Daryl Smith wore the Rovers number 4 guernsey with distinction in 195 games between 1972 and 1982.
On one of his infrequent visits back to Wangaratta to see a game this year, the triple premiership coach waxed lyrical about a diminutive on-baller who had knocked up getting kicks and kept boring in under the packs.
“I’m rapt in the bloke who’s wearing my old number”, he said. “He’s a beauty”.
I agree. The Sam Carpenter Fan Club has swollen considerably this season, as the little fellah has enjoyed a rich vein of form.
He has featured in the Hawks’ best players in 14 of his 18 games. And his last four performances have been outstanding. ‘Carps’ was a central figure in turning things around last Sunday, as the Rovers smothered Corowa-Rutherglen in a terrific display of old-fashioned guts.
It was inspirational stuff.
But then, Sam Carpenter has been proving an inspiration throughout his life.
If you feel the need to impress on a young Thirds hopeful how to handle adversity, he is a classic example. His is an uplifting footy story….
Sam was just an inquisitive four-year old when he was playing in his parents’ Tyabb butcher shop and caught his left arm in a mincer. His forearm, almost to the elbow, was ground away.
He can’t remember much of the accident, or the emergency helicopter flight, which took him to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where his recovery began.
“I learnt to live without it”, he says of the double-handed capabilities that he was now deprived of. “Because I was so young I have never known anything different”.
“I’ve always tried to play footy the way I like it to be played. I’ve never felt there was anything I couldn’t do or had to do differently. The game’s principally about winning the ball. I pride myself on the hard-ball stuff, especially tackling and putting my head over the ball”, he told the Age’s Stephen Reilly in 2005.
“I always thought I was a good footballer. I always felt I could keep progressing”, he said.
Sam’s dad Leigh, who has been present at a few of his son’s games this year, is a Chelsea legend and a renowned coach in the Peninsula area.
He concedes that the loss of his son’s forearm could have been a huge burden on the family, but for the way Sam embraced the challenge. “I can remember people admiring his determination and love of the game, but doubting that those qualities would compensate for his disability”, he told the Age.
“They used to say when he was very young: ‘He’ll struggle when tackling is introduced.’ When he didn’t, they’d say, when the game gets more physical he’ll struggle’. But he didn’t.”
Sam won a heap of best and fairest awards in junior grades with Crib Point and was picked up by the Dandenong Stingrays, where he again starred. He won the Best and Fairest in his second year.
He graduated to Frankston’s VFL side. Contrary to expectations, he played four senior games in his first season and became a regular in his second.
Despite the idea being floated that he may be a chance to graduate to AFL ranks, Sam was pragmatic enough to realise that it was an improbability.
His grandfather, Sonny,a colorful greyhound trainer and bookie, had begun holidaying in Corowa 50-odd years ago and it became a family tradition that continued. Sam had got to know quite a few people in town and warmed to the prospect of moving up there in 2008.
He became an overnight success with the ‘Roos and, after a brilliant season under the coaching of Peter Tossol in 2009, took out the club B &F. With 21 votes, he finished runner-up to Michael Stevens in the Morris Medal.
Romance also blossomed with a young Corowa girl, Renee Ronnfeldt.When Queensland club, Aspley conducted a raid on O &M and Goulburn Valley players, at the end of that season, Sam was one of those who felt that a season of football in the Sunshine State sounded fairly attractive.
And Renee liked the thought of a break from Corowa. So, along with his current team-mates Tyson Hartwig and Jamie Sheahan, he spent a season of footy in the QAFL. Aspley struggled big-time early-on, but after sacking the coach and enduring a bit of turmoil, they recovered to finish the year in reasonable fashion.
Sam’s own form was quite good and he finished a close runner-up to ‘Shagger’ in the B &F. But he was happy to leave the Queensland experience behind him.
He moved back home to the Peninsula, and joined his cousin, who was coaching Bonbeach. He spent the following season with MPNFL club, Chelsea, where the Carpenter name is revered.
His father, Leigh, and uncle Dale are both Members of Chelsea’s Team of the Century and Sam joined them as a Best and Fairest winner in 2012.
When he and Renee decided to return to her home town last year, Sam surprised the football world by throwing in his lot with the Rovers. Barry Sullivan had been pursuing him for a couple of years and his old coach Peter Tossol convinced him of the virtues of the Hawks.
He found plenty of work in his chosen trade as a painter and life was pretty good, as they bought a house at Corowa and rejoiced in the bush life, with regular forays to throw a line into the Murray River.
His footy season got off to a disappointing start when he copped a hamstring injury before half-time in the opening game. It took a while to get it right and he missed seven games, but he flew home to finish third in the B & F.
He and Renee welcomed young Sonny, named after his grandfather, into the world this year.
A quiet bloke, he enjoys a beer and the outdoors. He’s laid-back and has a terrific nature and has become a huge favourite of supporters and players at the Findlay Oval.
And he’s a big influence on the younger blokes, who have been impressed with his training intensity and respect the quiet words of advice he offers.
At 27, Sam has plenty of footy left in him. But earlier this season he began to feel his mortality. He has a posterior cruciate ligament deficiency in his knee and aggravated it after colliding with a Lavington player. He carried it for a while but it began to give him hell and he rested it for a week.
A cortisone injection did the trick and he came back in superlative touch.
Those who were at McNamara Reserve last week-end would recall probably the most telling of his 35 touches. In a frenetic last quarter, with the Rovers attacking continually, he swooped on the ball, lined up the goals from 40 metres out and his kick curled in beautifully for a classic major.
It was vintage ‘Carps’ and the Hawk faithful rose as one, as they sensed that the elusive number 4 had just nailed the sealer.