House Heroes: Dead man walking

At 72, Cliff Atkinson has more life and vitality than many people half his age – so why the nickname ‘Dead Man Walking’?

In December 1998, the North Sydney United striker had a major heart attack while in Melbourne for work, missing not only his flight home but also his game the following day.

By the time he was out of hospital and had returned to Sydney, the story of his “death” had taken on a life of its own.

So much so that when he turned up for pre-season training in late February, his teammates were shocked to see him alive and kicking.

And so the nickname “Dead Man Walking” has stuck ever since.

“Fortunately for me, I was 150 metres from Royal Melbourne Hospital (when the heart attack happened),” Cliff tells The House of Wellness TV team.

“Three or four days afterwards the surgeon came around and said, ‘Mr Atkinson, have you got anything you’d like to ask?’

“And I said, ‘Yes, will I be able to play football after this?’ He said, ‘Of course, of course.’ And I said, ‘Good, because I couldn’t before!’”

It’s this sort of cheeky humour that has made Cliff, or ‘Cliffey’, an inspiration among his teammates and a legend at the club where he now plays in the over-45 team and where this year he lined up for his 34th consecutive season.

His nickname has proved so popular that every year he wears a new shirt with it emblazoned on the back, along with his age.

Making the most of every day

With statistics showing one in 10 Aussies over the age of 50 don’t exercise enough to gain any cardiovascular benefit, and that fitness is important to recover from illness and reduce the risk of disease, Cliff says he’s grateful for every day.

“When I eventually did come back to Sydney they told me, ‘Don’t be a coronary cripple, get out and do what you’ve been doing’, and so I did,” says the investment banker, who is among the oldest registered soccer players in Australia.

“I’ve had nearly 70 years now (on the field) because I’ve been playing since I was six or seven. Everybody wonders, ‘Why are you still playing when you’re 72?’, and I think why wouldn’t I, I’m no good at golf!”

My philosophy is that a job is not a life; a career is not a life; a flash car is not a life; a big house is not a life – living is a life!

While he’s not as fast as he used to be, Cliff says there’s life in his legs yet.

“I’ve got a number of trophies as the leading scorer of the season and I believe I’m the leading goal scorer or all time in north Sydney,” he grins.

“But as we say in the game, good old footballers never die, they just go to fullback. I’ve reached fullback – now there’s only goalkeeper left!”

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