Courage takes many forms. I remember as a kid I was deemed to be a brave player but they were wrong, at that point I was not brave, I was fearless. I had never been hurt and the thought it could happen never entered my mind. Some might say I was stupid. Then I remember the day a kid from Kensington jumped into my chest, leaving about 10 stop-sized bruises on my chest and the understanding, like an ink stain in my chest, of what pain meant. I lost my fearlessness that day. From then on anytime I went for the ball it was a brave act because I understood what could happen. I knew and feared it but went for the ball anyway until a game against Reservoir when two thugs simply knocked out several players, king hitting them from behind.
Football lost its fun for me that day. It was the 70’s and perhaps football was at its most dangerous, some teams played like the gangs that wandered the streets. Marauding thugs who belted up opposition teams because they could not play football as well. For a time there football was in danger of belting itself out of existence. Then sanity slowly came back in and sides were ousted, players ousted and the game settled down.
In those days it took courage to play the game. Still does. Football is a contact sport and that means your body is going to get crunched, it’s not a matter of if, only of when. That is why footballers, all of them, are brave. They all know the big crunch exists, they know and play anyway.
There are many footballers who get labelled brave. Many who are fearless. For mine though, the bravest footballer I ever saw was Kenny Hunter. This man either lacked the ability to foresee the crunch or he somehow managed to stem the fear and play with an abandon rarely seen. Some bigger players play the same, but they have size on their side. Smaller players are allowed to stand back and watch the marking packs explode. Kenny was a small player who played as if he was seven foot tall and twenty stone: As if he was a brick wall, impervious to all, a titanic unable to be sunk.
Even with the bravest players there are moments when they might hesitate, it is only human. They may, even for a split second, take their eyes off the ball or not put their entire body in the way of the approaching train. Kenny never did. He ran back with the flight, eyes only for the ball, he ran to tackle, eyes only on the player with the ball, he backed back, ran forward, put his head over the ball, every single time.
Not once did I see him shy away. Not once did I even see him look to see what was coming. Kenny Hunter was as brave as they come. Kenny played the game as if protected, he played the game as if he believed that lie about ‘go in hard and you won’t get hurt’, yet you do get hurt. Getting hurt is part of the game: An integral part. Football is as much about defining ourselves as males as it is about any sporting ability.
Fast runners can run on the track. High leapers can jump over the bar or across the sand. But a footballer must put his body on the line, must accept that he will get crunched and that the better he is the more chance that crunch is just around the corner. If fact there might even be a mathematical graph highlighting that the better a player is the more likelihood he will be crunched: Play well and you draw that moment closer.
That is why football takes courage. It asks that you suppress self-preservation for the sake of the team, it is an ancient request, it connects us to the tribe, but where that was a matter of life and death, this is simply a game, a matter of a ball that bounces oddly, a matter of team-spirit, pride and the will to win.
Kenny Hunter gave his all for the team and took the crunches that came his way, some sickening crunches delivered to his head and light frame like a truck smashing into a mini minor. He took them all and then ran for the ball the very next time, not once looking out for his own safety, for Kenny Hunter, the ball was all, the team’s victory his only desire. Kenny was the bravest footballer I have ever seen and he must have made more parents choose another sport for their son than other player. What parent could not witness his courage and feel that sharp bite of fearful love all parents endure? How many parents would decide in that instant that this game is not a game for their child?
No player is lacking in courage, none. Some supporters may bay about players being gutless from the stands as if they are more courageous as onlookers than the players running around the oval, but they are wrong. All players have courage; it is the nature of this game that everyone shall have their courage tested way before they ever make it to the AFL. All of them have faced that kid from Kensington, all of them have been wrapped around the goal post like a lad I once knew, a small rover called Tony who took all the hits bigger players could dish out and still kept going for the ball. All players have faced their moment, have been crunched and hurt and still pulled the boots back on and ran out the following Saturday. That is why they are brave to a man.
All footballers are brave, it is just that some might be braver than others and, for mine, the bravest I have ever seen was a man with a slight frame, a man who ran with his socks down and his head up, his eyes never leaving the ball. Kenny Hunter was the bravest footballer I have seen, a champion of this game, a man of immeasurable skill and the bravest heart of all. I point his picture out to my son and say, ‘that was Kenny Hunter lad, the bravest of the brave.’