Tom Hafey: the heroes’ hero

On the days in between running or playing competitive sport I eke out a burst of 200 push-ups. Why would I commit to such a weird obsession?

The simple answer is Tom Hafey.

See, I remember reading about Hafey’s extraordinary fitness regime and how he did x amount of push-ups every morning – and added one each day. It went to his famous response to the standard ‘how are you’ question, where he would respond ‘good and getting better’.

That he continued pushing the envelope into his 80’s was a source of inspiration to so, so many. This was a man stretching the boundaries of mortality. Hafey was a unique individual who, as much as he loved football, transcended his career vocation to raise questions to the very meaning of life and the limits of human capability.

Reading between the lines it was apparent that subsequent to the initial treatment of Hafey’s brain cancer, the diagnosis was dire. Life can be so incredibly unjust. If anyone was to live to 120, Hafey was exhibit A. The t-shirt wearing teetotaller who drank little else but tea, and sported a body the envy of a 30 year old… For the end to come so quickly is impossible to reconcile.

I am as sad as I can be for someone I didn’t personally know, and unlike writers of many other glowing tributes, had never met.

My earliest memories of barracking for Collingwood was the ‘Hafey’s heroes’ era which infuriatingly resulted in four losing grand finals in five otherwise scintillating seasons.

A Cinderella story was denied in 1977, when in Hafey’s first season at the helm, he took the wooden spooner to the top of the ladder, only to at best salvage a draw from a grand final that appeared in the bag at three quarter time. But for a Phil Carman brain fade in the semi final there is little doubt it would have been the greatest premiership story in the history of Australian Rules football.

I don’t really remember 1979 but that too ended in heart breaking circumstances; again the underdog was denied.

Then in 1980, against the club he took to the summit on four occasions, another team of worn out battlers succumbed. In protest I tore up my Kevin Bartlett Scanlens footy card into iddy biddy pieces, such was my six year old angst.

After another grand final heartache in 1981 it was little wonder the following year ended in an ugly sacking that also claimed club champion and captain Peter Moore. Even Hafey’s boundless positivity had its limits.

Whilst Tom Hafey will, for obvious reasons, be inextricably linked to the Tigers, his black and white years left an indelible mark on the club and its supporters. For a few dollars more, had the brain-dead Magpie board at the time taken the opportunity to recruit the likes of Quinlan, Ashman and Conlan (as was Hafey’s wont), there is little doubt Tommy’s legend would have been catapulted beyond his exulted contemporaries in Sheedy, Jeans, Parkin and Barassi.

Nonetheless, nevermind what should have been, nine grand finals in a fifteen year period, plus an overall 65% winning ratio (only slightly bettered by Jock McHale and Dick Reynolds), is testament to Hafey’s standing in the pantheon of coaching greats.

At Victoria Park the terraces worshipped Tommy long after his departure. The R. T. Rush Stand would continue to grant a standing ovation when Tom coached the Cats and the Swans.

There is a certain synergy felt with Hafey’s heroes and the man himself, who both pushed themselves beyond their limits, only to be short changed when it mattered.

My wife’s health-at-work program organised Tommy as a guest speaker this year, doubtless with little thought to the possibility it was a contract that could not be fulfilled. The similarly robust leader of her work’s fitness program suddenly died just days prior to Hafey, at just 52 years of age. At his eulogy he was compared to Tom Hafey – surely there can be no greater tribute.

Like the bounce of a football, all I can ponder is what can be made of life and death’s random nature?

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Brilliant Jeff I have loved the knackerys tributes to the great man it has been shown in how many people have taken time out to pay tribute just how loved and revered he was . Your envelope paragraph is so poignant and spot on thanks , Jeff

  2. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said Jeff. For a man who lived like he did to depart like he did IS impossible to reconcile.
    Couldn’t imagine M.Malthouse getting a standing ovation from the Rush Stand faithfull when coaching another club!

  3. DBalassone says

    Superb stuff Jeff. I’m glad someone else remembers those Victoria Park ovations. I wrote the story on another post (I think Vale Tommy), about the first time Tommy returned to Vic Park after the sacking. I think it was Round 2, 1983. Tommy got such a massive ovation that he was moved to tears – this was widely reported in the press at the time, I wonder if there is any footage of the moment. Despite all the heartache for us Magpies, the 1977-81 period was a golden era for VFL Footy. Record attendances with the big clubs figuring prominently in the finals mix, suburban grounds packed to the rafters, Lethal, Doull, Barker, KB, Roach, Daicos, the Baby Bombers, VFL Park, Mike Brady, 4 & 20 pies & the time-worn face of Tommy Hafey forever propelling those battling Collingwood teams into Grand finals.

  4. It was certainly a golden era for footy Damian with plenty of high scoring, attacking footy and positional play. I was at that Geelong game behind the goals at the Yarra Falls end so missed the ovation that particular day.

    Just got back from the memorial service at the MCG and it was superbly done. Despite the audible groan from Richmond supporters when Eddie first appeared as MC, he typically did a superb job.

    And more importantly his children and grandchildren were so impressive and well spoken. Clearly a lot of Tommy has rubbed off on them all.

    Many great stories spoke to what a unique character he was, there will never be another quite like him. Even KB was great value with some very amusing anecdotes.

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