Neil Sachse, the Bulldogs, and spinal cord research

In grand final week 2016 Neil Sachse had confirmation that however fleeting his career at Footscray was – he is forever a Bulldog.

He lives in the Adelaide CBD and was wheeling himself home when a bloke leant out of a tyre garage and shouted: “GO YOU DOGGIES!”

A driver blared his horn and gave Neil the thumbs up. He was interviewed twice on local television.

He was part of the wave that the Western Bulldogs rode that September.

That they hadn’t been in a grand final since Menzies lived in the Lodge made them everyone’s new hope. That they played frantic, attacking football added to the thrill.

Neil knew what the players were facing. He had won and lost grand finals at North Adelaide in the early 1970s.

In 1975 he went to Footscray for money and a challenge, arriving along with Peter Featherby from Subiaco and Ian Low from Manuka.

Ted Whitten junior says the players were especially excited by Sachse’s size and strength. They also sensed his toughness.

He showed it in round one in 1975 at the MCG when he withstood an early tempest in the form of Melbourne ruckman Carl Ditterich. Later in the match Big Carl reported to Gary Dempsey in grudging respect: “He’s tough.”

Round One 1975

Neil Sachse has shown a different form of toughness in the 42 years since his second VFL match. Late in that game against Fitzroy at the Western Oval he collided with Kevin O’Keefe and smashed two vertebrae high in his spine.

The toughness was to face a life in a wheelchair with only minimal movement in his shoulders.

His resolve was not to feel self-pity, continue living a productive life and with Janyne raise their two boys who were then toddlers. The boys now have families of their own and Janyne has recently retired after a long and distinguished nursing career.

Neil is still raising funds for spinal research and education. A recent target of one million dollars has been met providing new scanning techniques (human trials are scheduled to begin next year) while a schools awareness program was recently translated into Portuguese for use in Brazil.

Medical protocols have changed for the better. Support staffs of every AFL team will again this pre-season spend time rehearsing how to deal with a suspected spinal injury.

But raising money for decades is not easy. He continues to do so because he still sees much need.

This is why Ross Abbey is in Adelaide wearing Lycra.

The President of the Western Bulldogs Past Players Association has entered a three-day bike ride for the Neil Sachse Foundation.

Last year’s inaugural event wound through the Barossa Valley; this year the route covers 361 kilometres of the Fleurieu Peninsula.

“I ride about 30 kilometres per day in Melbourne but that is on the flat so I am not sure about all these hills,” he says.

Ross understands a bit about the difficulty of organising events. Getting past players together is a wonderful thing in theory but not everyone ends their careers as they want and so old hurts sometimes have to be assuaged.

“When the players do get together the bond is still there because you have spent so much time together as young men.”

As a teenager Abbey was zoned to Essendon but he was always going to be a Bulldog. He is Footscray royalty.

His father Angus played 78 games in red, white and blue – his final match was the Bulldogs’ first Premiership in 1954.

In 2016 Ross arranged for the surviving members of the 1954 side and their wives to have prime seats at the MCG to see the Dogs home.

Angus is 92 and still has a knuckle-crushing handshake. He and Dorothy met at church in Footscray. Dorothy followed the Bulldogs because her father Len Jonsson played in Footscray’s 1920 VFA premiership side.

Their daughter lives in Adelaide (husband is a Crow – kids are Bulldogs) and so they combined a family visit with the start of the cycle event. Having coffee with Neil this week they reminisced about the warmth of the community of Melbourne’s west. Neil says he had a greater sense of club at Footscray than at North Adelaide and is thrilled that his old team-mate has made such an effort to support the Foundation.


Dorothy, Angus and Ross Abbey with Neil Sachse


Kevin O’Keefe and Neil Sachse who met by accident

But Ross Abbey isn’t the only former VFL player riding.

Kevin O’Keefe has returned for another go. The 65-year-old is as fit as a trout and recently completed the Noosa Triathlon.

Kevin and Neil like to use the line that they ‘met by accident’ but the only contact they had after the injury was a stifling bedside moment when O’Keefe (with Bob & Kevin Rose) visited the spinal unit at the Austin Hospital to see Neil.

There wasn’t much that could be said then but in the years since they have become friends and O’Keefe has been a regular supporter of the NSF.

This year he is being joined by a team from his childhood home of Terang.

Danny, Jim and Linda Kenna and Margaret O’Sullivan are all taking part in the ride. The Terang Op Shop has donated $2000 while Christian’s Bus Company is supplying free transport to Adelaide and back.

Angus and Dorothy are sponsoring their son.

Professor Brian Freeman who heads the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital is also riding in the event. Like everyone else taking part, he will wear a shirt which includes a familiar logo.

Be more Bulldog.

About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. Thanks Michael. You’ve tied together so many threads in this great post.

    I hope the event is a raging success.

    Go Dogs!

Leave a Comment