Old-timers around Whitfield joke that they discovered a magic elixir in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the King River, in the early 1990’s.
That’s why, the wags say, a spate of talented young footballers began to emerge, much to the excitement of the King Valley faithful, who hadn’t had much to cheer about for a decade.
At one stage the ‘Roos weren’t able to muster the numbers to field an under-age team. And when they eventually did, they were on the receiving end of some fearful hidings.
Within three years the Valley had won a Thirds premiership and bold predictions were being made about a few of the kids who wore the Blue and White with distinction in 1993.
The assessments were spot-on:
Lanky, blonde-haired Leigh Newton, was to win the O & M’s Morris Medal in 1996, and go on to play 13 AFL games, before injury cruelled his career at Melbourne…….
The long and winding journey of his younger brother, Mick, would include time with the Murray Kangaroos, a couple of stints in the O & M, and coaching roles with the Valley and Milawa…….
Bruce Hildebrand would move on to the Rovers, then to Coburg, where he was to earn selection in a VFA Under 23 team………
But probably the pick of them was a beanpole ruckman, who would, in the years to come, lock horns with the best big men in the land, and establish a reputation as a lion-hearted performer……
His name ? ………. Mark Porter.
The Porter tale is one of extraordinary dedication.
Yarns have been passed down by his old Wangaratta High School mates, of his lunch-time weight sessions……… downing tub after tub of yoghurt …………..always toiling away on his fitness.
His first senior coach, Gary Bussell, once recalled: “I actually watched him in a Thirds Grand Final when he was 15. He looked like a gangly calf. He could hardly stand up.”
“Mark actually worked on his strength one whole summer. He pushed his chest out 10 centimetres and built his arms up like you wouldn’t believe.”
The result was, that at 17, in his first senior season, he matched wits – and physicality – with the best of the O & K’s ruckmen – and came up trumps.
It was all rather heady stuff for the Year-12 student, when he received an invite to the League’s vote-count – and shocked the crowd by taking out the Baker Medal. He had created history by becoming the youngest Medallist ever.
The anticipated calls came from Ovens and Murray clubs. He was in demand.
Wang.Rovers coach Laurie Burt headed the queue. When Mark explained that he would be shifting to Melbourne to undertake a Physical Education degree, Laurie organised for him to train at his old club, Coburg.
The suggestion, of course, was that Mark might return home each Friday night and spend the season with the reigning premiers.
But his dad, Merv, wasn’t keen on that idea.
“Laurie said : ‘That’s okay, but can you at least play a practice match with us ? ‘ I came home one week-end and had a run against Wodonga, but I’d more or less decided that I was going to stick with Coburg,” Mark said the other day.
It proved an inspired decision.
“I was a bit lucky that one of the big men got injured and another one walked out,” he says of being thrust into the role of number one ruckman.
He enjoyed a magnificent season and handled the huge step from the O & K to the VFA with ease. So much so that he was awarded the Round-Fothergill Medal as the VFA’s Rookie of the Year.
In his two years with Coburg, Mark represented the VFA against Tasmania and NSW and had become firmly established as one of the competition’s ‘big guns’.
His coach, Kevin Breen, rated him “probably the best tap ruckman going around.”
So it wasn’t surprising that Carlton’s recruiting manager Shane O’Sullivan, was on his hammer. He was eager for the big fellah to play a Reserves game towards the end of 1996 , but was unable to make contact.
When they did eventually meet up, he invited Mark to do a pre-season. Suitably impressed, the Blues nominated him as their sole selection in the ’97 Rookie Draft; a ‘project player’, alongside established ruckmen, Justin Madden and Matthew Allen.
Four years earlier, he had guided King Valley Thirds to a flag. Now the lad with the imposing 6’7″, 105kg frame, was on the cusp of League football.
Unfortunately, a broken bone in his hand at the start of the season cost Mark six weeks and he was fully expecting to play the rest of the year in the two’s. But he had ‘come on’ so rapidly that he was the obvious replacement for regular number one ruckman Matthew Allen, who had been ‘rubbed out’ for charging Demon Leigh Newton ( yes, Mark’s old team-mate ! ).
As he became more familiar with the intricacies of the big man’s craft at the highest level, Mark continued to develop. His tap-work was lauded, but he knew he needed to have more strings to his bow.
“You’ve got to earn your stripes in the AFL. If you haven’t got all the tricks you get left behind. I had to play aggressively and tackle strongly. And then start to take a few ‘grabs’ ,” Mark said.
A knee injury in a 1999 practice match ruled him out for a season, and halted his progress for most of the following year.
But he played superbly in 2001, and it was somewhat surprising that, after 55 games with the Blues, they traded him to North Melbourne, as part of a swap for Corey McKernan.
Mark fitted nicely into the Kangaroos’ set-up, alternating in the ruck with Matthew ‘Spider’ Burton, and chalking up another 55 senior games in his three-year stay at Arden Street.
The Porter work-ethic had not just been confined to the field of football. Mark had been studying assiduously and completed a degree in Financial Services and Master of Business and was more prepared than most for life after football.
The end came, for him, at the top-level, when North delisted him at the end of the 2004 season.
“I was still keen to keep playing the highest standard I could, so I signed with North Ballarat and spent a season back in the VFL. Then Anthony Stevens talked me into joining him at Benalla in 2006 “, Mark says.
A couple of locals who saw Mark play at Benalla, reckoned that the slower style of footy suited him down to the ground. He dominated the big-man duels and knocked up taking marks.
He helped the Saints to their first Grand Final in years, but they were outplayed by a strong Seymour side.
” Stevo decided to retire after that, but I lined up again. Things were going okay until I broke my arm and ended up in the Wang Base Hospital after Round 10. That was the finish for me. I was needing knee surgery, so it was time to pull the pin.”
Life has remained pretty hectic for Mark Porter. Married, with three young kids, he spends a lot of his professional time, along with Brad Wira, the ex-Bulldog and Freo Docker, co-ordinating the AFL Player’s Association’s Financial Education program. It is designed to instruct young players on how to maximise their financial potential.
The pair are also advisers for the AFLPA and AFL Industry Superannuation Plan and Mark is continuing his Financial Planning studies.
The young man who was dubbed ‘an old-fashioned blue-collar ruckman’, has transitioned perfectly into the white-collar world.
It’s seemingly light years away from the idyllic surrounds of the King Valley cattle farm………