By TREVOR GRANT 25 Aug 2003, Herald Sun
Suitably overwhelmed by his presence, you would offer your name, he would break into a smile from one big ear to the other, and then forget it as quickly as you'd said it.
Ceremony was anathema to Dyer, whose legend sprouted out of the Great Depression and eventually grew as big as the tallest tree in the forest.
As odd as it might seem for an ex-player who used his nickname, Captain Blood, as a by-line on his newspaper columns, he disliked being the centre of attention in a crowd. He much preferred the corner of the bar, where he could conspire and laugh with old footy mates and anyone else who happened along.
He might have been one of the biggest names in the game for more than 50 years, but he betrayed not an inkling of self-importance. He may not have known your name, even after years of meetings, but he would always listen attentively to what you had to say. Indeed, he always used those big lug-holes much more than his mouth.
After retirement, he was never a regular fixture at the club, where he was revered throughout his career and later life. Yet he always gave of himself for the Tigers, usually in ways that had little public focus, but a whole lot of meaning to individuals.
Like the day he unobtrusively dashed down to the MCG rooms to comfort a skinny 16-year-old kid who'd been knocked senseless at the opening bounce of an under-19s semi-final and carted off with a serious hip injury.
Kevin Bartlett recalled the moment he opened his eyes. "I was lying in the rooms waiting for the ambulance to go to hospital," he said. "I had a lot of pain in my right hip. Next minute I look up and there was Jack Dyer, who I'd never met in my life. He never knew me and didn't know if I could play. He asked me how I was and offered a few consoling words. He said something like, 'You'll be fine'. I found it amazing that a great man like that would be down there to see me at 9.30 on a Saturday morning."
His caring nature has always been at odds with the image of the ruthless ruckman who broke more collarbones than anyone in the game's history. But, long before he became Captain Blood he, too, had been the recipient of the sort of kindness he'd displayed to Bartlett.
Dyer's idol as a youngster had been the Tigers' powerfully built centre half-forward of the 1920s, George Rudolph. As it happened, Rudolph was the first player he ran into on his first day at Richmond as a teenage hopeful in the late 1920s.
"I stumbled across the immense body of George Rudolph sprawled in a big, steaming sodium bath -- the steam bath designed to ease away the aches, pains and stresses of the battered footballer," he recalled in Jack Dyer's The Greatest, a 1996 book, detailing the best players in a 100 years of VFL-AFL football.
"G'day son. What's your name? Whaddya want?" Rudolph asked him.
"I'd never seen a real super legend in the flesh before, not this close and certainly not this raw.
"I replied: 'I'm John Dyer, sir. I'm here to play football, I hope'.
"As my voice trailed away, he eased back to make space in the bath. 'Well, hop in and we'll have a yarn'.
"I peeled off and squeezed in. We were as snug as two gorillas in a fishbowl, but he was such a wonderful character I hero-worshipped the guy from that day on."
In the 19 seasons between his first game, as 19th man in 1931, and 312th, and last, as captain-coach in 1949, Dyer became the game's most magnetic figure, hated as fiercely by opposition fans as he was loved by his own. The emotion he fired in supporters was once graphically outlined by his mother, Nellie, who, on one of many similar days at the football, had stood and listened to an opposition fan hurl foul abuse at her son, whom she called "Johnny".
"I couldn't help myself. I turned around and snapped: 'You wouldn't say those things if his father was here,' she was quoted as saying. "He took a break from the abuse, looked me in the eye and quietly said: 'Madam, I wouldn't think a bastard like that would have a father.' Thereafter I kept my mouth shut."
Dyer's reputation for breaking bodies has a factual side to it. You have only to listen to the members of the so-called Dyer Collarbone Club tell their stories decades later as if it happened yesterday.
According to his biographer, Brian Hansen, one lady wrote 50 years after the event to complain about Dyer breaking her brother's collarbone during a match. "You put him out of football and he had to take up lawn bowls, at which sport he became a champion, yet you never apologised or asked after him," she wrote.
Hansen said Dyer wrote back with an explanation rather than an apology. "I suffered an injury early in my career that robbed me of my baulk. I could only play straight-ahead football. It was that or quit the game," he explained.
"Any player worth his salt knew how I played and if he elected to stand in my path, he did so at his own peril. I offer no apologies then or now, although I am pleased to learn he has survived the collision to become a champion in a field where he can stand his ground with little risk of being levelled to the ground."
What gets lost in the legend of Dyer the Destroyer is that he was also a wonderful player, blessed with more skills than the art of physical intimidation. Those who both played against him and watched him from the sidelines were effusive in their praise.
"So often one sees a big fellow who plays a hard, tough game, but he ends there, his football is crude. Dyer was a great footballer in his own status," Melbourne premiership captain and coach, Alan la Fontaine, wrote in the Sporting Globe in 1943.
The Globe's Hec de Lacy, the pre-eminent football writer of the Dyer period, once recalled a pivotal moment in his assessment of him.
"So long as I can talk football I will remember a mark he took in the semi-final of 1940," de Lacy wrote.
"The ball was spun forward, Melbourne's Maurie Gibb and the Tigers' Jack Cotter set themselves for the mark. From across the centre Ron Baggott and Ian Hull swung across. Timing his run perfectly, Jack Mueller came in for one of those glorious finger-tip marks for which he was famed.
"Dyer was with him. Flying from the back of the pack he flattened the five players ahead of him and came back to earth holding the mark. It was atom bomb stuff. That was the greatest mark that there ever was."
Hansen, who perhaps knew Dyer better than most, revealed that the greatest Tiger had no liking of his image as an enforcer, even though he accepted it as part of the act in his media career.
"Jack never perceives himself as having been a brutal or callous player. The essence of the game was to win. He saw possession of the ball at all costs was a requirement if his team was to accomplish that objective," he said.
In 1996, Dyer summarised his views. "Nobody ever dragged out the silver service and handed the ball to me on a plate," he wrote. "When I was a kid trying to make the grade, I got backhanders and insults. If you took it, you weren't a man and had no place in the game."
Dyer's playing career was ended by injury, in 1949, and his coaching days, in 1952, by the whim of a committee. He accepted both, and moved on without complaint.
His chosen path was the media, which gave him a whole new world to conquer. Typically, he took to it with great relish and immersed himself in it.
On a Saturday evening, directly after a day calling a game for 3KZ, he could be found with the rest of the football media community in the top bar of the Flinders St pub run by his mate, Lou Richards.
He would often counsel young reporters, asking those who'd been to the same match as him to nominate their best players. Tentatively, you would reel off your list and grimly await the verdict.
One night I received the thumbs down, and swore to regain my lost standing. The next week, as soon as Dyer walked in the pub door, Richards quietly asked him who had played well at his game. Richards then worded me up and I later rattled off an identical set of best players. "Son, you've finally arrived," Dyer said, putting his big hand on my shoulder.
"I've loved those years of television, radio and newspapers," he wrote seven years ago. "It was late in life to take up a genuine writing career, but I joined the Truth sporting staff and worked through the ranks. I thumped away on the typewriter and chased around for stories, joined the Australian Journalists' Association and there came the day I made it as an A Grade journalist. I felt like I'd just been made captain of Richmond."
Right to the end of his public career he retained a humility that few possess in an ego-driven industry.
There was no carping at critics when he played or coached, or crisis of identity when it all came to an end.
And when he finally decided it was time to drift away from footy and spend his final years in the bosom of a loving family, he did it with the usual quiet dignity.
Jack Dyer accepted what came along in football and life -- whether it was a whack behind the ear or an accolade. Football will be forever in his debt. Typically, though, he saw it the other way around.