General Footy Writing: How a Tiger got his stripes – Part 2

By Sam Steele

I only ever saw Royce Hart play four times.  And yet he remains, without question, my one genuine sporting hero (with the possible exception of Dennis Lillee), and was instrumental in my childhood conversion to Australian football.

Most of my memories of Royce are of grainy black and white snippets from the Saturday night replay.  Physically, Royce was unremarkable, only slightly above average height for a VFL player, straight dark hair worn long as per the early ’70s fashion but not ostentatiously so. On TV he was not a particularly distinctive figure, and I well remember having to watch carefully to spot the tell-tale No.4 jumper.

Unlike many of the other stars of that era – the blond bombshells like Ditterich, Knights or Crimmins, the high-flyers like Jezza, or the bad boys like Nicholls, Balme, and “Cowboy Neale” – all you noticed about Royce was the quality of his football, when he unleashed that glorious left foot, the burst of agility and pace that left defenders in his wake, or his patented “in from the side” pack mark.  Inevitably, such actions brought forth a gushing stream of epithets from Mike Williamson, Butch Gale and the others, along the lines of, “Oooh, Royce Hart!  Is he a champion or is he a champion?”

On the odd occasion, Royce was a guest on shows like Football Inquest, where he would appear, freshly showered and neatly dressed, to modestly answer the folksy, quaint questions about the day’s game (back then there was none of the modern-day circus of players in the “hot-seat” being grilled on the “big issues”).  Maybe it was just my starry-eyed adulation, but I can’t recall that he said anything profound on such occasions.  Royce genuinely let his football do the talking.

I first saw Royce “live” at my first ever VFL game, the 1972 Grand Final (not a happy debut game for this young Tiger!).  My main recollection was not of any special incidents or passages of play, but simply seeing the great man in colour, the brightness of his yellow sash and the distinctive silver-brown of his hair giving him a far more glamorous aura than anything I’d seen on TV.

I think Royce missed a lot of 1973 through injury and was still under a cloud when I saw him next in the Preliminary Final, my second game.  Not risked in the starting line-up, Royce came on in the second half with the Tigers trailing by six goals and a spark desperately needed.  I vividly remember the buzz in the crowd when he ran out with the team after half-time.  The excitement was palpable and his presence lifted the team to a mighty victory over Collingwood, which they backed up in the Grand Final the next week.

I saw him a further two times in 1974, once in a home-and-away game against Collingwood.  I don’t recall how he went personally but the Tigers had a rare off-day in that great season and were mauled.  But he and the team were back to their best on Grand Final day and Royce was a key player in Richmond’s big win over North Melbourne.

And that was it.  I was overseas in 1975 and didn’t attend any games after that until 1979, by which stage Royce’s stellar career was well over.

On reflection, it was the distance between the hero and the hero-worshipper that made it such a special bond.  I can recall the details of dozens of performances by my favourite modern-day player, Matthew Richardson, as well as the litany of injuries, the days of dummy spits, poor body language, changes of hairstyle, the lot.  But he’s never been the heroic type in my mind and perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so much of the man and his footy, the good, the bad and the ugly.

All I can recall of Royce was that he was the champion player in my favourite team and every occasion that I saw him was a moment to be treasured.  It was rare and the chances were that he’d do something special.  My adulation was unaffected by constant analysis of his on-field performance, his body language, any knowledge, good or bad, of how he lived his life outside of football or by the relentless exposure of a media-cultivated “personality”.  In short, it was hero-worship of a very pure kind because it was unsullied by over-exposure.

It’s hard for me to imagine that kids today, though they still have their sporting heroes, can see them in the same idealistic sense that I regarded Royce.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with people being given lots of information about public figures and in some ways, it’s reassuring to know how very “human” they are.  But I’ve got no doubt that I derived a lot of my love of Australian football from my fleeting glimpses of Royce Hart as “perfect footy champion”.  I doubt that I’d have had the same affection for him or the game if he were playing in today’s media-saturated world.

Mind you, he’d be a handy inclusion at centre half-forward for Richmond this week!

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

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