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  1. #1
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    The moment Ted Whitten got turned away by Collingwood

    The moment Ted Whitten got turned away by Collingwood

    He’s a Western Bulldogs icon, but Ted Whitten’s son has revealed “Mr Football” almost pulled on the black and white stripes. Ted Whitten Jr tells Hamish McLachlan why the Magpies turned EJ away.

    Ted Whitten. A footballing god to many. A deliverer of hope and joy to the Bulldogs. A Grand Final captain coach. A face that so many knew and liked. A booming voice. Movie-star looks. State of Origin advocate. And gone too soon. Ted Whitten Jr spoke about his father, Andre the Giant, humble beginnings, the Big V, the day of diagnosis, how he could have been a Magpie, the lap of honour and how to avoid the same fate as his dad.

    HM: Ted Whitten Sr — your father, and your best mate?

    TWJ: He was both. A fantastic father, and a great mate to an only child. My idol, all my life. From the day I was born he was the one who looked after me. He had a big life and was always busy, and he took me everywhere he went, whether it was the footy, or his work on television or radio, or sportsman’s nights. We grew up together — he was only 24 when I arrived — and we shared our journey together until his passing at just 62 years of age.

    HM: It was a unique relationship you had.

    TWJ: He was fairly young when he had me, and we loved the same things. We loved playing golf together, going to the races, and he used to take me to all the sporting events through his job at Adidas. We loved having a long lunch when I got a bit older. I was very lucky. When I lost Dad, I lost a confidant, a dad, and my best mate.

    HM: He grew up in Braybrook with very little?

    TWJ: It was very humble beginnings because his family was very poor. Dad grew up in West Footscray, which is only a drop kick away from the then Western Oval, but things were pretty tough back then. Anyone who had work in the family chipped the money in to support the family — everyone pitched in together and tried to put some food on the table.

    HM: He became loved by so many. He ended up a legend of Footscray, but could have been a Pie?

    TWJ: He could have if they liked the look of him. Dad started off having a kick in the paddocks and on the ovals around home, and from what I’m told, he ended up going to Braybrook to begin his football career. From there he started playing on Saturday mornings and afternoons, and also started playing for Collingwood Amateurs on a Sunday. He had pretty full weekends with three games of footy. He won three best and fairests in the one year.

    HM: Who for?

    TWJ: Braybrook U17 or U18s, Braybrook Seniors and the Collingwood Amateurs.

    HM: Impressive. And he could have been a Magpie?

    TWJ: Absolutely. He went down to the Collingwood Football Club to try out, and he was told that he was way too skinny, to go away and to put on a bit of weight. He wanted to play straight away, so he went to the Bulldogs to try out, and they liked what they saw. The rest, as they say, is history!

    HM: Sliding doors … life takes a lot of different turns. Mr Football could have been a Pie!

    TWJ: I’m not sure how many people know that. After he went to try out they let him go and missed out on a man who would have been a great player for the Collingwood Football Club I’m sure. But we lived in Footscray around the corner from the Western Oval, so it was only natural that he ended up there. It worked out as it should have.

    HM: Who dubbed EJ “Mr Football?”

    TWJ: It’s a good question! I don’t know the answer to that, whether it was Mike Williamson, Lou Richards, Jack Dyer — or someone else.

    HM: He seemed to embrace everyone’s affection for him and gave almost the same affection back. He loved the notoriety?

    TWJ: He loved it. He was a showman, he revelled in promoting his footy club and the people of the western suburbs. He loved having fun, and television and radio gave him that opportunity to be able to promote football, promote himself, and have a good time. I think people loved that little bit of larrikin in him.

    HM: He was in a great era of characters who could all really perform without the fear of backlash and being straightened up and over analysed by the public and press.

    TWJ: I’m not sure if he could have been as extroverted now as he was then — he lived in a fun time. He certainly was a showman — that famous footage of him coming onto the ground in the State of Origin game where he said, “You stuck it right up them!” was very him. He always knew where the camera was, and always had a good line for it.

    HM: 1990 was the year of his diagnosis. Were there any concerns prior that Ted was ill with prostate cancer?

    TWJ: None. The first time I found out something was wrong was it was coming home from a football function out at Waverley, and we stopped five or six times on the way home for him to go to the toilet. When we stopped for the seventh time on the banks of the Yarra at Leonda, I said, “Gee, you’re going to the loo a fair bit, mate”. He said, “Yeah, I know. I’m in a fair bit of pain and I can’t actually go”. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Have a look, it’s just a drip, but it feels like razor blades to me”. I said, “Have you had it checked out?” And he said he hadn’t. I said, “Why not? How long has it been happening?” And he said, “It’s been getting worse for two or three years.” I hit the roof. We went to be checked out the next day and then we got the news he had terminal prostate cancer that was in his bones.

    HM: From having no idea to that diagnosis, in 48 hours.

    TWJ: It was very aggressive, and they said he would have three or four years to live. In the space of two days, we’ve gone from having fun at a function, to a death sentence.

    HM: He said he had been aware of things for a few years — if he’d gone and got checked out earlier, things could have been very different?

    TWJ: There’s no doubt about that. He was a tough man, and back then most men didn’t know about prostate cancer particularly, and most were traditionally reluctant to go to the doctor until they had any physical evidence that they were sick. Dad certainly didn’t know about prostate cancer back then, and I’m sure that if he had, he would have been having a regular, annual prostate cancer check-up. Instead he had no knowledge, was probably ignorant to the fact, and sadly it cost him his life.

    HM: Once he got that news, how did your dad digest it?

    TWJ: He was very quiet, and in shock as we all were. His first comments were, “We will beat this, don’t worry, we will beat it”. He was trying to ease me, and the family, even though we’d been told that he’d only have three or four years to live. But he thought with his outlook, and with treatment, he would beat it. That’s the way he went about life — always totally positive.

    HM: How were the final years with Ted?

    T WJ: They narrowed our focus and gave us all perspective. We all took a line to live life to the fullest. We made sure that we didn’t pass up a moment to be with him, and to have fun and support him wherever we could. When he was going through the treatment it was very tough — he was in a lot of pain. He liked us being around to take his mind off it all.

    HM: The footage from the day you were both in the car at the MCG together before the 1995 State of Origin match, when he was saying farewell, has become so iconic. Did you realise the moment would be so emotional and so lasting?

    TWJ: Not at all. I couldn’t imagine he’d get the reception he did. There were so many people that had come to show their respects on such a terrible day weather wise. It really showed how loved Dad was, but it almost didn’t happen as the night before he was so sick and so weak that he said to us that he wasn’t going to be able to do it. And then the next morning he decided that he wanted to do it, regardless of how he felt. We rang the AFL back to let them know he was now all good to go! Then he said he wanted a haircut, and then we had to go home and get out the Big V jacket and tie, and then he said, “Righto — let’s go and do this”. One of the great moments of his life almost didn’t happen!

    HM: A lot of us are very glad it did.

    TWJ: And Dad, too. He had a real sense of what it meant to everyone who was there and everyone who was watching it on television. It was just an unbelievably emotional day, and to see so many men, women, supporters of football openly showing their emotions was incredible for us all, then, and now.

    HM: The footage shows him holding your cheek and you whispering in his ear. Can you share with us the discussion?

    TWJ: Not too long before the farewell lap, Dad had a stroke and had lost most of his vision. He couldn’t really see, and I was holding him up and he was asking me where we were positioned on the ground. I was pointing out to him some of his friends in the crowd. When we were going past the MCC Members, and when we got to the commentary boxes where all his TV mates and radio pals were, he could really sense the outpouring of emotion. I let him know what was happening, and he really ramped it up then, he gave them a big “stick it up ’em!” as we went past! I had my kids in the car, so all his grandchildren were with him. It was an amazing experience for everybody.

    HM: Why was State of Origin football so dear to Ted?

    TWJ: It’s a good question. Apart from winning a premiership with the Bulldogs, it was one of the pinnacles of Dad’s footballing life. When Dad pulled on the ‘Big V’, he felt he was putting on something magical and special. He treasured it. For him, it was the greatest honour and it brought out the very best of his football as a result. At the Bulldogs, they didn’t make the finals that often, they were often down the ladder. Playing for the Big V was an opportunity to play with the very best players, and that brought out the very best of his footballing ability. His leadership came to the fore too, and eventually he became captain of Victoria, then captain-coach of Victoria. It was a moment in his year that he was very proud to be involved in, to represent himself, his club, his state, and the people of the west.

    HM: Why was he such a good leader do you think?

    TWJ: As a young footballer, he learnt a lot from Charlie Sutton, who was one of the game’s best leaders. When he was appointed as captain-coach at just 23 he had to learn how to manage young men and lead at a very young age. I think he thought the best way was to lead by example, and look after his players like they were his brothers, his family.

    HM: Is there a story about your old man that the readers wouldn’t know?

    TWJ: There’s a lot of stories I can’t really tell! It might not be known that despite him being a fine athlete and good at all sports and had a fun-loving personality, he was a pathetic handyman and knew nothing about cars other than how to drive them. Everything he ever made me at home broke down, fell apart or collapsed. He once walked about 10 miles through muddy paddocks because he couldn’t work out how to change a flat tyre on his new car. He finally found a mechanic who drove him back to his car. The mechanic simply flicked the plastic caps off the wheel nuts that were covering the nuts, and began to fix the tyre. Ted had spent an hour or two trying to do the same thing but couldn’t work out why the wheel brace wouldn’t fit the wheel nuts! He didn’t realise they were covered with plastic caps! He was very embarrassed but told the story to everyone to give them a laugh at his own expense.

    HM: If you were a journo, describing Ted Whitten, as a father, a player or an individual, what would you write?

    TWJ: As a father: I can’t imagine having better. The way he looked after me, supported my career, gave me advice on life and playing footy was invaluable. When I started playing footy, I was copping a fair bit from anyone who was interested in giving me a whack because of what my name was. He taught me how to get through all that and understand that all I had to do was my best. As a leader, he protected his players as on the field. He was adored by so many fans because he loved people and wanted to look after them and inject fun into their lives, wherever he went. I think a lot of it comes back to the fact that he was just a people’s person. He used to do a lot of work in visiting the sick and elderly, and a lot of sportsman’s nights for nothing, just to be able to promote football. I think people recognised that he was a footballing person. If you barracked for another team and he played against you and beat you, I guess on the day you hated him, but ultimately, you respected him.

    HM: You talked about your surname. It must have been pretty heavy to carry around as a young footballer.

    TWJ: It was one of those things that I got used to at a young age. It was harder as a young fellow trying to get a kick in the underage football leagues that I played in than when I actually got selected to play at the Bulldogs. Expectation is a pretty big thing when you’re a father-son, but worse I think when your dad’s a club legend. Everyone expects you to be as good or better, and that’s not too often the case. He taught me to just go out and do your best, make sure you listen to your coach, train hard, and never miss a footy trip and you’ll be OK!

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  3. #2
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    Re: The moment Ted Whitten got turned away by Collingwood

    HM: (laughs) If I said to you that you could go back and have one moment with your father again, where would you be?

    TWJ: One night that stands out was when we were doing a sportsman’s night in Shepparton for Adidas. When I got to Dad’s place, he said, “Jump in the car”. Sitting in the back seat was André the Giant.

    HM: Seriously?

    TWJ: Seriously! Adidas and he and World Wrestling were all working together. Dad was in charge of looking after him. I got in and the car, and it was on a bit of a slant! Andre was 7’4 and 240kg or so! André was having a swig of a Mateus Rosé, and he was drinking it like a VB stubbie! André couldn’t speak English that well, but the three-hour drive to Shepparton was about as good a three hours as three blokes could have together. Sometimes everything just clicks. Shit, we laughed. I smile every time I think of it. Me, Andre the Giant and my hero.

    HM: Andre, Ted and a sporties night in Shep! Your dad left us too early, which sadly shouldn’t have been the case. What should every Australian male be doing that they’re not?

    TWJ: The foundation has been promoting men’s health and men’s prostate cancer awareness for 24 years, and we run a campaign called Time To Test. That reminds all men to take control of their own health and wellbeing, to make sure that if they’re not around for themselves, to be around for their family for the long haul. It’s quite important for men to understand that they need to have an annual health and prostate check-up. We need to educate men to make sure that just like you service your car, you service your body once a year to make sure that all the things that can go wrong in a man’s life are well confined, and fixed up before you break down. By having that annual health and prostate check, we can make sure that men are living for as long as they possibly can.

    HM: Good luck with the EJ Whitten Legends Game. Hopefully you can get the message across and raise some cash too.

    TWJ: Thanks, Hame.

    — For tickets to the EJ Whitten Legends Game on August 30, go to ticketek.com.au

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  5. #3
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    Re: The moment Ted Whitten got turned away by Collingwood

    Thanks Axe Man. Loved it.

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    Re: The moment Ted Whitten got turned away by Collingwood

    From memory an old Collingwood player recommended EJ to the club but Phonse Kyne and Harry Collier took one look and told him to "come back next year"

    I think Teddy would have been residentially tied to us anyway. Back in the day if you thought that your local club was dragging their feet in signing or recruiting you then it was fairly common to go to another club's training. At the very worst it got you noticed by your local club* because if the other club was interested they would have to apply for a clearance anyway and clubs were reluctant to lose local boys so they would have a good look at you before they gave you away.

    Even Teddy Sr was a bit unhappy at how long the club was taking to have a good look at Teddy jr in the early '70s so he took him down to train with South Melbourne. South were rapt with the prospect of Ted Whitten jr lining up with them and put through the clearance form but we were having none of it and signed EJ jr straight away.

    I don't know the story behind it but 1954 premiership ruckman Harvey Stevens first played at Collingwood before he came to Footscray despite the fact that his dad and his granddad played for us. He must have been a decent player though because he won the B&F at Footscray in his first year


    *Ijlia Grgic was an interesting case. He was at Melbourne high (because he has a giant brain to go with the giant everything else) and he didn't play local footy so he sort of fell through the cracks and the club didn't know they had a 6 foot 9 inch monster with amazing hand/eye coordination living on their doorstep.

    The story goes that Monster rocked up to the old reception area outside the old social club and asked the receptionist if she knew where he could find size 14 footy boots. The receptionist said "hang on and I will go and ask someone in the footy department for you" and found (I think) Gary Merrington and asked him. The first thing Merrington wanted to know was "Who wants size 14 footy boots?" to which she said "the kid out the front in reception"

    Gary grabbed a footy and took Ijlia for a kick out on the oval and the rest is history.
    WOOF NUMBER 6

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