MARK Lanham was stunned.
Called by Essendon officials into what he thought was a Zoom meeting with representatives from Melbourne Airport, Lanham almost fell off his chair when informed he had in fact won the Ann Rulton Award for the VFLW's Volunteer of the Year.
Presented in recognition of honorary club officials who have given outstanding service to their club or football in general, Lanham has devoted a lifetime to keeping football clubs running smoothly, first at Deer Park in the Western Region League and more recently at the Bombers, where he has volunteered for the VFLW team for the past four years.
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He packs the truck in preparation for away games and returns to take care of the laundry in a labour of love the Bombers don't have the budget to pay for, with their nomination saying "he is there every week without fail and knows and supports all the players and staff wherever he can".
When Lanham recovered from the shock of the news, he said he was overwhelmed to be recognised in such a way.
"I'm so passionate about this VFL program, I love working for the girls and being there every week. It's such a pleasure to be around them, as these girls know, so it is awesome," he said.
"They're a great bunch, the staff are fantastic as well and helping the VFL boys out as well during the year and packing the van and getting it ready (is a pleasure).
"It was a pretty tough year for them with everything that went on and even for us as well in the VFLW with the stop-start season was pretty hard."
Lanham said he got involved in volunteering when he realised he could contribute more off the field than on it, and he had been made to feel like part of the family at Windy Hill and The Hangar.
"I've been involved in local footy for 20 years as football manager at Deer Park … I'd played football since I was a kid, but I was no good at football, hopeless, couldn't get a kick, so I got into helping out with team managing, running, water boy," he said.
"I came here (to Essendon) and started out doing maintenance, but one of the property guys got crook and they asked me if I wanted to take over because of my involvement with Deer Park and I had a bit of a background with it (and it) was the most amazing experience.
"As we know in football it's really hard yards, but the experience here, the club, the people around it – the people is what make it and that's what has kept me here for so long. The people are just amazing, they're really good to me (and) the club has been fantastic.
"I'm very lucky. I only play a very small part in the VFLW – we're a great team, we work really well together, everyone helps each other, there's no egos, everyone does what they've got to do. That's what I love about it and that's what makes you come back to work every day, to see these great people."
Lanham said he was close with all the players but singled out former captain Courtney Ugle and ruck Simone Nalder as great friends.
"I shouldn't pick out one, but Courtney Ugle has always been really close, she's a good mate. 'Sim' the ruckman, she's fantastic. I've got a lot of girls I've been with from day one down there who I'm still really close with … obviously teams change every year but there's still a core group who I've been involved with since day one and they're fantastic," Lanham said.
"Even when I was nominated for the staff award this year, some of the things the girls said – they all did a video on who they wanted to vote for and some of the words they said was just overwhelming that they think of me that way."