Stynes, James Peter ('Jim') (1966–2012), Australian rules footballer, administrator and youth worker, was born on 23 April 1966 in Rathfarnham, Dublin, the eldest of six children (three boys and three girls) of Brian Stynes and his wife Teresa (née Davey). His great-uncle Joe Stynes (1903–91) was an Irish Republican Army (IRA) man who played Gaelic football for Dublin and soccer for Bohemians. Stynes attended Ballyroan boys' national school, and aged nine played under-11s Gaelic football with the local Ballyboden St Enda's club (for which his two brothers also played). In 1979 he started secondary school at De La Salle in Churchtown. A talented all-round sportsman, he played rugby for De La Salle, Gaelic football for Ballyboden St Enda's, and ran with the Brothers Pearse Athletic Club. He won an All-Ireland minor football championship medal with Dublin (1984). Already taller than most of his contemporaries, he dominated midfield with his superb high fielding, and stood out for his athleticism and determination.
That year Stynes answered a newspaper advertisement from Melbourne Football Club, an Australian rules side, seeking talented Gaelic footballers taller than 183cm as possible recruits. Aged eighteen, he moved to Australia in what became known as the 'Irish experiment'. He had much to learn about the new game, but trained intensively and adapted well. In 1985 he played for Melbourne's under-19s and finished runner-up as their 'best and fairest' player for the season. The following year Melbourne loaned him to Prahran of the Victorian Football Association (second tier), where he played twelve games as a ruckman. Stynes finished runner-up in their best and fairest, and was named best player in the end-of-season finals. As his career progressed, the rangily built Stynes helped redefine the position of ruckman, usually a big player of limited mobility whose main task was to secure possession. With the athleticism to range all over the field and the kicking skills to score goals, he added a new dimension to the position.
He returned to Melbourne in 1987, and aged twenty made his full debut in the Victorian Football League (renamed the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990), against Geelong. He played in Melbourne's 1987 pre-season premiership winning team. In round eighteen, when another player retired, Stynes replaced him and kicked four goals, his joint highest tally for a single game. This started a streak of 244 consecutive games played (1987–98), which remains an AFL record, and was accomplished while playing with injuries such as broken ribs and torn knee ligaments. In 1987 Melbourne qualified for their first final series since 1964, but a mistake by Stynes in the dying minutes against Hawthorn cost them a spot in the grand final. Although devastated by letting down his teammates, Stynes used the incident to spur himself on and became even more determined to succeed. He was named best and fairest for the reserves. He also represented Australia against Ireland in the 1987 international rules series held in Croke Park, Dublin, playing in all three games, and helping Australia win the series 2–1.
In 1988 Melbourne reached its first grand final since 1964; Stynes was Melbourne's best player in a losing team. He also represented Victoria in state of origin football against Western Australia, the first of ten appearances at state level. The same year he earned his Bachelor of Education degree. In 1989 he played in Melbourne's second pre-season premiership winning team, and was the team's best player in its finals campaign, which ended in a semi-final loss. The following year he became Melbourne's deputy vice-captain, featured strongly in their finals campaign, and finished third in the team's best and fairest award. In the 1990 international rules series, held in Australia, Stynes played for Ireland against Australia in all three games, and helped them to win the series 2–1. In 1991 he starred as Melbourne vice-captain. His all-round skills and fighting spirit caught the public imagination, and he became the first, and still only, non-Australian to win the game's highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal, for player of the season. He was also was named in the all-Australian team of the season and again in 1993. He retired from playing in 1998, having played 264 matches for Melbourne, scored 130 goals, and won his team's best and fairest award four times (1991, 1995–7).
While recognised as one of the finest players ever to play in the AFL, it was his inspiring work off the field that endeared him to the Australian public at large. In 1994, with film director Paul Currie, he started the not-for-profit organisation Reach For The Stars (later Reach), which ran programmes for young people between the ages of ten and eighteen to promote their mental health and wellbeing and help them get the most out of life. Stynes developed the idea from memories of how outdoor activities in summer college in the Gaeltacht in Ireland had helped him as a teenager. The organisation became an enormous success, running programmes in over 500 schools and communities across Australia, and working with an estimated 500,000 young people. Stynes contributed massively to its growth, giving as many as 200 motivational talks a year, and was its CEO until 2011. His work with Reach encouraged him to write the inspirational autobiographies Whatever it takes (1996) and My journey (2012) and to co-write two children's self-help books with Dr Jon Carnegie, Heroes (2003) and Finding heroes (2006). Stynes's clear empathy with young people led to his appointment as a member of the Victorian premier's youth suicide task force in 1997. Those who worked with him in sport or charity found him a committed, enthusiastic and engaging figure, with a marked ability to invigorate the people around him.
After his retirement from playing, his close involvement with football continued. Having played both Gaelic football and Australian rules he was an enthusiastic supporter of the international rules format, and was a selector and coach for the Australian teams up to 2006. In 1998 the Jim Stynes Medal was inaugurated, awarded to the best Australian player in the international rules series. His career encouraged his two brothers to take up Australian rules: Brian Stynes played for Melbourne in 1992 in the AFL, won an All-Ireland senior Gaelic football championship medal with Dublin (1995), and represented Ireland in the international rules series against Australia in 1998 and 1999. David Stynes, who also represented Dublin in Gaelic football, played Australian rules at amateur level, helping Ireland win the Australian Football International Cup in 2002 and 2011.
Jim Stynes had long been concerned at the persistence of racism in sport, and was appointed anti-racism officer for the AFL (1998) and AFL racial vilification officer (1999). He married (2000) Samantha Ludbey; they had two children, daughter Matisse (b. 2001) and son Tiernan (b. 2005). Recognition for his sporting achievements was extensive. In 2000 he was selected in the Melbourne team of the century and awarded the prestigious Australian Sports Medal by the governor general for his contribution to the nation's sporting success. That year he became Melbourne assistant coach (until 2002), and was named Victorian of the year in 2001 and 2003. He was inducted into the AFL hall of fame (2003) and the Melbourne Football Club hall of fame (2006). In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his work with youth and contribution to Australian football. He was appointed president of Melbourne Football Club in June 2008 and immediately launched a successful campaign to remove the club from debt.
In 2009 he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, which required the removal of several cancerous brain tumours the following year. The courage, humour and dignity with which he fought his illness further enhanced the esteem in which he was held, and he was named Melburnian of the year in 2010. A television documentary, Every heart beats true: the Jim Stynes story (2010), detailing his struggle against cancer, was directed by his friend Paul Currie. In 2011 Stynes was awarded Australian Catholic University's highest honour, doctor of the university, for service to the community in the areas of youth depression, homelessness and suicide.
Surgery (and a range of alternative therapies) failed to arrest the spread of his cancer and, as his health declined, Stynes stepped down as president of Melbourne Football Club in February 2012. He died at his home in St Kilda, Melbourne, on 20 March 2012, aged forty-five. He was honoured by a televised state funeral at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on 27 March. His ashes were scattered at Sally Gap in the Wicklow mountains, where he ran as a youth. Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, paid tribute to him as a unique figure, who was 'larger than life, sceptical, iconoclastic, egalitarian and defiant' (Irish Times, 24 Mar. 2012).
After his death he was widely honoured. The Jim Stynes achievement scholarships were announced, a partnership between the Australian government, the Reach Foundation and the AFL for children of disadvantaged backgrounds. In Ireland, he was posthumously awarded the presidential distinguished service award for the Irish abroad by President Michael D. Higgins in 2012. That year the AFL introduced the Jim Stynes community leadership award, presented annually on Brownlow Medal night to a player demonstrating Stynes's sporting and personal values. In 2014 the Jim Stynes Bridge was opened over the Yarra river in Melbourne, and a statue of Stynes was unveiled on the Melbourne Cricket Ground's Avenue of Legends in the Yarra Park.