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The Age

Bunton, a sporting god with a human touch

Author: Martin Flanagan
Date: 28/06/2008
Words: 1080
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Sport
Page: 12
Former Fitzroy champion Haydn Bunton had it all - sublime sporting ability, natural grace, good looks and an all-round talent for sport.

MY FAVOURITE footy icon is the photograph of Haydn Bunton leaping, ball beneath his arm, Earth hardly in sight.

I don't want to appear excessively lyrical but the pose is almost exactly the same as the one traditionally used to depict Hermes, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology.

In earlier and more classical times, a statue of Hermes (also known in Roman mythology as Mercury) sat atop the building housing this newspaper.

Now there is a statue at the MCG of Haydn Bunton making his famous leap.

It's a fine statue, but with this one besetting irony - in the end, a statue has to stand. It cannot leap.

Bunton, who was named this week in the 50 best players of all time by The Age's committee of footy elders, has always interested me. He was sublimely gifted and good looking, with an introspective intelligence.

A former journalist I met named Jim Coulter knew Bunton after he left Fitzroy in 1938 at the age of 27 and moved to Western Australian to captain-coach Subiaco. Coulter, who was then in his teens, trained with Subiaco.

One day he told Bunton he felt compelled to live honestly and, as a result, had gone to school and volunteered to the headmaster that he had cheated in a test. Bunton replied: "I wish I'd found a belief like that when I was 18."

Bunton was from Albury. Every club in the league was after him and his start was delayed when it was found he had taken an under-the-table payment of #222 - then a lot of money - from Fitzroy.

As a player, he was ahead of the game in that he ran the length of the ground, up and back, in the manner of the modern midfielder. Everyone spoke about his balance and natural grace.

I once heard a story of him telling a youngster it was important to watch and learn how a football bounces after it hits the ground. He won the Brownlow Medal in his first year (1931) and again in his second year, adding a third in 1935.

Over the course of his career, he averaged one Brownlow vote in every game he played.

It could truly be said that Bunton had it all.

He had played cricket with Don Bradman in his youth in a NSW Country side. I have seen it written that he might have played Test cricket.

He was also a fine middle-distance runner. He was extremely good looking - he possessed what was referred to in those days as matinee-idol looks. When he went to Western Australia, he added three Sandover Medals (the WAFL best and fairest) to his three Brownlows.

Coulter, who saw him play a lot in Western Australian, likens him as a player to James Hird - he possessed an intelligence for the game.

The Fitzroy team of the 1930s, despite having little success, contained three Brownlow medallists - Bunton, full-back Dinny Ryan and wingman Wilfred "Chicken" Smallhorn, who was on television when I was a kid. He looked like a chicken - or, rather, a desiccated old rooster. He was thin and wiry and full of opinions.

During the Great Depression when Chicken, like a lot of young men, was unemployed, Fitzroy got him a bicycle, gave him a list of the addresses of its supporters and advised him to start a tea round.

Fitzroy also had an Aboriginal champion, Doug Nicholls. A deeply spiritual man who later became a pastor, Nicholls said a footballer could preach a sermon by the way he played the game.

He came to Melbourne from the Cummeragunja mission on the Murray River in the 1920s. Having nowhere to stay and no money, he slept in boxes at the Victoria Market.

Despite being only 155 centimetres in height, Nicholls seems to have excelled at all sport. He won professional foot races and fought in the boxing tents. He went to Carlton but the trainers refused to rub him because he had black skin.

I met an old Fitzroy entity once who stoutly dismissed this story but I know it's certainly alive among Nicholls' descendants. Ask West Coast's David Wirrpanda. He heard it as a kid.

So, in 1932, Nicholls went to Fitzroy. I once found myself the only white face on a Cairo train platform, being stared at by hundreds, possibly thousands, of brown faces. You don't feel big in that situation. You feel small. You attempt to pass through that initial self-consciousness and find that it follows you.

Nicholls must have felt some or all of that when he went to Fitzroy training for the first time. How did he know that someone here wouldn't insult him?

I have heard various versions of what happened next but, basically, Bunton, the reigning Brownlow medallist, put his bag beside Nicholls' and began talking to him as a teammate and an equal.

Nicholls went on to become Sir Douglas Nicholls, the Governor of South Australia.

Bunton died after a car crash in 1955. He was 44 at the time. He never had success as a coach, either in Western Australia or South Australia. At a time when we are again hearing calls for the "fairest" requirement to be dropped from the Brownlow Medal, I find it interesting that Haydn Bunton's last formal connection with the game was as an umpire.

His son, Haydn Bunton jnr, seriously injured his knee early in his career and never fully recovered. He still managed to win a Sandover Medal but it is as a coach he is remembered. He was only 19 when he was appointed captain-coach of SANFL club Norwood.

I was fortunate to meet Haydn jnr and his younger brother David a couple of years ago. They autographed my copy of the photo of their father's leap.

Jim Coulter told me one other story that he heard about Haydn Bunton snr. He was working as an insurance agent at the time of his death.

Some of the people in the district where he was working were doing it hard. Bunton had access to cheap poultry, which he sometimes transported in his car to help these people out.

After he died from injuries received in the car crash, police found a live hen in the wreck and surmised it might have contributed to the accident.

As I see Haydn Bunton, which is from a considerable distance, he was a sporting god who was reassuringly human.

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