The year is 1957. A young lad, reared in the western suburbs of Melbourne, achieves his lifelong dream when he’s selected to make his senior debut for his beloved Bulldogs.
He had jammed in to the MCG three years earlier to watch his hero, the human battering-ram Charlie Sutton, lead Footscray to their first and only VFL premiership.
Now he was to play under gnarled old Charlie in this Round 13 clash at Junction Oval, St.Kilda.
Or so he thought……Almost co-inciding with the selection of the team was the bombshell announcement that Sutton had been sacked and replaced by his 23 year-old protege, Teddy Whitten.
Bob Hempel could hardly have walked into a more volatile situation. There were divisions among the Footscray players ; many were unhappy that Sutton had been undermined. For instance, the reluctant appointee Whitten and the previous season’s Brownlow Medallist, Peter Box, were at odds and scarcely spoke to each other.
‘E.J’ was half-way through his first pre-match address when, in defiance of the committee, Sutton strolled into the rooms and said : “Good luck, son. In future, take your time when you talk to the players…….”
‘Hemps’ didn’t remember much else about his big day. He was steamrolled by St.Kilda’s ‘iron-man’, Eric Guy and carted from the ground. At that stage he was a lightly-built winger, had just come out of three months National Service training and really wasn’t equipped for League footy.
He played the next week, against Carlton, kicked a couple of goals, then was dropped to the Reserves………..
Hemps was the youngest of eight kids. His dad left home for good, soon after he was born, and his mum, Emily, worked long hours to scrape together enough money to put tucker on the table.
He left the Footscray Tech School, aged 13, barely able to read and write, and reckons his real education “was obtained in the rough and tumble of the streets of Yarraville, where we were brought up to survive.”
His progression to the VFL was typical of any up-and-comer from the western suburbs……Footscray & District Under 19’s, to VFA club Yarraville for three years, then impressing the Bulldogs’ recruiters.
He was dismayed when his League career didn’t pan out the way he’d visualised. But he knew he was too light and lacked pace.
He was even contemplating retirement, when a chance phone call from Benalla coach Bill Luck changed the course of his life.
Bob jumped at a package from the Ovens and Murray Demons, which included a job as a salesman with ‘ Wardrop My Tailor’.
Playing as a half forward, he became a star, and a regular O & M rep. He could cut a side to ribbons with half an hour of wizardry and was too smart for most back flankers.
Meanwhile, Hemps had surprised himself with his skills as a Menswear Salesman and, with an abundance of natural self-confidence, turned his hand to flogging Insurance.
As he admitted many years later, people didn’t need to ask how good he was ; he’d tell them himself !
He had taken on the coaching job at Euroa, after three successful seasons with Benalla, but didn’t fancy it all that much. A transfer in employment to Wangaratta relieved him of that obligation at season’s end.
Bob was immediately contacted by Rovers coach Ken Boyd, with whom he was acquainted. He needed little persuasion to become a Hawk.
Boyd saw ‘Hemps’ as a vital piece of the jigsaw. He had a young, talented side, but needed that extra bit of experience. He also knew that he was a ‘bit of a ratbag’, who would liven up the dressing rooms and cultivate the camaraderie in the group.
And so it proved. ‘Hemps’ was an excellent clubman and became the chief organiser of social functions and end-of-season trips. The Rovers Ball – a Hempel production – became bigger than Ben Hur.
The only time he’d be tempted by the demon drink would be on Ball Night, when things were in full swing. He would let his hair down, with disastrous consequences.
Unfortunately, a persistent thigh injury kept him to only 12 games in his first two seasons with the Hawks. But he finally got it right and played in both the 1964 and ’65 premiership sides.
Young Rovers players, seeking to improve their marking, would test themselves against ‘Hemps’ at training. His body-positioning and sure hands were hard to out-manoeuvre.
Not that training excited him all that much. He was often a late arrival, but must have decided that the pelting rain one bleak Tuesday night didn’t warrant him getting out on the track. It may have gone un-noticed, except that he drove down Evans Street and tooted his horn to the saturated group, as they completed their laps.
He was dropped two nights later.
‘Hemps’ was at his top in 1966. His brilliant marking, shrewd positional play and a touch of fire, were sparked by improved fitness. He was a real danger man on the flank and booted 44 goals for the season.
Three years later, as his career entered its twilight, he talked the selectors into trying him on a half back flank, which was shaping as a trouble spot.
If you can imagine a modern-day Easton Wood or Sean Dempster floating across the front of packs to take intercept marks, that was ‘Hemps’. At 33, he crowned a great season by taking out the Best & Fairest award.
He retired in 1970, after more than 100 games with the Hawks, then became President of the Rovers Past Players Association.
His next step in business was to start-up his own insurance brokerage. Ever the promoter, he took to wearing lairy red or gold jackets emblazoned with his company name on the pocket. He hit the air-waves, pleading with the public to ‘Give the Hemps a Go’.
They did, and they also supported him when he stood for council.
“I spent two learning years on council and had the ego knocked out of me,” he said. “I had no idea other people could have different opinions to mine”.
The fertile Hempel imagination then concocted a fresh idea. What about branching out into the tourism industry ? He disposed of his insurance business and created ‘Kellyland’, a 40-minute animated show depicting Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, which he still operates.
The banks played hard-ball with him a couple of times, and he battled to keep his head above water . He once gave his version of confronting his toughest-ever opponent:
“My business is going down the gurgler; I can’t sleep or think. I owe a million dollars – everything is on the line. There’s no way out……But wait a minute, how many times have I seen the Bulldogs down, with their backs to the wall ? ……And against all odds they got up and won !”
“The vultures are circling, ready to pounce and finish me off ! But Charlie Sutton would have said: ‘Lift your game…..Back yourself in…..come on Hempo….if Footscray can do it so can you……………….AND I DID ! ”
It’s been a hell of a journey for the old entrepreneur ……showman….larrikin…..’ratbag’…….right from the time he was a ‘nipper’, sitting around the kitchen table, eating rabbit stew and dreaming of wearing the Red, White and Blue……………