy when I had been on the scrap heap, I was really proud of that."
"I could have been a lot better (without the knees). I had to change. I had to play a selfless team style of footy. I couldn't be the star of the show.
"I couldn't sit on blokes' heads nearly as much, if at all. I had to play a different role. It was a role I had to accept and I just dealt with it."
When Schwarz did his third knee, he had played 64 AFL games. But he went on to play 173 games with Melbourne, including the 2000 Grand Final loss to Essendon.
However, by mid-2002, the energy he had used up in getting back to football had exhausted him mentally.
Another off-field issue - his excessive gambling - was also consuming him.
He retired mid-season, then spent three uninterrupted days unwinding in the Mahogany Room at Crown.
"Physically, I was OK, but mentally, I had had enough," he said.
"I just think everything had come to a crescendo … with everything that had happened in my life and the gambling was getting bigger, and the footy had dropped off a bit.
"I was 29. I knew I had to get out of the club for the sake of the players. I felt as if I was taking up a spot of a player who could give more than I could give.
"I didn't want to get tapped on the shoulder. I was too proud for that to happen."
THE TIP THAT CHANGED IT ALL
Schwarz's gambling - he never punted on football - was "in overdrive" during his career with Melbourne. But it became more dangerous with most of his footy money gone and with his ability to earn big money diminished.
"The trap is when you are playing footy, you think the money is going to be there forever," he said.
"I would be turning over a quarter of a million (dollars) on a weekend. I was good at it … until I drank.
"If I won a hundred grand in the first six races, I knew I would either be at 600 grand at the end of the day or I would be at zero. That was the theory and it was a pretty shit theory, to be honest."
He never punted with Melbourne teammates, and resented being implicated in media accounts that he had been a ringleader for others who faced similar battles.
One day he turned $10,000 into $700,000. But he blocked out the huge losses.
"All good punters remember the wins, but I had a lot of bad days where you went home to bed and you are eating baked beans."
Asked about his worst day, Schwarz answered: "It's like the 2000 Grand Final, you block it out."
He had to sell some of the real estate purchased during his playing days in order to pay down significant debts.
His world changed on May 3, 2003, when he met his now wife Karen, but his punting rolled on for two more years.
On the second anniversary of meeting Karen, and on the same day their son was christened, he had his last bet.
"I had a tip at Port Augusta … we are four (lengths) in front with 200 to go," he described with clarity. "I have got $2500 each way at 10s and I am going to collect $30,000. Anyway, the horse ran through the inside running rail … it was just the perfect storm.
"I went into the house and said 'Kaz, I am giving up' and she said: 'Let's get onto it'".
In the years since, Schwarz has helped more than 100 AFL players work on their addictions.
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He is a proud husband and father of two children, he has rebuilt his life and replenished his earning capacities, through a strong media brand alongside with one of his closest mates Mark Allen.
In May this year, on the 15th anniversary of his last bet, Schwarz hosted a zoom drinks session with close mates who have helped him through his life.
"It's all about the kids now, it is all about life, and it is about moving forward and enjoying what's ahead with no baggage," he said. "When people ring me now, I don't shit myself."
Originally published as How father's murder haunts Demons champion