A SIMPLE red couch quickly became an important part of the furniture at Camberwell Sports Ground, home of the Camberwell Magpies.
On warm Saturdays, just a few summers ago, players would carry the sofa outside from the social rooms before their weekly Premier Cricket match.
Paceman Mark Dwyer would lie on that couch, next to teammates waiting to bat or near the race if the home side was bowling, and watch the Magpies play.
The 28-year-old was seriously ill battling debilitating Crohn’s Disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease.
He visited a doctor in May 2009 after experiencing fevers as well as discomfort when sitting.
The pain Dwyer has endured in the years since feels like “having an open wound and a sharp knife dragged across it whenever you move”.
Naturally lean and athletic at 88kg, Dwyer’s weight plummeted to 68kg at his lowest point.
During three months in hospital, teammates re-named him Jesus referring to the long beard Dwyer didn’t have the energy to shave and the shaggy hair that hadn’t been cut for six months.
More than 20 operations later, Dwyer played for the Magpies in a quarter-final against Prahran at the weekend, the club’s first First XI final in eight summers.
Illness aside, Dwyer’s return to senior cricket after two years represented more than just a triumph.
Dwyer received a senior call-up last November when star quick Andrew Fekete was away working in Darwin.
But, when he arrived at Princes Park, the one-day clash with Carlton was washed out.
Dwyer made way for Fekete the following round but starred in the seconds with a career-best 8-48 and 73 not out.
Not renowned for his batting, Dwyer’s previous best Second XI score was just 28.
He came straight into the senior side to play Casey-South Melbourne the following round, took three wickets and held his spot for the next game against Essendon, the last game before Christmas.
But, come January, Dwyer was dropped again only to respond with 4-50 back in the twos.
Fekete’s season came to a premature halt when he fractured his foot while bowling on debut for Victoria.
Dwyer was back in the side for a two-day clash with Hawthorn-Monash Uni in late February.
The struggling Hawks produced an out-of-the-box performance, rattling up 367.
The Magpies, requiring victory to secure a finals berth, had to chase down more than 360 for the second time in a fortnight.
Unfortunately, Dwyer fell ill days before the match, going off his food and feeling uneasy in the stomach.
He decided to play no matter what.
“I was sitting waiting to bat and was a bit uncomfortable, so I had to sort of sit on my side and then stand up and lean against the fence,” he said.
“It played on my mind a bit, I thought I was re-lapsing and I’d probably have to do something about it.”
Dwyer, boasting a highest First XI score of just 10, went to the crease and, with other games finishing early, players spilled back to Camberwell to watch the final stages of the tense run chase.
“It was good to get out there because I didn’t have time to worry about it, the game was in the balance and I was calculating what we needed to win,” he said.
“Jack McNamara and I put on 50. We needed 12 from eight and I hit a boundary so it came down to eight off seven balls then Jack was out last ball of the second last over.
“I managed to nick one past the keeper for four, then another single, then James (Pearson) got one.”
With Dwyer on strike, the Magpies needed two runs from three balls for victory.
“I got the bowler flush in the chest and it came back at me and I thought it might not be our day.
“But, next ball, I hit it over mid-off for four.
“I didn’t think it had gone over the bloke’s head but from where the boys were sitting they saw it go over before I did.
“A cheer went up and James gave me a big hug.
“To do that in front of everyone was amazing.
“You dream about hitting the winning runs.”
Dwyer finished unbeaten on 37, but that winning feeling quickly turned on its head as illness, once again, gained the upper hand.
“I was the last to leave the club that night and I spent a bit of time in the showers, just sitting there thinking,” he said.
“I was worried if I went to the hospital to get checked out how long I’d be off work and away from the club.”
By Tuesday, Dwyer had been admitted to emergency and underwent surgery on Friday to drain out an infection.
“I got out that night and the Saturday was a wash out, so I was happy I’d held my spot,” he laughed.
Dwyer trained lightly the next week and watched the final-round clash against St Kilda at the Junction Oval, going for a run during the innings break.
Back at Camberwell that night, he bowled a few overs and got the nod from coach Shannon Young for the quarter-final.
Dwyer missed the entire 2009-10 season before making his return through the Third XI last summer.
A contentious subject at the selection table, he narrowly escaped omission from the grand final side but went on to take five-wickets in the loss to Melbourne.
Over the past few years Magpies’ players, coaches and officials have been regular fixtures at the hospital and Dwyer’s home, often visiting in groups around training sessions or games.
When a dietitian told Dwyer to eat fatty foods in a desperate bid to gain weight, teammate Sam Parker would sneak burgers and chicken nuggets into the hospital under his team jacket.
Other players and their parents would take Dwyer out for the afternoon, while former president Russell Thomas provided on-going support to his parents.
Dwyer described the camaraderie as phenomenal.
“There wasn’t a day in hospital where I didn’t have a visitor,” he said.
“You wake up and your day is medication at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight and waiting for surgery or MRIs.
“They all helped me through it.
“I’d lay there staring at the roof wondering what it would take to get better, so someone coming in, just for an hour, would make my day.”
And, the odd afternoon lounging on a red couch watching Magpies didn’t hurt either.
Crohn’s Disease causes inflammation of the bowel wall and may involve any part of the digestive tract.
The cause is unknown and, if not diagnosed early and treated properly, it can lead to multiple surgeries and a reduced quality of life.
More than 70,000 Australians have the condition – more than multiple sclerosis, epilepsy or rheumatoid arthritis.