On Sunday, March 18th on a scorching 40 degree day at Brookvale Oval, Parramatta got absolutely destroyed by Manly in the second round of the 2018 NRL Premiership season. Destroyed, for some Parramatta fans, would be an understatement. The numbers 54 and 0 glistened on the scoreboard in the summer sun and frowns melted the faces of the Parramatta faithful who traveled to the game to watch the rivalry take place. I happened to be one of those poor buggers sitting on the hill surrounded by singing and heckling Manly fans and even though I was in absolute shock and disappointment at the thrashing that just took place in front of me, deep down in my heart I couldn't bare the thought of true disappointment. Despite the scoreboard that day, the Parramatta Eels organisation had secured themselves in my heart for many years to come. They proved to me why they are a team worth following in the most simple way - a black armband.
On the 7th October, 20 years ago, Gabriella Wehbe was born into this world. When she was born, she was the fifth child soon to grow to be one of seven. A large family, but each member carrying a heart even bigger. The Wehbe family is one to be known as kind, loving, accepting, successful, brilliant and hospitable. Today, you would add strong. The strength that this family has endured over the last few years has been admirable.
At the tender age of 16, Gabriella was tragically diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma after discovering a painful lump on her foot while participating for the City to Surf. Cancer. The diagnosis that no young girl with dreams bigger than she could even comprehend wants to receive. She had just been appointed assistant head girl at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta and was incredibly excited to finish her final year of schooling before venturing to Sydney University to study physiotherapy in hopes of pursuing a career as a physiotherapist or PD/H/PE teacher.
Aggressive chemotherapy followed the diagnoses and with the help of the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, OLMC and of course her family, she was able to complete her HSC only missing a total of approximately 3 weeks of schooling. After enduring a battle that not many could possibly imagine, she was in remission. She was cancer free and happier than imaginable. The city of Parramatta rewarded her with the Young Citizen of the Year honour due to her bravery, commitment to fight and selflessness. Despite the internal battle that she was fighting, she refused to complain. She refused to make this all about her and instead, worked tirelessly to help raise over $400,000 to help find a cure for the disease that has taken far too many lives.
Gabriella fought so hard to continue living a normal life however, tragically the cancer came back. At only 19 years old and an insanely bright future ahead of her, she passed away on the 9th of March, 2018. Despite her youth, she left an amazing legacy behind with her while many lives were rocked at her passing.
During high school, I fell into the same year group as her older sister Melissa. One of the nicest girls in the grade and insanely popular. Not the type of popular that you would see in American chick flicks however, the type of popular where you know this person is there for anyone any time. We weren't in the same friendship group however, we did have a bond. Any Parramatta fan knows the bond. You feel mutually connected to those who support the same team as you and there were many times we would pass each other in the halls in between classes or before lunch and share a quick word about the game that just passed or was approaching. It was known that Mel loved the Eels but it was even more so known that Gabbie really loved them. When she passed, throughout the floods of condolences and remembrance messages, were also some pleas to the Parramatta Eels organisation.
Round One against the Penrith Panthers was kicking off just 2 days after her passing and it seemed very far fetched and nearly impossible for any sort of tribute to be done before then but fear began to kick in for many friends because the Eels didn't have a home game until round three, 15 days later. If they were able to do anything to honour her, it had to be round 2 at Brookvale.
When I found out the news about Gabbie my heart sunk but it sunk even more when I saw what I believe was her uncle pleading to the Eels organisation to do something. In his words, he wanted the girl he loved and adored to wear a smile in heaven knowing that the team she had supported for many years cared about her just as much as she cared about them. I hopped onto Twitter and quickly sent a message to my friends over at The Cumberland Throw - an incredibly popular fan run blog dedicated to the blue and gold. I asked if they could possibly lend a hand. Without hesitation, they agreed. I messaged other friends desperately pleading for help too. I figured if enough people messaged then hopefully someone would see our desperate begs. Finally, I sent an email myself. I explained the legacy that Gabbie had left behind and the girl that she was. I knew that she was the type of person that the club would be proud to have as a fan and I just hoped there was something they could do.
During the anxious wait for a reply, I took a trip to the official Eels website in hopes that there was a form to submit. Instead, I found a small little hyperlink reading - black arm band policy. My heart sunk. "Under club protocol we are unable to assist and action any requests for players to wear Black Arm Bands in recognition of members and fans passing. These rights are heavily restricted and are reserved to past players and club officials of the Parramatta Eels." My heart sunk even more. I understood though. As tragic as any passing is, unfortunately the club is unable to honour everyone. They have to protect themselves from receiving an inundated amount of cries for help and I couldn't be too disappointed about the reasonable guideline.
For Gabriella however, they made an exception.With the help of not only Gabbie's friends and family, Parramatta fans but also NRL fans from across the board, they took notice. They wanted to honour Parramatta's Young Citizen of the Year who at the end of the day was a girl who was taken from this earth far too early.
The Parramatta Eels ran onto the field at Brookvale Oval unknowing what was about to be handed to them. They didn't know what tries would be scored or tackles would be made but with those black armbands strapped around their biceps they knew they were helping a grieving community smile even if it was just for a moment.
The Parramatta Eels ran into the field at Brookvale Oval and I watched on, proudly wearing my blue and gold jersey as a tear dropped down my face. For the weeks after, I continued to wear that jersey with pride. Despite the losses and despite the placement on the ladder I still continue to wear that jersey with pride. I wear that jersey with pride knowing that this is a team that cares about helping their fans regardless of how small the notion is.
A black armband. A simple black armband that meant so much more than the men wearing it could have ever imagined.