‘THE NATURAL’

He arrived in town 50 years ago, give or take a week or two.

It was back in the ‘halcyon days’ when recruits could sometimes lob – sight unseen – and ask if they could trouble you for a game of football. There was no need to mention money, accommodation or employment in his case.

The most strenuous effort that  Rovers secretary Ernie Payne expended was to reach for a pen to get his signature on the dotted line.

He was just 17, and about to start his first job, as a clerk with the Government. It was a new adventure for the lad, who came from a large, close-knit family in a nearby town.

In no time, he had settled into the Club. He had an engaging personality and soon garnered a wide circle of friends. Not only young blokes of his vintage, but everyone connected with the Rovers, who responded to his friendliness. He displayed such maturity for a kid of his age, they said.

His form on the track pleasantly surprised the coach, Ken Boyd. He was lithe and handled the ball with assuredness. Someone mentioned that he’d played in a premiership with a district club the previous season. Boyd could see that he showed promise and felt a season in the Reserves would bring him on nicely.

By mid-year he was knocking on the door of the senior side. An injury to the veteran, Brian Hallahan, gave him his opportunity and he was plonked on a wing, opposed to a wily old-stager from Wodonga,  Keith Flower.

It was a brilliant debut. His ability to glide over the top of a pack to take a mark reminded old-timers of Eric Cornelius, whose number 28 he had inherited.

But there was more to his game. He could read the play and his skills were good.

Monday’s ‘Chronicle’ raved about his performance, declaring that “until he succumbed to cramp in the last quarter, he was a key figure in the Hawks’ win over the Bulldogs.” He must have mentioned in passing, that he was a Hawthorn supporter.

The headline for the article read: ‘Yen for a Hawthorn Guernsey.’ His mates got stuck into him over that one. “Hey, you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself aren’t you ,” they joked.

At season’s end he was voted the Rovers’ Best First-Year player and now focused on his other two sports – Basketball and Cricket.

Truth be known, Basketball was probably his favourite. He was a natural and his excellent hand-eye co-ordination made him a star of the local competition and a regular inter-town rep. He was a mainstay, and heavy points-scorer for the Rovers, who were mostly comprised of footballers and were one of the top teams.

The same applied to his cricket. He was an all-rounder – batted at second or third drop and bowled medium-pace in-swingers.  He was a valuable member of the Rovers side and represented Wangaratta in the Colts (Under 21) competition.

There was no doubt that he thrived on sport. He improved in leaps and bounds in his second O&M season, culminating in a handy game on the wing in the Rovers’ Grand Final loss to Wodonga.

After a couple of years he was recognised as one of Wangaratta’s most versatile sportsmen. He loved the social aspect – playing the game hard and then settling down to talk about it over a few ‘sherbets’, sometimes finishing up in the wee hours of the morning.

He was adamant that sport was all about enjoyment. A couple of his close mates pestered him, suggested he should be a bit more fair-dinkum about it ; train harder ; make a few sacrifices. “Bugger that”, he replied. He was more than happy to get by on his God-given ability.

He headed over to Bendigo Country Week cricket one year with a group of predominantly young blokes. They were fun-loving, thoroughly enjoyed their cricket and the night-life afterwards. What a fantastic way to have a holiday, he reckoned.

He started off the series with unbeaten innings’ of 62 and 78, then made a fighting 32 in the Final, which Wang narrowly lost to Rochester. He had scored 201 runs and taken a handful of wickets for the week, to again show his mettle…….

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

By now it was late-January 1970. He had not long celebrated his 21st birthday, was captain of the Rovers cricket and basketball teams,  a member of the North-East Cup cricket team and had been selected to represent Wangaratta at Melbourne Country Week for the first time, within the next fortnight.

His was a hectic sporting life. What’s more he was keenly anticipating getting stuck into pre-season training with the Rovers , under  Neville Hogan, the newly-appointed coach.

But, more immediately, there was a trip to Corryong to negotiate. The boys were playing a Cup game against Upper Murray and had organised to travel to the mountain country at some unearthly hour the next morning. It was suggested that an early night might be beneficial.

Most thought that was a good idea, but, you could tell by the look in his eye that he deemed it near-sacrilegious to head for home when the evening was still so young.

The news that hit like a sledgehammer, came through at about 3.30 the next morning. His car had veered off the road, clipped a tree, struck a white post and overturned several times.

The blossoming young life of this popular and prodigiously talented all-round sportsman had been nipped in the bud……..IMG_0935…..

 

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