AFL

A father lost to sons of the West

''Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.'' 

PAUL CELAN

Footscray captain Charlie Sutton leads his club out on Grand Final day in 1954. His Bulldogs were victorious, but the ...
Footscray captain Charlie Sutton leads his club out on Grand Final day in 1954. His Bulldogs were victorious, but the club has not won a premiership since. 

So the legend goes, once a man had shaken the hand of Frank Sinatra, he became a part of an esteemed group. As if he were part of an unspoken code among men.

Out in Footscray, we've been blessed to have something similar. We've had Charlie Sutton, a man whose handshake was like a poem.

One of the first things you would do as a brand new Footscray recruit was meet Charlie. I remember when it was my time, having just come off the training track, pale and nervous and still just 17.

And there was Charlie, back at his beloved Whitten Oval in the middle of summer, with no one around really, introducing himself to players old and new. I must've shaken Charlie Sutton's hand a few hundred times over the ensuing years, and every time it felt important. It felt special.

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There are things as a Footscray footballer that are just there. E.J. Whitten is still there, and I say this as a player who never met the man, but you feel his presence nonetheless. Stand on the ground that bears his name, and you can hear his passionate address to his tired players, slumped on the muddy field.

Chris Grant is almost a mythical figure, whose humility and gentle touch breezed through this place as a player and still now as a board member. Tony Liberatore's grunt and undeniable spirit linger in the walls of our changerooms. Jack Collins is there for me every time I open my locker. Johnny Schultz, Dougie Hawkins, the list goes on.

All of these great figures were celebrated again last Saturday week, at our Hall of Fame night. But it was Charlie's presence that night, brief and ailing, that stayed with you. Just as it always did, as much as he didn't want the moment to be about him.

The thing with Charlie Sutton is that as a player we felt him there in the most primitive of ways. You felt the touch of his hand. A hand that had the weight of history in its grip.

Footscray is unique in lots of ways. We're outsiders in a city dominated by football. Outsiders geographically, outsiders in other ways too.

Our one and only premiership came way back in 1954, and the struggle for that elusive second one is our story stripped back to its bare bones. Our 1954 premiership players are our heroes, and it has to be said that Charlie was their hero.

I'm into the symbolism of things, of footy clubs. I think about it a lot. I think about our club theme song all the time and its opening line — "Sons of the West" — asks me a more profound question.

If we are its sons and daughters, then who is our father? I don't think it's going a step too far to say that figure is Charlie. Yesterday, a football club lost its father, and as sons of that club we are in mourning.

Our story stripped bare is one of glory and of tragedy, but it’s a story that continues. One premiership in over 100 years is a big cross to bear, but it also looms as the biggest carrot in the game.

When Charlie was inducted as the first Hall of Fame legend two years ago, he spoke as only he could about guts, determination, and that thing beneath your shirt called heart — that without it, you don’t win.

Sitting in a wheelchair, straight out of his hospital bed, he said he had always been thrilled to do anything he could for the Footscray Football Club.

All of us in his family should put our weight behind trying to fulfil a promise, to do whatever it takes. It may take time, but we should never forget that we shook the hand of Charlie Sutton.

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