In a midweek press conference just before this 2012 finals series, a room full of Perth journalists crammed into the Fremantle media facilities and made ten minutes for Antoni Grover; retiring after 202 AFL games, and in everyone’s eyes, leaving the club a better place than when he first walked through its doors thirteen years ago.
With Chris Bond there to deliver the formal news that Grover would be calling it quits at season’s end, it was left to his good mate Luke McPharlin to heap praise on his fellow defender, and offer something more than the usual platitudes. As far as retirement announcements go, it seemed both self-deprecating and genuine.
But for some reason, this contributor’s mind turned to a similar image, like he’d seen this picture somewhere before. One name sprang to mind: Clive Waterhouse. Forever a cult hero of the club’s early days, Waterhouse is a famous Fremantle name who like Grover, was probably forced to call time because the calibre of the team was beginning to move on without him.
Waterhouse was symptomatic of the club’s early inconsistencies; he could be both a match-winner and missing in action, and for a long time, that was good enough. But a new coach in Chris Connolly arrived, with new standards; and as Fremantle went from 2 wins, 20 losses in 2001 to 8 wins, 14 losses in 2002 and a first finals appearance in 2003, it became clear youth would be a focus, and that there wasn’t a place for Waterhouse in the forward line.
Though many feared he would be marooned on 99 AFL games, he played on, reached that milestone, but retired early in the 2004 season when the writing was on the wall. Did he waste his prodigious talent? Would his shocking run of injuries have been better managed today? Would he be considered an AFL great had he been drafted in 1996 by the reigning premiers Carlton, or developing powerhouse Essendon, or any club with higher expectations for success? Who’s to say.
And then there are the vast majority who never reach 100 AFL games.
This contributor attended a typical summer house party in Cottesloe over a decade ago: when returning from the bathroom, there was a spare room along the corridor with the door ajar, and nothing in the room but a single mattress, a few shirts and jeans on coat hangers, and a framed Dockers jumper signed by the whole squad. The host walked past at that moment, sighed with resignation, and admitted a friend of theirs had hit hard times since being delisted at the end of that season.
He was a former Docker - a household name from the late 1990s, that almost any supporter would recall - who’d been reduced to a ‘pay-per-play‘ contract and run down his savings to almost nothing in the hopes he’d get more game time in his final season. So ashamed of his current circumstances, he’d stopped socialising with his former team mates, and become somewhat of a recluse while he tried to figure out if he was good at anything other than kicking a football. Although Andrew Browne took the national headlines in recent years for his public battle with depression, it goes without saying many before him endured a similar struggle away from the spotlight.
And that, at least to this contributor, is the heart of the matter. It would be unfair to name this late 1990s player for many reasons, but suffice to say, he extracted the most of his ability. Whatever could be said of Clive Waterhouse and his incredible raw talent, he played 100 AFL games, something only a tiny proportion of the footballing demographic can say.
And as for Antoni Grover, he is a life member, a 200 game veteran, and certain to be remember as a club legend. He even got his own valedictory press conference. Grover would not have been human if he hadn’t have felt a little sadness to not be picked for one of Fremantle’s finals this season, but would the other two participants in this story have traded places with him if given the chance? Without a shadow of a doubt.
In their own ways, each of these players can be proud of their on-field achievements. The extra travel burden makes any WA-based 200 AFL game player a special example of commitment and professionalism, and no one can take this away from Antoni Grover. But at moments like this in the close season, it pays to think of all the others who won’t get any fanfare; injury, limited opportunity or just being unable to go around again will force many AFL players around Australia to disappear from view this summer; for many of them, they won’t be seen in the public eye again.
And for the rest of us, who would’ve given something to play just one AFL game, perhaps that’s the little bit of perspective required to salute them all.