Almanac Memoir: An autobiographical piece by Bill Stephen

 

 

 

Bill Stephen & David Leydon

 

This is a remarkable story, written by Bill Stephen himself, so bear with me while I explain its heritage…

 

Bill Stephen used to pop into the North Fitzroy Arms for a quiet one and a chat from time to time. As one of the regulars there, I inevitably wound up in a school with him at some stage. It’s odd to be chatting to someone whose portrait hangs on the wall just behind him. And whose name appears on the framed Fitzroy Team of the Century jumper just above the fireplace.

 

This was a very Melbourne experience. The names of sports history live among  us.

 

Bill was always friendly; always interested in people. Always up for a chat.

 

He was also part of a lunch group of three or four, which met on Wednesdays.

 

I heard snippets of Bill’s story to add to the book-knowledge I had gleaned from history texts. Bill Stephen was not a household name in Queensland, but I started to understand the level of respect he had. The late Greg Meese, a wonderful man (and son of Harry Meese) would also talk about Bill, as did others (like Greg’s wife Judi). Always in glowing terms.

 

Bill was not one to talk about himself so much though. He would tell a story or two, when asked.

 

One day (probably over a decade ago now), one of the lunch party, Mick Reardon, said that Bill had written a bit of a memoir, and that Mick had had it typed out. Mick eventually sent it to me. I didn’t publish it on this site immediately as I wanted to ask Bill about it, to get his approval. Especially in this case, because it explains the effect of a lifelong condition.

 

For some reason, I didn’t ever ask Bill. It was always one of those situations: “I must ask Bill some time.”

 

Bill died on Monday, August 24, 2020. My sympathies to all those family and friends who are grieving his loss.

 

I think it’s timely to publish this memoir. I don’t know whether Bill or Mick sent this to anyone else. My apologies if it has been published elsewhere – and please let me know if it has and I will acknowledge that.

 

Bill was a wonderful man, as this memoir demonstrates. It’s great to hear his voice again, in this story.

 

Vale Bill Stephen.

 

 

This is from the pen of Bill Stephen…

 

 

 

I do not know why I am writing this really but here goes it.

 

This morning 29.01.2004 when I awoke in bed, I, without thinking, put my left hand down on the thigh of my left leg and felt a distinct thigh muscle. As soon as I got up, put on a dressing gown, as it is cool today, I picked up a pen and got this pad. I was going to write some memories or a short story, which may be of interest to some kids if I have the courage to finish it. I was quite excited.

 

The reason I am putting this story if you like, on paper, is as much for myself as anyone else because I have never really looked at it in total, what had been a problem to me, how I had managed it, coped with it, overcome it to a certain degree only and what may surprise many people who have known me particularly in sport, that I had kept my problem to myself for almost a lifetime.

 

What actually took place I cannot remember, as I was too young, say three or four year old? My parents had noticed that I was not putting my left foot to the ground. I was supporting my weight on my right foot only. Unknowingly then, to myself, my parents or anyone else it was to form this habit and carry it throughout my lifetime or the coming 70 years.

 

For as long as I can remember I had as a child a devotion to football. I cannot remember when I did not have a desire to play football nor had a football (real or paper) in my hands.

 

My parents of course had been concerned; they decided to take me to the Children’s Hospital. They didn’t elaborate on who looked at me, whether it was a doctor, a number of doctors or a nurse. The only diagnosis, they told me in later years, was that I must have had some type of rheumatism. “They” could not understand how a child so young could have rheumatism. Whilst they probably kept an eye on me as far as I can remember, nothing more was said, or ever made of it.

 

That would have been about 1932 or 1933, right smack in the middle of the Great Depression and the Fitzroy Football Club and Hayden Bunton (a new sensation in football) were to become a motivating factor in my life for years to come. Apart from my parents.

 

As a boy, my life (from memory) was as normal as anyone else’s would be. Cricket in the summer for about four months and the other eight months were for football. I can’t really remember being disadvantaged by my hip, as a little fellow, as probably there wasn’t enough pressure on it because of a child’s light physique.

 

Times were tough in those days for many people because the breadwinner (the father) in the home could not get work and unfortunately lost their homes. It happened in our street, and in our own family we always had relatives staying with us who could not exist without help. My father had a job right through the Depression. Stripped to the waist, he shovelled coal all day every day into big boilers at Foy & Gibson. It was a very tough job.

 

Australia was a young country in the 1930s and needed something to keep the spirit of the people up through the Depression, many people going without food at times and others happy to make a meal of bread and dripping. There were three national heroes that people loved at the time, Phar Lap, Don Bradman and Walter Lindrum, the three of them were world-beaters in the field and were great for the morale of the Australian People.

 

In Victoria we also had League Football and 99 per cent of families supported their district football team. Local boys who made it to play for their local league team became heroes and were revered by their peers.

 

Fitzroy was our local team. I was born in Freeman St. Fitzroy and my parents had built a home in Normanby Avenue, Thornbury. There was a large open paddock opposite my home and it was there I learnt and practised my football. Fitzroy at that time had a new football sensation Haydn Bunton who was the talk of football in Victoria. He became my hero and like many other boy Fitzroy supporters, I wore his Number 7 on my knitted Maroon and Blue Fitzroy guernsey, which my mother knitted for me.

 

Like most families, on Saturdays Dad, Mum and I went to the football. Sometimes it was Dad and me, other times it was Mum and me. I learnt to love the Fitzroy ground, the Fitzroy players. A love of football and the people around it have played an integral part in my life.

 

There was also another factor in my observance of football in those days and it relates to money and possibly had a bearing on my attitude to money through later life. The basic wage for workers fortunate enough to have a job in the Depression days was three pounds a week. The Victorian Football League – to keep some stability in the payment of players in the League – had introduced what was to be known as the Coulter Law, which governed payment to players and it was set at three pounds per game. I reasoned, therefore in my boyish mind that when I grew up if I could play football I could get three pounds per week for doing something I loved. Even if I could not get a job I would be able to support myself. I probably thought at that time that the way we lived in the Depression was going to be the way of life for ever.

 

My years up to 10 were made up of gaining the skills that were to stay with me through my football life. A football was never out of my hand through day and even at night it was on the end of my bed in a corner where it would safely sit. We walked a mile to school and a mile home again. I made a paper football every night and kicked it through every gatepost (imaginary goals) to school and home again.

 

Although I have not a distinct memory of my leg troubling me through my years up to 10, I have a vague impression of some sort of difficulty in running. However it is very vague. I first played competitive football at the age of 10 years. It was for St Thomas’s College, Clifton Hill. We played curtain-raiser football on the Collingwood ground before the Senior League game. I can remember being played at Centre Half Back and in the Centre was my great mate Bill Twomey who was in my class at school and went on to become a Champion with Collingwood in the same position. During the season I was struck down with Diphtheria and spent three weeks in the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital (no visitors). However I was able to get back to school in time for the finals and I played in the Grand Final at Full Forward I managed two goals and we won the Premiership.

 

From age 10, I played competitive football, until age 35. I vowed never to play again and I didn’t, except once in a charity game. After two or three years of school football I moved to Y.C.W Football and played in the under 16 Competition. I was 13 years old and I had left school two weeks before my 14th birthday to accept a job offer to become a printer (apprentice) at Asher & Co of Lennox Street, Richmond. Due to my illness (Diphtheria) and missing so much school, I had to repeat my Sub-Intermediate year and all my friends moved a year ahead of me. This helped me to make the decision to accept the work offer.

 

It was at about this age of 13 or 14 that I became conscious that my left hip was not as it should be. It would ache every night especially. It was like a toothache in the hip and used to drive me to distraction. It was not a pain but an ache and I would lose a lot of sleep. Also to help myself I learned to sleep with my left hip and left leg completely turned over so that I finished up almost face down on the bottom of the sheet. I slept that way mostly for the rest of my life until I had the operation in 2003.

 

Also during my early teenage years, possibly because me physique was altering, I was getting bigger and in my sporting pursuits Football, Cricket, Tennis, I was making greater demands on my body. I was noticing then that my hip would make a clicking noise which probably I could hear but no one else could. I could feel the movement in my hipbone one day when I was walking home with Betty Brock who was to become my wife later on. My hip was really troubling me and I asked Bet to feel the movement in my hip as we were walking along. She wouldn’t, probably wondered what I was up to, I was 18 she was about 15. It was a Sunday afternoon and we weren’t even going together. I always remember being disappointed as I wanted her to know I had this “something” in my left hip which constantly was with me, never at any stage did it occur to me to go to someone and see about it. I felt it was something I just had to wear and put up with. I was a footballer and my life ambition was to play League Football.

 

 

Another day I will always remember was a Y.C.W Combined Sports Day. It was held at a ground in Coburg. As I had a little trouble in running I never felt comfortable going in races as I didn’t think I was very fast. Also I had a left foot which didn’t point straight; it pointed say 10 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock. However because I was a bit of a star footballer at Thornbury Under 18s, I was nominated for a foot race over 220 yards. I agreed to go in the race, not overly confident, but thinking I might go alright. I remember to this day what happened. When we got out on to the track I noticed it had a slight slope across it. The slope as it happened suited the way my left foot was pointed and when I realised that my confidence, not overly high, lifted. The race started and I went alright for about 150 yards, and I will always remember that moment. A boy by the name of Herbie Benito suddenly accelerated past me as if I were standing still. I tried to lengthen my stride accelerate and go with him, no chance, I fell and hit the ground heavily. Some years later I realised what had happened. I could get along pretty good but because of my hip restriction I could not accelerate. The fall probably helped me save face a bit as I would have been probably well beaten and perhaps finished last. I knew then what some people also had noticed that I was not very fast. I also knew that I was never going to be and would always be in trouble with fast running. Apart from this problem however, I knew I had it in me in my own mind, and my desire to play football and VFL football was still very high.

 

The problem was known by my family. It was never talked about, I never talked or complained about it because I probably thought “who knows, who cares”, knowing nothing else I was prepared to suffer in silence. What I did know however was that I never would run unless I had to, and I certainly never exposed myself to run fast or race unless I absolutely was forced too.

 

My hip problem was never going to stop me from making League football in my mind and I was elated when after successfully completing my last year in the under 18 Y.C.W. competition, Percy Mitchell introduced himself to me and asked me to try myself out with Fitzroy. He said he would get the Secretary Jack Buckley to send me an invitation by letter of when to come. I was in heaven!

 

It is worth stating here that occasionally during my junior football years I would hear someone say in my hearing and sometimes by second person, that I was slow and would not make it to the League. These remarks always hurt me as I knew I had the ability but in my own mind I knew that what these people were saying was true. I was slower in some things – running fast, sprinting. I knew it was the one doubt on me.

 

I will go forward a bit to my very early 20s say even 22 or 23 years of age. I know I had my first car. I had established myself as a permanent player in the backline at Fitzroy. My hip problem, while it never went away was not stopping me getting a game and I was playing reasonably well. This particular season the grounds were pretty hard and I had been having a very good first half, among the better players on the ground and after half time when I had cooled down I could hardly run at all and struggled to get a kick. My hip and leg felt like lead one particular day when we played Melbourne at the MCG. My fiancée Betty was with me and after the game we returned to my car to go home. I couldn’t get my left foot onto the clutch pedal. I had to lift it on with my two hands, this was to remain a problem with me in getting into a car for the rest of my life – or until I had my operation in 2003. That day in the car I decided to see someone about my hip problem as it was affecting definitely my football. I told Jack Buckley the Secretary at Fitzroy I was having trouble and he arranged for me to go and see a Dr. Gerald Brosnan a specialist in the City and son of the former Fitzroy Champion (of the same name). Betty came with me and he heard my story and examined me. He told us that what I had had as a child and had affected me for so long was Perthes Disease. I had never heard of it. He then proceeded to measure my legs. He found I was one inch and one eighth shorter in my left leg than my right. He then measured my thighs. My right leg was one and a half inches bigger around the thigh than my left leg. All those years my right leg had been doing the work for itself and my left leg. My left leg was simply being dragged through by the strong right leg and consequently I had no muscle at the front of the thigh on my left leg. He also said that I had a slight curvature of the spine due to the way I compensated when walking and advised he thought I should have my shoes and boots built up which would relieve the pain.

 

I immediately had a pair of shoes built up by having an extra piece of leather on the sole and half an inch on the heel, which the specialist had recommended. It helped me immediately as the Doctor had advised and I wore the shoes for the next few years off and on. The next move was to have my football boots specially built up in the same way which I did the next summer. Unfortunately while they gave me great relief and a better sense of balance while running straight, immediately I tried to zigzag or turn I could not do it and I was all at sea. I discarded the built up boot after several tries and never wore them again. The ordinary shoes which had been built up were handy however whenever my problem became acute as they helped me to steady the discomfort my hip was going through.

 

To finish this personal history of my hip problem I would like to show you how it effected my efforts to achieve what I had set my heart on as a boy of becoming a great player in the VFL just like Haydn Bunton.

 

As a junior player through the ranks I had always played anywhere on the ground but showed a particular skill for playing on the forward line. One day kicking 17 goals as a forward. I seemed to have enough skill to do this against boys of my own age.

 

When I was invited to try myself out at Fitzroy I told them my preferred position was as a centre player as my skill was adequate and I felt my height “5 10½” was more suited than as a full forward in league standard against much bigger men. My first year 1947 I played my first game against Collingwood at Collingwood in the first game of the season on the half forward flank, my opponents interchanging, were Jack Murphy VC of Victoria at the time and the very aggressive and rugged Gordon “Slugger” Hocking. Through the game I was switched into the Centre onto my great mate and schoolmate Bill Twomey. I played that season, mostly in those two positions but somehow did not do anything special. What was happening was that my inability to run and cover the ground quickly and easily in those positions was working against me, while I could not get the extra kicks that develop the ordinary into the extraordinary, I was failing.

 

The next year 1948 Fitzroy were playing big men in the back pockets. Champion defender Clem Denning had retired after 1947 and I was switched one day to the back pocket and although I thought I went only fair, everybody around seemed to be impressed. I was to stay therefore almost the rest of my playing days. I must say that playing from a back pocket was a dent to my ego as I had always thought that the back pocket was a position for a player who did not have the skill to make it in a position up field. I had to adjust my thinking, I knew that I had all the skills to play anywhere but realistically the only place where I could play well and successfully was the back pocket. What was happening, the back pocket was the only position where my hip restriction on my left leg would allow me if I judged it correctly to be a regular player in the team for Fitzroy. I knew that if I substituted other weapons against my opponents of those days Rose, Hutchinson, Pianto etc. who were not only faster but 5 yards in 20 faster. I could stay in the game, I had to become a Master of Concentration, Anticipation, Judgement and Determination to compete with Champions of the game every week.

 

The factor of my hip and left leg uselessness had to be kept from not only my opponents but also my own club. I had my position with Fitzroy, admittedly in the back pocket but I was not going to let go of it.

 

Perhaps I could tell two more stories in relation to my hip. It occurred in 1951 Norm Smith’s last year as Coach of Fitzroy. It was my fifth year and I was firmly established in my position. We were playing Carlton at Carlton. Vic Chanter and I were a recognised partnership. Norm came to me on the Thursday night and said “Billy you have too much talent to be playing in the back pocket I want you to play against Carlton on the half forward flank, are you willing to give it a go?” I said “Yes, if that’s what you want.” The reaction went ahead and created a storm of protest around the club on breaking up the partnership. To keep the story short, I kicked two goals but the move failed. I just could not move around enough with my running limitations to succeed. The next week I was selected again in the back pocket. To this day I regret the fact that I was never able to explain to my coach and great friend Norm, why his move had not succeeded. He never ever knew the full extent of my hip problem, and I never knew enough myself at the time to be able to tell him. The only other man who I regret not having been able to explain to was P.J. (Percy) Mitchell, the man who first approached me to go to Fitzroy and who was acknowledged by all clubs as an administrator par excellence. It is a huge disappointment to me that he is not in the AFL Hall of Fame. Both of these outstanding men would have loved to have known of the details of my story.

The other little story relates to after a night match Betty and I attended toward the end of 2003. I had earlier in the year had a hip replacement operation with a major bone graft, foot straightened and leg (left) lengthened by one inch. As we alighted from the train and moved with a large group of people towards the entrance to the Ivanhoe Station an amazing thing happened; an elderly lady moved from one section of people and made a line for a woman who was walking just a few in front of us. The two women, totally unknown to Betty or me, exchanged greetings. The lady who was cutting across said quite distinctly to the lady just in front of us: “I recognised you with your Billy Stephen Limp.” Betty and I just looked at one another in amazement. I felt like reaching out touching the woman and saying, “I haven’t got it now”

 

Today is 16.10.2004.  It’s [taken me] a long time to pen a short story.

 

PS On the 13th of March 2005 Dr Bergman told me his records showed at the time of the operation my left leg was 4cm shorter than the right leg.

 

 

**

 

 

Read David Leydon’s wonderful tribute to Bill Stephen HERE.

 

 

 

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About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo12, Anna11, Evie9. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. Bill Stephen is right!
    Percy Mitchell should be in the AFL Hall of Fame.
    Not just for for his Fitzroy service – but for his long-term service for the ANFC as treasurer and president.
    That was the controlling body for the game in Australia at that time, not the VFL
    AFL air-brushes the ANFC out of its history…

  2. A terrific insight into a footballing life. And beautifully written. Thanks JTH for posting. I had heard Bill was a bit slow and awkward on the field at times. I had no idea. Now I know why.

  3. Matt Quartermaine says

    What a brilliant time capsule of triumph over adversity and plain old Australian politeness. Held down back pocket in the VFL with a dodgy hip and one leg 4cm than the others. And people complain about face masks.
    Thanks for this JTH.

  4. What an insight, such an absorbing read for a short story a long time (or indeed “times”) coming.

    Vale Bill.

  5. matt watson says

    Thanks John,
    This was great.
    I can’t imagine how he played like that!

  6. That’s a ripper. Told as if he was sitting in your kitchen having a chat.I love that style of story telling. So natural.

    It is such a reflection of the time – a bit of a problem (probably a big problem) dealt with devoid of fuss and carry on.

    Reading that reminded me enormously of my father who was of the same era and of the same type.

  7. Daryl Schramm says

    Hard to imagine (1) how he coped and was so successful, and (2) anyone having the same issues in the last 50 years. Great story.

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Like Dips said, the words leapt off the page and I could imagine Bill in the chair next to me.

    Thanks for posting this JTH.

  9. Rayner Barkhoff says

    Inspirational tale of humility and dedication overcoming hardship.Classical case of mind over .Hope this story gets out there.An inspiration to us all.

  10. This story is nothing less than inspirational.

  11. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic read, such a different time.Thanks for this John.

  12. Agree that this is beautifully written. A conversational style that captures the man’s style and is more difficult to effect than many would think. Thanks for posting it John. A fascinating career in times of yore now archived for all.

  13. Peter Clark says

    Thanks John for posting a truly remarkable story. The words spoken by the elderly lady at Ivanhoe Station, overheard by Bill and Betty Stephen, really cap the story off.
    Bill overcame adversity with sheer guts and determination. Not only did Fitzroy benefit from his football ability and leadership, but also Yarrawonga.

  14. A great read. Love the Ivanhoe station moment.

  15. Hayden Kelly says

    Great read and a revelation . . Revered figure at Fitzroy and sometimes it gets forgotten that Bill put together the basis of the Essendon teams which launched Sheedy as a coaching legend . I had the pleasure of knowing Don Furness and forming a friendship with Harvey Merrigan who worked with me at Telstra and still works for a Company I am involved with . Bill was always spoken of in reverential tones by these blokes who themselves achieved much for Fitzroy .

  16. Frank Taylor says

    Clearly a wonderful man.
    Thanks so much for this piece
    Frank

  17. Hayden Kelly says

    Sent the Almanac to Harvey Merrigan yesterday for him to see the Bill Stephens articles .He came back with
    ‘Thanks for sending this through .Bill was a great man and I always had a soft spot for him as he was my first Fitzroy coach and gave me my first game . The story about his hip doesn’t surprise me as Bill never complained or made a fuss about anything . I know it’s a cliche but he but he was one of nature’s gentlemen and I feel privileged to have known him ‘

  18. Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    Judi Meese contacted me to say that she had read it out, and the comments too, to Bet (Bill’s wife). She was very appreciative.

    Judi also reminded me that Greg was Bill’s nephew.

    And Judi has the hand-written original that Bill penned.

  19. Thanks for sharing Bill Stephen’s memoirs, John.
    Interesting to read of Bill’s perceptions of the back-pocket as being for those players who lacked the skills to play up the ground.
    In this era of adaptability, I can’t think of any back-pocket specialists, but the likes of Bill, 1951 Brownlow medallist Bernie Smith, David Parkin and, relatively recently, Kevin Sheedy made the positions their own.
    Throw in the names of Tom Hafey, Mick Malthouse and Denis Pagan and there have been a lot of back-pockets who made good senior coaches, with Bernie Smith the only name mentioned above not to coach at the senior level.

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