If you want to know what sort of person Bob Murphy is, listen to him tell the story of the night a clash with Anthony Rocca wrecked his knee in 2006.
As he lay hurt on the wet turf of the MCG after a bruising tackle, Murphy was informed matter-of-factly by Western Bulldogs doctor Gary Zimmerman that his night and season were over.
“I was in shock, no doubt, but I had this other great panic inside me,” he wrote. “Did I just dog it?
“I was struggling to remember the moments before I got tackled and I was filled with dread that I had flinched at the critical moment.
“If I’d just dogged it, what would people be saying about me? What would be written? Would my teammates be ashamed of me?”
That’s Murphy: facing a year out of the game and his foremost thought was about letting down his mates.
How did a kid from Warragul, with the face and build of a Dublin street urchin, manage to play 300 games in the AFL and retire the most beloved player of his generation?
On Tuesday, Murphy announced this season – his 18th in the AFL − would be his last.
Balanced, elusive and now a ‘great’
Like Melbourne great Robbie Flower, with whom he was often compared, there was a frail, spectral air about Murphy – not only in his pallor and build, but in the magic he could execute on the field. He was supremely balanced, elusive and could be effective all over the ground.
That he survived and flourished in the cut and thrust of AFL footy with his frame was miraculous, perhaps the son of an ex-priest and an ex-nun had a little divinity on his side across that half-back flank.
But Murphy won’t just be remembered as a brilliant player – in a time when the phrase ‘spiritual leader’ has been done to death, Murphy and St Kilda’s Lenny Hayes came closest to giving it true meaning.
His columns for The Age newspaper showed a man who thinks. He tackled music, politics, sledging, race and, of course, a little footy. He was a throwback, railing against the Americanisation of Australian Rules and pining for a simpler time, when players ran on instinct.
“We now film training,” he said, incredulously, in 2015. “When I started, it really was ‘the forwards up there, the backs there and the midfielders’ [there]. You throw up the ball and the best players usually get it and you sort it out amongst yourselves. That’s how it should be.”
He would playfully deride the Western Bulldogs sports science staff, labelling them “physedders” − much to their annoyance. He famously missed out on the Bulldogs first premiership since 1954, when he sat out last season following a second knee reconstruction.
Murphy, who embodied the heart and soul of Footscray more than any other modern player, feels his lack of a flag keenly.
“There’s a bit of a hole in the heart there,” he admitted on Tuesday. Yet there was no player more whole-hearted than Murphy. He once declared premiership players to be the ‘bull elephants’ of footballers, getting first drink at the watering hole.
“They walk up to the bar and the rest of us just take a step to the left,” he said. But there’s no one who could deny Bob Murphy the first drink, no matter what the company.
Former Bulldogs president David Smorgon said he would eventually become a legend in the club’s Hall of Fame.
“He arrived looking like a jockey but he ended up being a champion of the club and the game, both on and off the field,” Smorgon told The New Daily.
Ted Whitten Jr, himself a club great and the son of their finest ever player, said Murphy is in his father’s league.
“He’s the heart and soul of the Western Bulldogs,” Whitten said. “He’ll go down as one of the greats.”