The Life and Times of Captain Blood

29 August 2003 by Geoff Slattery

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD

29 August, 2003, by Geoff Slattery, afl.com.au

Jack Dyer has been a larger-than-life presence in football since he first pulled on a pair of boots. Geoff Slattery remembers the man they called 'Captain Blood'.

My first working day in journalism was as a racing cadet with The Truth in 1971. The Truth had been a significant voice in Melbourne journalism until the late '50s, but had become famous in this era for outrageous headlines, petals attached to the nipples of page three girls, Heart Balm, the racing form, the sports section ? and Jack Dyer's column Dyer'ere.

Dyer was at the height of his powers at the end of the '60s, through the '70s. He was a legend of the game well before it became an official term for those who had made a difference in football; he dominated radio, TV and The Truth.

On my first day on the job, I arrived early, unsure of what to expect. What I didn't expect was to find the office empty, save for Dyer typing away at a well-used Remington 66 typewriter. I approached him nervously, said 'hello', and he replied quickly, ''Hello-how-are-you-are-you-well?''

I soon understood Dyer's role in the newspaper. He and the sports editor, Brian Hansen, had a wonderful relationship - almost symbiotic. Hansen had great affection for Dyer, and it showed. Dyer understood he had a rare talent to gather news from the vast array of 'contacts' he had in the media.

Dyer was thus the lead-in for Hansen's aggressive 'knock-em-down' journalism. I worked in this amazing newspaper for seven years, before moving on. During that time, all of us who worked around Dyer grew to love him as a kind, gentle, caring individual.

We drank with him at the Celtic Club, we drew from his long life in sport, not just footy. Years later, when I was at The Age I was asked to write a profile on Dyer. It was a labour of love and was published in The Age on June 18, 1981.

The phone rang for ages before the familiar voice answered: "Dyer speaking". We exchanged a few wisecracks before we got down to what Dyer likes to call "business". It was time for the Jack Dyer story to be reconsidered.

After all, it was 16 years since his life story Captain Blood had been published. And the Legend is bigger than it's ever been before. Dyer was momentarily taken aback. "After all these years," he said, "someone wants to talk about me." Then he laughed. Dyer can't be serious for long these days.

We began at South Vermont, where Dyer has been living for the past two years. Wide, quiet streets, rolling hills empty of life, big cars in big garages, brown bricks sitting in clay, and a day's march to the nearest pub. Dyer lives out here with his daughter Jill, son-in-law Warren and their three children. It couldn't be farther from Dyer's Richmond.

Two pairs of low-cut boots stand drying on the front porch, immediate evidence of the tradition continuing. A dedication dominates the fly-wire screen: "Bless this house, Oh Lord we pray, make it safe by night and day".

Again, a long wait before the door opens. Dyer never worries about haste or time.

"Hello-how-are-you-are-you-well?" he says. It's a typical Dyer greeting, covering the lot in one mouthful. Ten years earlier, when I met him for the first time, he used exactly the same words. And nothing else about Dyer had changed.

The wide nose, big ears, grey sideburns supporting the brushed-back steel-grey hair, the kind eyes, the fast-moving mouth, the slow laugh and the delight in stories from the past.

Dyer was cleaning the potatoes, getting things ready for tea. It was strange to watch the vegetables treated so tenderly in the big, rough hands. But that's Dyer - the Captain Blood part of him started and finished on the football field.

The invitation to start from the beginning was all he needed. "Right," he said, "right from the start - Yarra Junction State School." Then came the  Dyer definition of education in the '20s. Like most things Dyer says, nobody could put it better.

"Mum wanted us to go on, so she sent me to Richmond. Put me into St Ignatius's, to see if I could play football and cricket. Brother Peter was the sportsmaster. He took me straight down to Surrey Park, and arranged a scratch match. He was very happy with the performance. We went on to win the premiership. He said he had only wanted a ruckman. After six months at St Igs, he was transferred to De La Salle, so he took me with him. He said, 'we might as well go on with the business'."

That last line sounded more like Dyer's than Brother Peter's. Memories of school days for Dyer don't go much further than footy and fighting. Big wins and big losses, interspersed with tales of hiding college cap and blazer as he came home to Richmond, for fear of "mobs waiting for you on the corner".

They were the Depression days and, whether he liked it or not, Dyer had to leave school after his Intermediate year to provide for the family. You get the impression it didn't worry him too much. "I wasn't a bad scholar, but I lost interest," he said.

It's probably fortunate that Dyer went into the workforce at 14. Had he taken the option of a scholarship to Xavier, and perhaps further, his great broadcasting lines would never have caused so much mirth for so many. It doesn't worry Dyer in the least that his quaint use of the English language - his so-called Dyerisms - create so much humour.

Last year we took great delight in publishing quite a few lines from the man's broadcasts. Did he feel we were ridiculing him? Not at all. In a pub in North Melbourne last week he said: "We were starting to slip away a bit. They put us back on the map."

Dyer's amazing ability to slip the tongue has lasted as long as the man himself. He started on radio in 1952, three years after his retirement from the game, after much persuasion from Phil Gibbs, now sports director of Channel 10. ''He wasn't keen to do it,'' Gibbs said.

''He reckoned he couldn't speak on radio. So we finally convinced him to have a practice first. We went to a game at North Melbourne. Jack was terrible. Even then he had a language of his own. I'll never forget him saying: 'Pass the benicolars, Phil.' But we went back and listened to the tape, and despite it all, you could tell even then he had that quality about him.''

Part of the deal with Gibbs was that he would teach Dyer the art of radio if Dyer would teach him the finer points of football. "The lesson started at a social match at Keilor," Gibbs said.

"All the old stars were playing. Jack told me to play in the ruck with him. We were waiting for the first bounce and Jack said to me to take the knockout. Up I went, and I felt this whack across the ear. It nearly knocked me out. Dyer had hit me a beauty. I couldn't believe it. I said to him: 'What was that for?' He replied: 'Now you know what it feels like.' It was part of his teaching."

Dyer doesn't teach football with such fury these days, but according to Gibbs his radio style hasn't changed in those 30 years. "He is certainly more confident, but nothing else about him is different."

"More confident" is verging on gross understatement. Gibbs used to run a Saturday night football show called Pelaco Inquest in those days; naturally, he wanted Dyer on the panel. Again Dyer resisted, saying he couldn't possibly speak on a game for five minutes straight.

The answer was simple. Immediately after the match 3KZ would send a typist to Dyer who would recount the story of his game. She would type it out "in English" and, at 8 o'clock that night, Dyer would read it out on air.

Twenty-five years later he was using the same methods to record his morning footy talks for 3KZ's breakfast show. (Despite the need for "on air" scripts, Dyer is rated one of Melbourne's best after-dinner speakers.)

Of all his media activities - radio, TV, newspapers - Dyer prefers radio. "It's just like playing the game," he says, "you're always with it, and you can abuse the umpire."

People listen to Dyer not for what he says about the football but how he says it; some find him infuriating, most don't. Dyer's knowledge of football also causes debate. It's safe to say he knows more about players than he does the modern game. "Nothing new has happened in football," he says, "they are just a bit more polished. In the old days they all bounced the ball, and kicked it, and handpassed it. They thought just as quickly."

What doesn't provoke debate is discussion of Dyer's football prowess. He is universally agreed to be a champion, in the real sense of the word. In the foreword to Captain Blood, the late Hec De Lacy, of the Sporting Globe, wrote of Dyer: "Jack Dyer, Richmond's giant, was the greatest big man in Australian football. He stands supreme, he's the greatest of the great."

Not surprisingly, Dyer rarely polled in the Brownlow Medal, although it is not generally recognised that he finished fourth (with 17 votes) to Marcus Whelan (23), in 1939. (Dyer was also a very good cricketer. Before football took over early in the '30s, he had scored a double century in the mid-week league. His most prized trophy is a cup which names him "best all round athlete" of St Ignatius.)

Dyer will be 68 in November. He is fit and strong, and looks years younger. There is no hint of the illness which, in the late '50s, had him close to death. He was more than 108 kilograms (17 stone) then - now he is under 83 kilograms (13 stone). He is in the 50th year of the sport he loves.

"The most satisfying thing in my life is to be able to have kept in football," he admits, "and the ultimate was life membership of the VFL". Dyer puts that above his 312 games with the Tigers, above the fact he played and coached the Tigers in premiership years.

There is more to Dyer's life than football, but it needs considerable prodding to get it out of him. Ask Dyer about football and he'll talk for ever. Ask him about his family, his friends, his other life, he just smiles, mumbles a few lines, and then looks blankly at you, waiting for the next question.

His wife of more than 30 years, Sybil, died 10 years ago. His friends say her death left him flat. Says Dyer slowly: "Everything was all nice until she died. Suddenly it was..." His family kept him going. "I'm pretty lucky," he said, "I've never had to live by myself."

But it's plain that Dyer could not be happier with life. He is forever smiling, joking, always relaxed. He will talk to anyone about anything, and is forever confronted in pubs by people talking about football. He is never more content than when he is holding forth at the bar with friends or, more likely, drifting acquaintances.

Friends Dyer knows by name, others by nicknames. Those who know him are always amused by his inability to remember names. The story of Dyer in court is no different when Dyer is at work, at the pub, or in the street.

Every week Dyer makes the trip to Richmond for lunch at Craig McKellar's pub in Swan Street. It's there he picks up all the gossip, maintains the links. If it were up to him, he'd rather live in Richmond.

"But the kids love it out there," he says. When he retires from the media round ("I'd like to stay in it forever, but the mind won't let you. The mind takes over.") he'd be happy to "get right out of town. A bit of shooting, a bit of fishing... beautiful.''

Dyer's closest friends remain the men of his playing days, men like Ted Rippon and Laurie Nash and Lou Richards, although Dyer says: "Don't say that. He's my bread and butter," and Richards says: "You're writing about Jack. That'll take about three paragraphs."

Dyer and Richards are the two who have kept TV's longest running program World Of Sport from tedium. Ron Casey, the show's compere and HSV-7's general manager, describes Dyer as "the gentle humourist". But there is   nothing gentle about a battle of wits between Richards and Dyer after a Collingwood-Richmond contest.

The popularity of the duo can be measured in the number of advertisements they do together, and the number they knock back. Richards says Dyer is "the funniest bloke in the world to do advertisements with.

He's forever changing the script in midstream. We were doing an ad for a chainsaw, and I'm saying something like 'you use it with your partner', and Jack's supposed to reply with: 'Is it any good for camping?' And lo and behold, he adds after camping 'and fishing'.

I nearly fell through the floor. I had to ad lib to Jack's fishing line. I ended up saying 'yes, it's great if you catch a whale, it really makes the filleting easy'. The funny thing is, whenever he throws in these lines, the ad is always much better."

Casey is another at World Of Sport with undisguised affection for Dyer. "Every year," says Casey, "at the end of the football season, Jack says he's got to have holidays. He says he's suffering 'industrial fatigue'."

Casey never says no, and so Dyer goes for his annual holidays, fishing at Bemm River, through Albury, up to Queensland.

One year, Casey recalls, he wanted Dyer to do some promotion for Channel Seven. "He wasn't on the phone, so I sent an urgent telegram to ask him to come to the studio. We received no reply, so I sent another. Still no answer, so in the end I went over to his house in Richmond. I knocked on the door, hardly knowing what to expect, and Jack answered. Behind him, on the mantle, I could see the telegrams - unopened."

"I said to him: 'Jack, I sent you those urgent telegrams, why didn't you open them?' Straight away he replied: 'Oooh, I never open urgent telegrams, you never know what might be in them'."

Most Dyer stories have been heard or read before. One he told me on Tuesday seemed a new one. "We were playing out at Carlton," he said, "and I had to catch the train to the ground. You had to in those days. I only had a deener, and I caught the train out there. Then I looked out the window, and I couldn't see any houses. I thought, 'This is not Carlton'. Eventually the train stopped at Reservoir. I didn't know what to do. Eventually a bloke put me on the right one, and I arrived just in time."

"On to the field he went, getting into the game. "I was so riled up, I had a lovely time. Blokes were going down everywhere (despite the nonsense, Dyer appears to have a genuine delight in recounting stories of on-field violence). Anyway, we won easily, and I've left the ground feeling marvellous."

"On the train again, and you wouldn't believe it - the carriage was full of Carlton supporters. They never stopped abusing me - kids, old ladies, the works. One bloke said to me: 'You must have eaten your babies, Dyer.' I said to him: 'Me. I'm gentle. I go to church on Sundays.' The train stopped. I was out like a shot, and into the next carriage. It was full of Richmond supporters. The rest of the trip home was lovely."

No story on Dyer would be complete without a few of his lines: The following come from the 1978 Grand Final between Hawthorn and North Melbourne: "On the kickout, it's out towards the wing position, the pack fly again, over the top of the pack and a good mark has been taken here. It looks like . . . it is . . . Cowton with the ball. He immediately handballs it in the air, away they go as Henshaw comes down the ground. He's going for the short pass. It's not a good one at all. It's punched away by Martella (sic). Another punch up in the air. In goes Demper... dipter... ier... domenico... in after it again."

AND... "Up they go in the air, it goes over the top of the pack and the mark has been taken. Here's a handball going across, gets it across to Moore, Moore has one bounce, two bounces, comes right up the field. He's looking for a kick here to Ablett, Ablett makes position beautifully too, and he's got the ball Ablett, right on the wing position again, here's the kick by Ablett, sending it right up. He's getting pushed out of the road, Moncrieff again. It goes down to the ground. In they go in after it. A chance for a handpass, gets it across to Russo, Russo lines 'em up, kicks into the man coming towards him. Knights comes in, he's showing plenty of pace, too Knights, at this stage. He picks it up, he's tried to play on, he got pulled by the leg, the umpire gives a handpass to Hendrie..."

Can't you just hear him saying that? Richards has heard Dyer for 30 years, but he never tires of the man.

"You couldn't buy what he's got," he says, "you couldn't make it up."

Despite his years, Dyer remains a busy man. During the week, the Herald tried to trace him to get him photographed with the new Premier, Lindsay Thompson, an avid Richmond fan.

Dyer wouldn't be in it: "Don't they know I'm a Labor man?" he wailed. On Tuesday, he was up at dawn, filming a commercial for Tattslotto with Richards. ("That's the first time I've seen a million dollars," he said.

"We tried to pinch some, but they had two armed guards."), then out to St Albans to present some guernseys to a primary school on behalf of 3KZ. Then to North Melbourne to do his column for Truth. ("It's getting harder. Once upon a time there was only one writer you had to beat. Now there are thousands.")

Then to Richmond for some photographs. We met at McKellar's pub. The old blokes around the bar cheered when Dyer arrived, 40 minutes late. Dyer was prepared for anything. We went from one bar to another, then for a walk down Swan Street. Dyer was self-conscious as he posed outside Dimmy's.

Several people went past. He knew none of them. Occasionally one would greet him.

"How-are-you-are-you-well?" asked Dyer.

THE FACTS

Name: Jack Dyer

Born: November 15, 1913

Died: August 23, 2003

Club: Richmond

Played: 1931-1949

Games: 312 Goals: 443

Honours: Richmond best and fairest 1932, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1946; R  ichmond leading goalkicker 1947, 1948; Richmond premiership sides 1934, 1943; Victorian representative (14 games, 11 goals); Richmond coach 1941-1952 (225 games, 134 wins, 89 losses, 2 draws); inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996 and elevated to Legend status in same year; Richmond's best and fairest award is named the Jack Dyer Medal in his honour; inaugural 'Immortal' in Richmond's Hall of Fame; member of the AFL Team of the Century; captain of Richmond's Team of the Century.

Ten years ago, when he was a football columnist with The Truth, Jack Dyer was called to give evidence before a Victorian Court. In the case, a defamation suit against the paper's boxing writer 'The Count', the court was having difficulty discovering the defendant's identity.

Dyer took the stand. His police days helped him race through the oath; then he was asked who was 'The Count'? "I don't know, sir," he replied. The court was flabbergasted.

"You mean you've worked there for so many years, and you don't know who a fellow writer is?" asked the counsel for the aggrieved party.

"Yes sir," said Dyer.

"Well," continued the barrister, "who are some of those you work with?"

"Aaah," said Dyer, "there's Mopsy, and Pogo, and Bluey, and Big Steak and..."

The judge cut him short. "Mr Dyer," he intervened, "you are turning this hearing into a farce."

  • Published
    Sep 2, 2019
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