Remembering Talent Lost

Of late I have been reminiscing about the past. I have largely been thinking about my earliest football memories and of some special occasions to do with a footy upbringing. But a chance meeting during the week made me think of something even more poignant – players that had enormous talent but never got to the upper levels of the game through fate.

 

I was walking through one of the streets up here in Cairns when I bumped into a lad I coached when he was just 12 years old. He was a really good player then, and as he got older his talent continued to blossom. He had a skill set that may have seen him pursue the life of an AFL player.

 

I was staggered when he told me that, in his early twenties, he had retired from the game as he had just recovered from a brain tumour. This revelation floored me – a kid with so much footballing talent taken from the game.

 

It isn’t a tragedy. His survival is way more important than any amount of football. He is well and has survived and can go on with another life with new challenges. But it made me remember others I played with or coached.

 

I clearly remember that as an Under 13 player we had an inspirational captain. He was tall, good looking, strongly built and had wonderful skills for his age. I wasn’t aware then as I was too young, but this lad would have made it at the top level. In fact, his brother went on to play reserve grade for the old South Melbourne in the VFL, such was their pedigree. But this young bloke was taken from us one season by Meningococcal. It is something that is difficult to process, and this was a tragedy. We can only imagine the grief his family suffered, and I remember the club was shocked.

 

A wonderful young kid cut down before he could show his talents to the world.

 

At the same time I played with another super talented kid. He was the true “inside mid” before the term was even invented in the early seventies. He could do it all. Kick with both feet, outrun gazelles, mark, kick and handpass (occasionally) at a level that was our envy. How could a kid our age be so precociously talented?

 

A career at the highest level was almost certain. My memory says that he was pursued by Richmond whilst still a junior.

 

But again fate stepped in. A succession of knee injuries (to both knees) cruelled his career. This young man, who could have been anything, never got to play the game at that level.

 

This would have been a sadder story if not for one thing. He did enter the hallowed fields of the MCG, Etihad and all other grounds in a great career as an AFL goal umpire. At one stage this bloke held the record for most VFL/AFL games with the white flags. I think his record has now been broken by others, but at least he was able to find a new career in the game at the highest level. I still think the game would have seen his name in footy records for very different reasons if not for his cruel injuries.

 

I have watched over the years as young players I knew wasted their talents by treading the destructive paths of drugs and alcohol. One of my best friends in my youth had all sorts of talent, though never the discipline to reach a truly professional level. But on sheer skill and talent he was quite amazing. Yet he never fulfilled potential. Life offered other alternatives – poor alternatives – which evaporated any high level aspirations.

 

In more recent years I have coached kids up here in Cairns. Some will go on and make it at a higher level – NEAFL, VFL, maybe AFL. But I have also watched talent, often unbelievable indigenous talent as well, get so far before a combination of low self-belief, poor choices, socio-economic reasons, peer and family influences and erratic behaviours have snuffed out a career before it could even get a chance to truly blossom.

 

I recently made a list of the best players I have had the pleasure of coaching in my time up here. The list is impressive and endowed with frightening talent. It would be a junior dream team which would beat one and all and leave one with footballing nightmares. Yet, of that list just half of the kids listed are still involved in the game. One or two have gone on to successful alternate careers, which is wonderful, but the rest have been lost to football.

 

When I look at my own journey I can see a so-so player who had some talents but fitted the term “ordinary player” pretty well. Life changed and I left the game for other challenges. But I was rewarded with another chance through coaching to be a part of the game. I class myself as someone who was lucky.

 

But many of the kids and players alluded to in this story were not lucky. They were stripped of their chances through tragic twists of fate. They were never, for the most part, given the chance to be the footballer they could have been.

 

We tend to remember the higher profile talent that we heard about. I remember when Doug Tassell of Essendon was killed in a car accident on his way to play for the Bombers in 1970. I couldn’t understand how players could die. When Darren Millane from Collingwood was also killed in a car accident in 1991, just a year after helping guide the Magpies to a famous drought-breaking flag, the footballing world was in shock. Hawthorn’s inspirational captain, Peter Crimmins, didn’t truly get to retire from the game as he lost his brave battle with cancer. Peter Motley from Carlton never played again after surviving a car accident in 1987. He played just 19 games for the Blues after an exciting career at Sturt in South Australia. There was also the infamous Neil Sachse from Footscray who was left a quadriplegic after a collision with a Fitzroy player during a match in 1975. Most recently, Troy Broadbridge from the Melbourne Demons was taken during the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.

 

These tragedies put sport and life into a sort of perspective – sport is wonderful but life itself is immeasurably more valuable and irreplaceable. The fates of these higher profile players drive that message home.

 

But often we forget about the ones who never made it that far. The ones who had the talent to burn but never got the chance to do so. We all have those stories and they are more heartfelt and personal as they often involve people we knew or grew up with – played with.

 

Funny how a chance meeting with a past player triggered this line of thinking. But, I’m very glad it did.

About Wesley Hull

Passionate lover of Australian Rules football. Have played and coached the game and now spend my time writing about the game I love and introducing young people to the game through school coaching. Will try and give back to the game what it has given me for more that 40 years.

Comments

  1. Howard Kennedy says

    Hi Wesley,
    I enjoyed and empathised with your article. I also have a long list of such players including one who turned down an opportunity to play with the Brisbane Bears because he wanted to play for Hawthorn. (poor choice.); another who died of a drug overdose; another whose family attachments proved too strong to lure him away from the warm North to the cold south. Numerous examples of injuries or tragedies, girls, cars alcohol or lack of self belief.
    You summed it up pretty well.
    What career path are you following now?

  2. Mark Duffett says
  3. Thoughtful piece Wes. One of my habits in footy clubrooms is to wander the walls looking at photos of champion players and teams. Was in the rooms at Pinjarra in WA a while back and there was the local lad (forget his name now) in the All Australian Under 18 team with half his team mates now AFL household names.
    I came home and googled him, and found out he got drafted by the Dockers and had a promising late season debut. Then bad knees intervened with a handful of games over a few seasons, before club, player or both gave up.
    I thought of all the hard work and random bad luck and disappointment. Just hope he didn’t give up on life.
    Every picture tells a story.

  4. Can people remember Paul Melville, the promising young Richmond batsmen who first played for Victoria in 1976-77, prior to his tragic death at the start of the 1978-79 eason. Australian, and Victorian captain, Grahm Yallop pledged to win the Ashes on behalf of his young Richmond and Victorian team mate. Sadly the Ashes prediction was miles off the mark, as Australia was defeated 5-1. However the Vics delivered, winning our first Sheffiield Shield since 1973-74. RIP , Paul Melville.

    Glen!

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks Wes – I’ve been pondering this as I go through the SSA A/A U/15 teams I’ve posting, with lots of “sliding doors” situations evident.

  6. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff Wes.
    Thinking of Darren Millane still upsets me. John Greening and Robert Rose could also get a gig on the unfortunate list.

  7. Stephen Boyle, the ex Footscray player who got poked in the eye against St Kilda in 1972 was another unfulfilled talent. He is related to recent Hawthorn player and Sunday Age journalist, Timothy Boyle.

    Glen!

  8. Nice work Glen.

    Stephen Boyle looked good. Very good. He debuted for the Scraggers the day Bob Rose made his triumphant return to Victoria Park in 1972. Ten goals in six games, his loss was felt over the next few years when the Dogs lacked small forwards to complement its numerous tall options such as Quinlan, Round, Sandilands, KT, Spider Welsh and Greg Parke. The problem was exacerbated by George Bisset’s move to Collingwood under the Ten year rule and Charlie Pagnoccolo never quite being able to recapture his “recruit of the year” form of the early part of the decade.

    Boyle was a talented cricketer having progressed to the 2nd XI at FCC by the end of the summer of 71/72.

    MCR

  9. Glen,
    I saw Paul Melville bat. The first ever game of first class cricket I went to,
    Vic v Tas at the MCG.

  10. There was this kid I went to high school with.
    Talented to the eyeballs, both sides of the body, marking, running.
    He was exceptional as a junior.
    Ran into him twenty years later. He was overweight, with a belly.
    Told me Kevin Sheedy asked him to come to Essendon in the early nineties.
    He played reserves.
    Blew his knee out in his first season.
    Blew the other one out the following year.
    Came back in local footy with a view of getting back to Essendon.
    Blew on of his reconstructed knees out again.
    Dream over.
    Got married, had three kids. Got a neat job. Liked beer a lot. Couldn’t run.
    Loved life.
    He had made his peace with the wreckage of a possible career long ago…

  11. Ron James (western bulldogs) is another that comes to mind. Played in the GF for Williamstown aged just 14 and a year later a winning GF with williamstown earning BOG. Drafted to the bulldogs, had a so-so couple of years under Matlhouse, then entered Wheeler who had brought him into the Willy side for the gf and he was ready for a stellar standout year showcasing his insane ability to tear a game apart. Sadly he was killed skiing in Echuca New Years Day 1990… just 20 years old. Even 26 years later, every new years day and Nov 5th (RJ’s birthday) it is a mixture of smiling because he existed (was a genuinely nuce guy) and sadness he was taken.

  12. Also, Stephen Boyle ended up in education, teaching at Queenscliff high school in the 80’s and possibly 90’s. Last I knew he was in Wyndham still involved in education (that was 2012)

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