I wasn’t the only one who felt disposed to offer up a silent prayer in that summer of 2004.
Other club stalwarts, who had gathered to cast their eyes over pre-season training, also considered reaching for the rosary beads, as they struggled to digest the latest news.
One even recounted the dream he’d had…..
……..He was staring wistfully towards the gates of the W.J.Findlay Oval……..Suddenly, out of the gathering dusk came an apparition…….It was the club’s legend, bag slung over his shoulder, belatedly, and against all expectations, saddling up for another season…………
Alas, he woke up with a jolt and confronted reality……………The career of Rob Walker, the Ovens and Murray League’s most decorated – and one of its greatest-ever footballers, was over…….
The 15 year-old was belting tennis balls around Our Lady’s courts when I crossed his path for the first time. Daryl Smith, the Rovers Thirds coach, had been on his hammer for a while and was keen to maintain contact.
“Just pop in to say hello and let him know we’re dead-set keen on him. He’s a shy kid ; you won’t get much out of him,” was Smithy’s advice.
He was polite enough, but you sensed that, deep down, he wished that everybody would just leave him alone.
Daryl’s persistence was eventually rewarded when he talked Rob into filling in on one of the days that the Thirds were short.
“And that was that….. But I still reckon he stayed in the Junior League for too long,” he recalls……….
Daryl played through an era which produced several out-and-out Rovers champions, so he was not one to wax lyrical about promising newcomers. However, he knew that this kid with the obvious talent and superb physique, was one out of the box.
Surely, the planets must have aligned for the Rovers in 1984, because two other lads who debuted with Robbie in the Thirds were his Junior Magpies team-mate Matthew Allen (destined to play 416 O & M games) and Tigers tall-man Paul Bryce ( whose career included 92 AFL games).
The renowned Walker thirst for the contest was on show early. In no time he rose through the ranks and made his senior debut early the following season. He played 11 senior games that year, but in his limited appearances in the two’s, stood out enough to win their B & F.
And so the evolvement of a champ had begun. North Melbourne enticed him down for a season with their Thirds ( and a premiership under Denis Pagan) in 1987, but he was back with the Hawks to play an integral part in one of their most famous flags, with ‘Burt’s Babes’ in 1988.
He took on all-comers at centre half forward and simply ran key defenders off their legs. After finishing third in the Morris Medal and taking out the Did Simpson gong in the Grand Final, it was only natural that North would be keen to lure him back to Arden Street.
He obliged, but the truth was that he couldn’t wait to get home after he had spent a season, marred by injury, with the ‘Roos Reserves.
Homesickness was always a bugbear for Robbie. He went away with the O & M Schoolboys one year and officials recalled that, after two days he’d had enough. They branded him ‘a bit of a sook’.
His response has always been : ” Not good enough”, when people inevitably ask why he didn’t have a decent crack at League footy. But my theory was that his attitude wasn’t exactly right – that he just couldn’t handle life in Melbourne.
Essendon made overtures to him and Footscray offered to draft him with the promise of senior games, but he resisted. Instead, over the next 14 seasons he was to re-write the O & M record books.
He adopted a manic summer ritual, which ensured that he was cherry-ripe when the season proper began. And he and his mates took intensity at training to a new level, as they swept the rest of the group along with them.
They say that if you can find a good centre half forward, you can build a side around him. And that’s what the Hawks did in Robbie’s case.
He was rarely, if ever, outmuscled and used his strength to hold out opponents and mark. His acceleration on the lead left opponents in his wake. He kicked lots of goals – and he never stopped running.
He won his first Morris Medal in 1991, polling a staggering 31 votes – 13 clear of the second place-getter. It was the year that the Hawks recovered from a second semi-final defeat by Yarrawonga, to demolish the Pigeons by 12 goals in the Grand Final.
Two years later, as they embarked on their run of 36 consecutive wins, Robbie was voted best afield in another premiership triumph. This time it was Wodonga who were on the end of a whipping.
A short time later, Bulldog officials flew to Perth to woo East Fremantle star Damien Condon, a son of former Rovers ruckman Brian.
At the interview they succinctly spelt out their mission. “There’s one bloke, we believe, who stands between us and the premiership and you may be able to stop him.”
“Oh yeah, who’s that ?,” said Damien.
“Robbie Walker…….he plays for…….”
“I know, I know. He plays for Wang Rovers – and he’s a gun.”
They had done their teaching training together before Damien headed to the west. Condon did, in fact, eventually line up with the Dogs , but not before the Rovers had grabbed another flag at their expense.
In the mid-nineties Robbie was released from the key position and spent the remainder of his career as a gut-busting on-baller. He was so good that he made stars out of average footballers.
He would become embarressed when people referred to his individual success. Instead, the prospect of sharing the spoils of victory with his team-mates was the thing that motivated him, he said .
Peter Tossol once described what it was like to line up alongside the incomparable number 12: “No matter who you played, you always felt you were a chance when he ran out beside you.”
“There were times in games when you were being challenged. You’d just look at his eyes as you ran back to the centre and you knew he was about to do something. He didn’t need to say a word.”
” When I coached against him, he was a nightmare. You virtually conceded that you couldn’t contain him.”
All of his contemporaries can pluck out their favourite Walker moments, but really, his 307 games and 475 goals provided a continuous highlights reel.
In what was to prove his final season – 2003 – Robbie chalked up his fifth Morris Medal. He had tallied 251 votes (at an average of 14.76 per season) over the journey.
To go with this were 12 Bob Rose Medals in 13 years, 16 O & M , 9 Victorian Country and 3 All-Australian jumpers, 4 Premierships and numerous other awards.
It was a degenerative neck and back condition that confirmed his worst fears – he had to reluctantly give football away.
So the great Robbie Walker faded into retirement with a minimum of fuss, much to the dismay of all at the Rovers and the disappointment of the general football public.
He is now feted as a Rovers Hall of Fame member and an Official Ovens and Murray Legend.
But his greatest achievement was that he remained the humblest of champions.