Almanac (Kicking) History: A stab in the dark – Jim Johnson and the evolution of kicking the footy

Little Jim Johnson swung his foot through the patchy ball. Stuck in a mud pit that spread across the Lilydale High Elementary School oval, his drop kick failed to bounce out of the sludge. It was time to try something different.

 

 

School mates eagerly awaited the ball across the grass. Jim was 14 and playing a friendly game of kick-to-kick during the lunch break. It was here that Jim developed his drop punt.

 

 

Introduced by VFL greats Dick Lee and Jack Dyer, the drop punt had one crucial distinction from the widely practised drop kick. The latter occurred when the ball was dropped onto the turf, the foot kicking through after it had bounced back up. Jim spent half of his year in third form changing the timing of his kicking style. Trimming it by just a fraction of a second, Jim made contact just before the ball hit the deck.

 

 

Jim diligently practised the drop punt, emulating the extraordinarily accurate efforts of Dick Lee; a record-breaking goalkicker for Jim’s beloved Collingwood. It took time and patience, but the little rover soon reaped the rewards of perfecting the different kicking technique.

 

 

“I had an older brother,” Jim said. “He and I controlled one end of the school ground and all of a sudden I got it [the drop punt] and kept kicking it.”

 

 

“I only had a place to kick the football at school. At home, if we were really lucky, we had a tennis ball.”

 

 

A prodigious sporting talent in both football and cricket, Jim’s kicking technique took another sharp turn a year later.

 

 

Having persisted with the drop punt ahead of peers who turned their nose away in frustration at Jack Dyer’s display of the kicking technique, Jim went on to create a brand new kick at the age of 15.

 

 

The stab kick came into Australian football circles in 1902, when Collingwood’s mid-season trip down to Tasmania saw them use short, fast chipping passes as a form of entertainment in light-hearted fixtures. When the Pies returned to Melbourne, they implemented the kicking style en route to the next two premierships. Fast-forward eight years, and The Argus was describing the stab kick as the “prettiest and most effective innovation of recent years”.

 

 

Nothing had changed with the stab kick since 1902. Much like its brother in the drop kick, contact was made after the ball bounced off the ground. But courtesy of his father, little Jim Johnson had a new football at home. Within two weeks, Jim changed the art of kicking a footy completely.

 

 

“I did not have a touch of genius – I was a problem solver,” Jim said. “I had a problem with wet, muddy and rough grounds, so kicking the ball just before it hit the ground solved my problem.”

 

 

This change was much shorter than his development of the drop punt, but it sharpened a skill that would see him become a successful rover in Victorian school and country football. In his own backyard, Jim mastered the skill of the stab punt pass.

 

 

And it didn’t take much of a change to bring about the new kick.

 

 

“The only difference (between his stab punt and stab kick) was the fact that I kicked the ball before it hit the ground,” Jim said. “Everything else was the same as for my drop kick or my stab kick.”

 

 

Jim still vividly remembers the intricacies of his stab punt. A “split-second adjustment of kicking the ball just before it hits the ground instead of just after” was the main difference, but Jim is able to recall other small tricks to executing the kick consistently.

 

 

“The ball is kicked in very tight to the body, of course you are leaning over the ball,” Jim said. “The tighter in you kick the ball the lower the pass will travel – the ball cannot be dropped vertically as it has to be pulled into the body.”

 

 

It’s as easy as that, or it was to a young Jim in 1949. A fortnight after choosing to try the new kick, he had harnessed a new weapon that would hold him in good stead for his next decade of footy.

 

 

After developing the stab punt and drop punt as field passes, Jim can only remember kicking “about three drop kicks from then on and no stab kicks”. His family home didn’t have electricity – to get some water required heading out the back to the tank. But he had a ball, and that was more than enough.

 

 

Jim’s first season with his new stab punt and drop punt coincided with his debut year playing for the Mount Evelyn Football Club. A part of the Yarra Valley Football League, which changed in 1962 to the Eastern Districts Football League, Jim and his brother made the trip to Mount Evelyn to play in the club’s maiden reserves team. He wasn’t in the seconds for very long.

 

Three games in, Jim had already received best afield honours. He was whisked into the firsts, while at the same time practising his stab punt.

 

 

“No one at Mount Evelyn recognised what I was doing,” Jim said. “I kicked the ball so close to the ground that people didn’t see the difference”.

 

 

Jim spent the rest of the season in the first eighteen, often commuting with his brother from their new address in East Brighton up to Mount Evelyn for the weekend before finding their way home in time for school at Lilydale on Monday.

 

 

The stab punt and drop punt were tools Jim carried with him in his football career that spanned from Ringwood and Melbourne High School to South Belgrave and Croydon. He forged a decade long amateur career full of plaudits and praise. Yet only at the end did people begin to realise that what he was doing with his kicking action was mightily different.

 

 

“The first time it got reported was in 1960. My stab punt was called ‘a delightful little drop punt pass’ while playing for Croydon,” Jim said.

 

 

The journalist was Frank Casey. It took him the entire season to find the right terminology for it. By the finals series, Casey had labelled Jim’s kicks as drop punts and stab punts. When the 1960 season finished and Jim finished his football career, Casey called for more players to take up the kicking style that led to Jim’s precision passing.

 

 

In the years since, Jim has continued to ardently follow Collingwood. It used to take a two-and-a-half-mile walk into Mooroolbark and a train (made harder when there were strikes) to reach Victoria Park. His tone rises in fondness when recalling “the most courageous player” he’s seen in Peter McKenna. Part of Jim’s adoration derives from McKenna’s magnificent drop punts for goal.

 

 

But nowadays Jim wonders why the terminology of the stab punt is lost when reporting the modern game. There are plenty of great exponents of the kick – Jim takes his time to recount the low-ball drop and style he loves to see the most. We then play a guessing game – the names of the modern players with his favourite kicking styles slowly come through.

 

 

“One of the best kicks of the drop punt is Joel Selwood, and the recently retired Hawthorn player,” Jim implored. “Who was it? That’s right – Sam Mitchell. Both of them kicked the ball like how I used to kick it.”

 

 

Little Jim Johnson has a plethora of tales on the game of footy. This is only one section of his career. In a small corner of the AFL/ VFL history books, wedged into the pillars of the great game, is the name Jim Johnson, for without him and his development of the stab punt, modern kicking techniques could have been left in the ways of the drop kick.

 

 

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Good to see you were able to catch up with Jim, Sean. He has many stories to tell. I look forward to the next piece in the series.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab story, thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Well told Sean.

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