Modern footballers endure countless hours in the gym getting their bodies ready for the rigours of AFL football. However, for AFL Legend Kevin Murray his strength came from years of lugging metal pipes across building sites throughout Melbourne, often 30 – 40 feet in the air, in one of the most treacherous trades of the time – scaffolding.
This was just one of many tales that Fitzroy champion Kevin Murray revealed to us when we met with him to chat about his induction as the 23rd AFL Legend of the Game.
His career spanned a massive 333 games for Fitzroy and 44 matches for West Perth over a 20 year period and he played a further 10 years at a lower level until finally hanging up the boots at the age of 52.
The man, affectionately known as “Bulldog”, made his VFL senior debut at the age of 16 with the Fitzroy Football Club and went on to win nine Best & Fairest awards at the club, a Brownlow Medal and was eventually named at Captain of the Fitzroy Team of the Century.
He also won a Best & Fairest award at West Perth during his time there and throughout his career he represented his states on 30 occasions Victoria (24 times) and Western Australia (6 times) as well as captaining both states.
His incredible career was also capped off by being named a member of the AFL Team of the Century.
The AFL Players’ Associations’ Heath Evans had the opportunity to chat with Kevin during which he revealed his thoughts on the modern game, the story of his tattoos, his Brownlow and his proudest moments as the most recent player to become a Legend of the Game.
You worked your entire career as a scaffolder. We always encourage players to study or work outside of footy but how did you find combining working and footy?
It was a tough trade and in the early years it was very tiring but I grew hardened to it and the strength I built helped me throughout my entire career
I was constantly pulling myself up, chin up style to get to the different levels of the construction site and this helped me build upper body strength.
These sites could be between 30-40 feet in the air and we would have to chin up to the next platform and then lower ourselves down at smoko and then chin up again to get back to work. We did that all day.
I found that by staying active during the week I was able to recover much more quickly than some of the other guys.
If you had injuries, you’d work them out of you because you were always moving. It was gym work without going to the gym. You were out in the elements – the heat, the cold and the wind – and that was a big help to my football.
They were very different times, what do you think has changed most about football since you played the game?
The players no longer hold their position, which means there are always huge packs around the contest. You look at Nick Riewoldt who is the full forward and he will be in full back at points during the game. That never happened in our day.
Another thing that has changed is that players don’t turn their body when attacking a contest. In the old days when two players were running at the ball you would bump the other player off and pick up the ball. Whereas these days they both dive in at the same time.
In the old game, if you did that and bent down and didn’t pick up the ball cleanly first time there was always a player in each team who would knock you out.
Do you think it has changed for the better?
I don’t feel it has changed for the better, the days where fans would come to see full forwards kicking huge bags of goals were the best times.
Guys like Coleman kicking 14 goals in 1954 were the best days. When he was playing, the Essendon crowd would change ends after each quarter just to be close to the man and watch him tussle.
But as far as the spectacle goes, it’s great for fans to enjoy the promotion and we could never have imagined in our day that the game would be what it is now.
Who is your favourite player in the modern game?
I like Jonathon Brown because he’s an old style footballer. The kind of player that when you run out with him he makes you stand 10 feet tall.
So during your time who were the best players you played with?
Bob Skilton, Ted Whitten & Polly Farmer were the best and if they played today they would have been even better. They had the professional approach to the game and training even in those days.”
They could kick on both feet and their preparation was impeccable. Skilton and Whitten in particular and Whitten taught you so much on and off the field.
You played State of Origin with these guys. What was it like to represent your State?
It was a huge honour to represent your State and when you came back to the club after playing State of Origin you came back a better player as you learnt from the others.
Ted Whitten would always greet you at the door as you arrived and shake your hand. It is a wonderful feeling representing your state and it bonds you with the other players and this continues long after your career.
When you trained with the other guys it felt amazing. They had such great skills and the ball zipped around without hitting the ground and you learnt from them and they learnt from you.
Modern players are missing out terribly not having the opportunity to represent their State and no one was bigger in state footy than EJ.
Your father played football at Fitzroy and was heavily involved in your career. Can you tell me a bit about him?
My father played 66 games for Fitzroy and was a great man. He treated all my injuries and many times he got me back on the track much earlier than it would have been otherwise.
One time I had to wear a back brace and it was made out of leather, but it was terribly uncomfortable and it rubbed so bad that Dad made me a new one out of canvas which was much better and I wore that for a while and now it sits in the National Sports Museum.
You won the Brownlow at the age of 31 which is an amazing effort. But I hear there is more to the story than that, which includes a twisted ankle and methylated spirits in your boot?
Yes, in the last game I badly injured my ankle before half time against Melbourne and I didn’t want to take my boot off because I knew it would swell and I wouldn’t be able to get my boot back on so I asked the trainer Tommy Johnson to pour a bottle of methylated spirits into my sock and fill my boot so it would act like ice and I could continue playing.
I finished the game and the Brownlow Medal was the following week and it was always held on the Monday after the last home and away game.
I ended up winning the award and the next week the winner had to run a lap of the oval before the first final and then run into the middle of the ground to be presented with the Brownlow medal.
I spent the entire week going down to the ocean each day to soak my ankle to try and get it better and I remember one St Kilda fan, who was a taxi driver, arriving at my home one day with a bucket of sea water to help me with the swelling.
I ended up running the lap and the feeling of elation was so great I didn’t even feel the pain.
You were well-known for your tattoos but I have been told you covered them up when you won the Brownlow on the request of your dad.
I had a tattoo as a young 13 year old training at Fitzroy and my dad was one of the committee members at the club and was always at training.
But I didn’t want him to see them, so I always had to sneak out of the shower and keep the towel on my back and turn my back to the wall as I went past my father so he couldn’t see them.
When I won the Brownlow Medal in 1969 my father asked me to wear a long-sleeved jumper to cover up the tattoos when I ran the final lap to collect the medal.
Of course I did this but afterwards quite a few Fitzroy supporters contacted me to say they were disappointed that I had worn a long sleeved jumper and didn’t have my tattoos showing as they had become somewhat of a trademark.
What is more attractive to you – Loyalty, Money or Premiership?
Loyalty to the club is the ultimate and to be a one club player is an amazing achievement.
You stuck with your mates and you wanted to be part of it.
Finally, who were two of the biggest influences on your footy?
Bill Stephens was a huge influence as my coach at Fitzroy and Len Smith who also coached me at Fitzroy was instrumental in me doing so well and teaching me how to play the game and be a team player and I owe a hell of a lot to both of them.