The boots worn by the North Queensland Cowboys favourite son, Matthew Bowen, have been hung up a few years now, but the spell he cast over the region of North Queensland lives on and is the stuff legends are made of.
The magic of Matty ‘Mango’ Bowen was so great that from my lounge room in Sydney, some 2,000km away I not only fell in love with the way he played the game, but he started my love affair with the Cowboys, and though we are separated by distance, they are a community that I consider my family.
To be fair, looking back on it Cowboys colours were always in my destiny. Even before I saw the brilliance that was Matty Bowen.
My family used to holiday for a month in North Queensland every year when I was a kid. My parents would pack the Tarago, throw my older sister, my twin brother and I in the back of the car and we would drive and drive.
We would make stops along the way in places like Bundaberg, Rockhampton and Mackay but our eventual destination would be Townsville. We'd spend a few nights in town at different restaurants along the boardwalk and nestle into the chairs while mum and dad had a wine and we would talk about the best parts of the day and plan the following day's adventures.
My sister, my brother and I would usually be curled up asleep in our chairs before the end of the night; a mixture of too much sun, full bellies and the salty warm air of the ‘Ville acting as the perfect blanket.
When the Cowboys joined the competition in 1995, I was only 11 years old. While dad now had a reason to follow rugby league (he is a Pom, so we were born and bred on soccer), every spare second of my life was taken up with netball. I didn't have much interest in a sport that women did not feature in, but there was one night when I was about 18 when that all changed.
I was sitting with dad on the lounge and I was about to go out with friends. Dad casually said 'watch this little fullback for the Cowboys, he is lightning quick.' As I waited for my lift, I sat and watched the game with dad, my eyes firmly fixed on the smallest player on the field, the number 1 for the Cowboys.
Dad was not wrong in his assessment and as I watched, I became more and more transfixed. He was ducking and weaving, making an impact on broken plays, left foot, right foot step – blink and you missed him! Any time he touched the ball you felt like anything was possible.
For the first time I was excited watching a sport other than netball and I was intrigued by this little fullback they called Matty Bowen.
From that moment on I made it my mission to learn all I could about the Cowboys. Dad and I would watch games together and he would give me the run down on who was who and what was what.
From our family home in North Ryde, Sydney, some 2,071km away from the action Townsville, we felt right at home supporting the Cowboys. There was never an option that there would be another team, and certainly not after I fell in love with the flair and skill of Matty Bowen.
That was many years ago now and living in Sydney, I have copped plenty of flack for supporting a Queensland team (I also support them in Origin) but it has never bothered me because I was always proud to support the team that Matty Bowen played for. It was as simple as that.
He was a player who wanted none of the fanfare, but the player responsible for so much of the success the club had. He is a HUGE reason JT put his name to paper with a Cowboys contract and for years we were spoilt with a JT/Bowen combination that has to be some of the best highlight packages the NRL has to offer.
Matty Bowen played 270 glorious games for the Cowboys with his last game being against the Wests Tigers in 2013. Bowen ran out onto the field with his two little kids and the noise of the crowd was incredible, they were on their feet for him.
I was crying before the game even began. My husband (a staunch Tigers supporter) even wore a Matty Bowen t-shirt that night with me as we watched it on the tele.
We walloped the Tigers that night with Bowen scoring two tries and even converting one. It was the most fantastic send-off to win at home in front of his army of loyal fans, some who had happily travelled hours to games to watch him play every week, much like his own family would.
At the end of the game he ran to the stands and hugged a group of kids, a moment that truly sums up Matty Bowen. A player for the people, a big kid at heart and absolutely idolised by young fans.
Matty Bowen was and still is everything that I love about rugby league. He was a home-grown talent who just wanted to play footy and who inspired countless young boys and girls to pick up a football and play themselves.
He did more for the game and for the region of North Queensland than he will ever know. He is an absolute legend of the Cowboys family, and rightly so. He was humble in his talent and honest with the football, he made the impossible look easy.
I was lucky enough to watch Matty Bowen play both at our old home ground and at games in Sydney, each time just grateful for the opportunity to watch a legend do his thing. The roar of the crowd at a home game when his name was called out was the stuff goosebumps are made of.
Club rosters change and players come and go, that is the nature of the beast, but if you are really lucky your club gets a player like Matty Bowen. They are the players that come about once in a generation, they are the ones who in 50 years from now, people are still telling stories about.
There are not many on-field stories about Mango that need to be embellished to spin a good yarn, but I’ve never run into a good North Queenslander who doesn’t love to give it a good crack.
So even though we have never met, thank you Matty Bowen for making the Cowboys a part of my life.