As a player, I have seen, up close and personal, many special things on the football field.
I've been fortunate to witness acts of courage that defy belief. I've seen players throw themselves at the ball and through packs in ways that challenge physics, gravity … and any notion of self-preservation. And there have been one or two times when I've watched replays, and taken a second look to find with surprise that it was me who was performing such deeds.
These moments are hard to appreciate in the heat of battle. It's not until watching the highlights later that I shake my head with wonder. How did Eddie Betts manage to curl the ball from that angle through the goals?
How did Jeremy Howe take that mark? What about Sam Mitchell? How did he thread a handball through that space, under such pressure? As a player, I find myself drawn to watching and admiring particular opponents. I would pay the price of admission to be on the same field as these guys and witness firsthand their special talents.
For some, it's their ability to make the difficult look so damn easy. A goal, a mark, or using their peripheral vision, which allows them to make decisions under huge duress as easily as ordering a morning coffee. For players like that, time stands still, Matrix-style, while others frantically rush about them trying to intercept or provide options. Then there are those who are all heart. They throw themselves at the contest in a way that I can't help but admire and be inspired by.
And while the characters are few and far between compared to yesteryear, they do still exist in this homogenised version of the modern game.
Some of these guys I've played with - but mostly against, and simply admired their work from afar. Here are some of my favourites:
The Chad: Fresh from presenting his nomination for mark of the year, Chad Wingard is quickly becoming one of my faves to watch. Electric when with the ball, and always dangerous when in its vicinity, he has whipped the Port faithful into a lather during periods at the Portress.
Geelong’s Steven Motlop has sold candy to the best. I dare say even to the candy man himself, Scott Pendlebury.
Floating across the turf, Motlop has the ability to score from any ridiculous angle. But what I find myself appreciating more than that is his ability to hit a target by foot when running at top pace.
I place Chris Yarran in the same boat. Running and bouncing off half-back in particular, effortlessly putting metres between him and those that gallantly give chase, he's always making it look so frustratingly easy.
Patty Dangerfield is from the same mould, but with slightly different skills. With a bit more grunt, this V8 tends to plough over the top of those who try to stop him, as opposed to Motlop and Pendlebury who just dance around opponents. His genuine power game, splitting packs and bursting away with the ball tucked under his arm sends cold chills down the backs of all opponents. His teammates must love playing alongside him. There have been occasions when I've watched him run through players for the ball - and over players with the ball. All at turbo speed.
Nick Dal Santo and, as I've already mentioned, Pendlebury manage to find time where they shouldn't. Somehow they are one play ahead of the rest. The game is in fast forward when the ball is not in their hands, yet seemingly played at treacle speed when they do have the ball. I have watched some of their highlights closely and found myself sucked into their time zone as well. How I'd love to be able to share that ability.
But it's not just the beautiful I'm drawn to. The bold can be equally attractive. The blue-collar, all-heart players share a small part in all of our hearts.
GWS skipper Callan Ward is quickly gaining recognition in this regard throughout the competition. I watched him play earlier in the year and was full of admiration for the way he went about it. He is a man among boys in that team. Of course, he's only really a boy himself, yet he willed his body through every contest dragging his not-so-younger teammates with him.
Josh Kennedy from the Swans manages to put his large frame between ball and opposition player so regardless of the pressure that he's able to get a handball away to a teammate. The Kangas' Ben Cunnington is another with a particularly hard head who puts it where most would fear to tread. Jack Viney's hit early in the year gives a taste of what to look forward to in the future. The apple does not fall far from the tree in his case.
The unpredictable players can be as entertaining as the consistently brilliant because you never know quite what you’re going to get.
No doubt the Crows are happy to have their power forward Tex Walker back for slightly different reasons than mine. Tex seems to be the heart and soul of the Crows and has the ability to galvanise his team for all to witness. Jack Riewoldt is in the same basket. Having received the baton from Matt Richardson himself, the emotional forward only displays what we all feel at times. The yellow-and-black army ride every bump with Jack. The journos love it when he fires up, blasting a teammate for not directing the ball onto his chest or showing disappointment with his own efforts. I feel like there is no malice in his outbursts, just an inability to hide his emotions.
I have played with a similar type who on occasions made no attempt to conceal his emotions; they were on show for all to see. It was only when they turned negative that we, as senior teammates, let him know his behaviour could potentially be to the detriment of the team performance. With a shrug he took this on board. But when his behaviour was positive by nature, all were lining up for high fives.
Sometimes, miraculous performances down the other end of the ground have had opponents next to me muttering their astonishment. I have witnessed teammates take bounces, launch for hangers and kick the most ridiculous goals. On one particular occasion my opponent just shook his head and as we turned to move back to position after the goal, he shrugged his shoulders and concluded: "What a joke! That guy is a freak."
From time to time, having played for as long as I have against the same faces, it's not uncommon to discuss such displays of skill with the opposition. Regardless of the battle, some acts can't help but be acknowledged. A debate has raged all season about the direction footy is heading and whether it's becoming one rolling rugby-type maul – exemplified by Monday’s Melbourne-Collingwood slog – but there will always be players who can lift a contest from the humdrum to the spectacular. To me, their individual brilliance and showmanship will always make the game worth watching.
The Secret Footballer is a current AFL player.