Imagine carrying out your job in the knowledge that everyone else around you depended upon you. Where every error was a calamity. Think soccer goalkeeper, or aeroplane pilot, sans the support crew.
Then imagine doing it for 23 years. And throw in the fact that the whole thing is conducted in the most public of forums, in this case, the AFL.
Dustin Fletcher is a marvel. No one in the history of the AFL or VFL has played for so many seasons. When he crosses the line to play against Richmond on Saturday night, he will become just the third player to reach 400 games.
He will do his job, and then head quietly into the night, as he always has done. The game has rarely seen a more humble or quiet champion.
Fletcher was cut out for his craft, skilful and quick like his father Ken, but much taller of course, and smart with the ball.
Moreover, his mentality was perfect; he does not panic, and he never changed. It brings to mind Jack Nicholson’s line as the dodgy colonel in A Few Good Men: “You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”
Essendon needed him on the wall and he always delivered.
When he started in 1993, the league had a crop of key forwards that may never have been matched in its history: Lockett, Dunstall, Ablett, Carey, Modra, Kernahan, Lynch, Longmire, Sumich.
Fletcher played them all one-on-one; before the invention of zones, and grids, where players step into the spaces and cut off leads. It was before team defence, with the third man flying in to help the full-back.
In the latter years, zones and Essendon’s willingness to use him on the second- or third-best attacking player relieved the pressure. It was a recognition that nobody could do that job forever.
Dustin Fletcher never flinched amid this; reliability was his best trait. Yet this is not to say it was routine, or that he was a dull player. On the contrary, he kicked long and took the odd hanger. He was known to drift forward and kick a goal. You often wondered if he was too good to be a full-back.
Except there were tools that meant he had to remain there. Specifically those enormous arms, the ‘Inspector Gadget’ arms from the cartoon of yesteryear, so often intervening at the last possible instant to complete a spoil. That cartoon has not been shown in Australia since the 1980s, but the writer would be pleased to have its character immortalised.
And there’s been the closing speed, still there at 40, and so important for a defender.
Early in Essendon’s game against the Brisbane Lions last week it happened again; Fletcher caught out of position, the ball flying over his head to an opponent in the goal mouth, then the late lunge and the spoil, almost from nowhere. At the time, it occurred to me I’d been watching this for 23 years. Twenty-three!
Essendon, with all its great history, has had a few better players. But not many.