There have been unluckier AFL footballers than Tim Boyle, whose injury-blighted career took in just 31 senior games in seven seasons and ended as Hawthorn sat on the cusp of a premiership dynasty.
There have been unluckier journalists than the man who held the title of AFL columnist of the year and then completely disappeared from view.
And there are probably unluckier restaurateurs than Boyle, who spent two years finding and fitting out his pizzeria on Richmond’s Bridge Road, staking his financial future on a business that was open only a couple of months before the COVID-19 pandemic all but shut down the hospitality industry.
But not many sportspeople can claim so many misfortunes on one CV.
When I arrive at Frattelino Pizzeria on an overcast Melbourne afternoon to talk about football and restaurant life in a pandemic, Boyle has more bad news.
“I’d love to welcome you with a coffee, but the machine just broke down and so has the dishwasher,” he says, chuckling.
“Are you any good as a dish hand?”
Laughing at the absurdity of his tribulations comes naturally to Boyle.
In his second pre-season at the Hawks he flew for a spectacular mark and broke his leg on the way down.
Then came hamstring tears, the disappointment of missing the club’s 2008 premiership and the knee reconstruction that ended his career.
There followed an unconventional post-football life.
There was a master’s degree in writing and editing and Boyle combined making pizzas at a friend’s restaurant with sport columnist duties at The Age, contributing some of the smartest and most inventive writing by a former player since Brent Crosswell’s byline graced the same pages.
Then editorial budgets began shrinking.
“The things that interested me about sports writing were the things that interest me about writing in general,” Boyle explains.
“When it’s done well, the craft is in making a known thing seem new.
“I think once it’s completely gone, it will be missed.”
Now it is Boyle’s turn to play businessman in an industry under threat.
As I’m put to work thinly slicing onions, eggplants, potatoes and salami on a deli slicer, Boyle buzzes around prepping for the night’s service and ruminates on restaurant life in the time of COVID-19.
“There’s a way of manipulating all these disasters into something good,” he says.
“Restaurants have a way of constantly presenting challenges.
“But once it hits a rhythm, I start to find ways to make it difficult for myself anyway.
“There’s got to be something wrong all the time.”
For all the gloom — and a large portrait of Nick Cave behind the restaurant’s bar certainly adds to the mood of introspection — I suggest to Boyle that it sounds like a pandemic was exactly what he needed after the restaurant was heaving with diners in its first two months.
“That’s right,” he says, laughing again.
“I really needed to be put against the wall again.”
“That’s what is funny to me. In spite of myself, I made a pragmatic move and the place was immediately closed.
“That’s funny, when you’re thinking existentially about your life. But everyone is going through this.”
At the onset of the pandemic, like all restaurateurs, Boyle had to make fast and uncomfortable decisions, recalibrating his operation to takeaway only.
Casual waiting staff were let go, only one chef remains and Boyle fills most other roles.
Against his original plan for the business, he’s accepting UberEats orders, from which he loses roughly 35 per cent in fees.
On busy nights, it takes Boyle and four casual staff to keep up with the orders, and it’s keeping him afloat.
As I load the night’s toppings into their slots on the pizza-making bench, Boyle fills his custom-built Italian wood-fired oven with yellow box and sugar gum logs from Ballarat, then starts cutting and shaping uniform balls of dough.
“I know how much every one of these weighs in my hand, which is a pathetic thing to admit out loud,” he says.
What makes a good pizza?
“People are mystified by it, like some wizardry has gone on,” Boyle says.
“And it’s fashionable to make out that this is more complicated than it is.
“Because anyone could make one, the variation in the end product seems weird and inexplicable.
“It’s like starting a three-piece band: you’ve all got the same instruments, which all do the same thing, but you can end up being a bad cover band.
“If you dig far enough, you realise this applies to a lot of things in life.”
Boyle’s pizzas are a hybrid of Neapolitan and Roman style.
With the evening rush still an hour away, he makes us a capricciosa and slides it into the oven.
By 5:00pm he’s open for orders but an hour later, sound-tracked by Tom Waits, we’ve made only four pizzas.
Thankfully peak hour transpires and a few locals who found the restaurant online have walked in to place their orders in person.
Orders also ping away on a tablet screen set up for UberEats, and the attendant delivery riders are soon milling.
Boyle alternates between kneading, tossing and spreading the dough across paddles, taking phone orders, directing staff and trying to be calm about a customer bringing her dog inside.
“It’s like playing Point Blank at Timezone,” he says.
“You’re always just shooting down the next thing.”
Boyle says there are parallels between elite sport and pizza-making: periods of frenetic activity, when it’s hard to keep up, and lulls that are frustrating and boring.
Into the long silences of the latter moments sneak his thoughts about football and life.
“There are always plenty of things to talk about over pizza — existential angst about the height of one’s arc through life, and how everything after sport is a natural decline,” Boyle says.
“We’re talking about some very basic psychology, but that doesn’t make it less real.
“Having said that, not playing gives you the opportunity to actually be a person, and not just a projection, which is an irony hard to fathom.”
As the frenzied night of service comes to an end, it’s agreed that things haven’t turned out so badly after all.
Boyle says the rhythms of restaurant life and the characters therein will probably provide the backdrop for whatever writing is still to come.
After four hours stooping from a centre half-forward’s height to the pizza bench, he rolls his shoulders and stretches his back.
“One of the beauties of being busy is that it stops you from thinking,” he concludes, realising again that he’s straying into melancholy territory.
“Isn’t that sad?”