JOHN McNAMEE reflects on some of the great Aussie heroes who really made us proud
One of our mates used to bring his girlfriend along to the home games at the famous Victoria Park, once sacred ground for the mighty Collingwood football club.
The trouble was when we stood on the “hill”, she was too short to see over the crowd.
So we created what became known to our tight-knit group of rabid Pies supporters as the Peter McKenna Stand.
It consisted of rows of empty Fosters’ beer cans stacked about two high and spread over an area of a couple of feet.
Of course to achieve this structure meant we lads had to consume the amber liquid within the required cans so that our mate’s girlfriend didn’t miss a moment of the action. That was never a demanding chore for us in those days!
So, from this lofty but rather wobbly eminence, and bedecked with the iconic black and white beanie and scarf, she was able to scream her allegiance and hurl abuse at any opposition player who inflicted physical violence on her hero, yep, you guessed it, Peter McKenna.
Well I guess we were all a bit “in love with” the charismatic Collingwood goal kicking machine back then in the mid-1960s.
The first Aboriginal world boxing champion.Lionel Rose in fighting stance
With his unruly Beatle-style mop-top hairstyle, his rugged good looks and his freakish ability to spin out of smothering tackles and nail the six-point majors, McKenna was regarded as one of the best full forwards in the then VFL, later to become the hybrid AFL.
In those heady days, full forwards were born not made…and Peter McKenna’s brow was undoubtedly touched by the football gods.
Regularly in his early seasons with the Magpies, “Macca” would kick more than 10 goals in a match electrifying his legion of fans and in 1970 he nailed more than 140.
The fortunes of the great Collingwood sides of those days often rested on his magical boot and he was adored by the Black and White faithful. And what a great Aussie sportsman he was too.
There’s not much left of the old Victoria Park these days but it will always hold great memories for our mob and the way we enthusiastically went about the task of constructing the Peter McKenna Stand and catching our mate’s girlfriend every time she (inevitably) tumbled off the cans in her mid-match excitement.
It’s funny but when you cast your mind back to some of the sports heroes of yesterday, it unlocks a whole series of nostalgic memories.
A decade or so before the McKenna era, listening to the wireless as kids as the great Davis Cup matches against the USA would be broadcast into our homes. Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgman and the feared Americans Tony Trabert with his Hollywood matinee-idol good looks and his playing partner, the exotic Vic Seixas.
Aussie Pride: Shane Gould shows off the green and gold costume she wore in the 1972 Munich Olympics
And when I moved up to Sydney in the late 1960s I still remember vividly going to a mate’s place in Balmain to watch the dazzling figure of Lionel Rose slug it out with the tenacious Fighting Harada in Tokyo in what was one of the first direct satellite sporting telecasts on Australian TV.
It was February 1968 and Rose became the first Aboriginal boxer to claim a world championship when he beat Harada over 15 tortuous rounds to claim the bantamweight title. What a night that was!
Different sports and different levels but Rose was another truly great Australian sportsman who shared that magical gift with McKenna…the way they could capture you with their charm and often ingenuous attitude to their genius.
I don’t want to bang the nationalistic drum, but they are the sort of people who make you proud to be Australian. The ones who don’t make you cringe and certainly never “chuck a wobbly” or “bung on an act” when things don’t go their way.
So what started my trail of nostalgia about some of our iconic sports people?
I was cleaning out the bookshelf in the front room and getting rid of some ragged old paperbacks when I came across the biography on another person I rank up there with my favourite greats.
As I picked it up, I remembered a young colleague of mine once telling me how when he was a pupil at Turramurra High School in Sydney’s northern suburbs in the early 1970s, the early class was always held up waiting for one particular student to make her belated appearance.
“She’d come in, with her hair still wet, clutching a bag and soggy towel and hastily take her place at her desk while our teacher glared,” he remembered with a laugh.
Great moment in time: The cover of the invitation to Shane Gould’s testimonial In 1999…the cuddly toy she’s holding on the gold medal dais in Munich is the 1956 kangaroo given to her by Dawn Fraser
Of course she was wet and dishevelled. She’d just swum about 50 laps of the pool under the avuncular guidance of her legendary coach, Forbes Carlile.
In 1972 that then 15-year-old girl with the wet hair, climbed the podium in Munich to win three Olympic gold medals, one silver and one bronze.
The great David Campese goose-stepping his way to glory
Her fledgling career was unfortunately all too brief, but later in life when I was a swimming and surf lifesaving writer for the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, I was lucky enough to run into Shane Gould at various international and national meets and sports functions and more recently at the book launch for the late great Murray Rose.
She was always charming and friendly, still retaining glimpses of that shy young schoolgirl Olympic champion, thrown so quickly into the global spotlight.
Not once a hint of bitterness or recriminations about her once spectacular career that never reached its full potential.
The wife and I were lucky enough to be invited to the testimonial dinner for Shane in August 1999 and it was opening her book, Tumble Turns only the other day, that I saw the simple but treasured inscription on the flyleaf which unlocked even more memories: “To Jennifer and John, from Shane Gould” and at the bottom there’s a little squiggle of a smiling fish. Simple but compelling for this old scribe.
Look, I know we all have our heroes and you’d need an encyclopedia even to list the ones I alone value highly…and I wish I had room here to enumerate even more of the wonderfully talented and modest sports heroes of the past 50-odd years…and I hope you will indulge me in these reflections.
Numbered up there in my firmament and in no particular order or sequence are 1984 Olympic gold medallist, the enchanting Glynis Nunn, Richie Benaud, Randwick rugby’s Ella boys, Mark, Glen and Gary along with their Galloping Greens clubmate and Wallaby superstar David Campese.
Treasured memory: Shane Gould’s inscription on her biography
And finally, one last burst of nostalgia..during those times I was also lucky to meet and mix with the fabulous golden Konrad “twins”, John and Ilsa who blitzed the world pools in the 1950s and 1960s and rank up there with the best of our famous sportspeople.
In the 1990s I had just done an interview with John at the Cook and Phillip Aquatic centre in Sydney’s CBD where he was an inspirational instructor and bravely battling the onset of bi-polar disorder. Afterward he invited me to do a few laps with him and he’d give me some stroke correction hints.
He told me I had a “lazy left arm” and high head rotation, “typical surf swimmer” he muttered and he gave me some exercises to correct my errant technique. He said if I continued not using my left arm properly, it would be painful later on in life.
Funny that…only the other day and almost 20 years on, my GP sent me in for X-rays and an ultrasound of my left shoulder which has been becoming increasingly painful over the past few years.
I wish I had acted on the advice given to me on that day in that Sydney pool by that great Olympic champion John Konrads.
Main Pic Peter McKenna, one of Collingwood’s greatest sons and one of best goal kickers in Aussies Rules history