Paul Kelly, Wil Anderson, friends, even his publican on what Bob Murphy means to them as the Western Bulldogs captain prepares for his 300th match.
In show business, things aren't always within your control. So it was that I found myself flying home from Dublin via Abu Dhabi last grand final day. We were three hours from landing when the game started. I paid for a wi-fi connection and managed to get score updates that clicked over every couple of minutes. By the last quarter a large swathe of passengers around me were tuned in to my announcements. With five minutes to go I called it for the Dogs just before all electronic devices had to be switched off as the plane prepared to land. Jubilation all round.
That night I watched every second of the replay on TV and, like many others, I suspect, wept as Luke Beveridge draped his premiership medal around your neck. Like many others, too, I'd been barracking for you and your brothers throughout your seemingly Quixotic finals campaign.
You've been called the "spirit of the club". It's a cliché overworked. But, in your case, perfectly apt. Cruelly injured for the whole season and unable to join your brothers in the heat of the final battle you were the animating force, the touchstone, the one everyone turned to and sought out.
Before the grand final you wrote about the loch locked inside of you, the secret sorrow at the deep heart of joy. You and Keats. "Ay, in the very temple of Delight veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shine."
Things may not have turned out the way you imagined in your childhood dreams, your adult hopes. But something bigger, wider, deeper happened. Your particular trial made the whole a greater triumph. Your absence from the field made you even more present in the story. Your constraint generated enormous power.
Congratulations, Bob, sprite of the club. (Sprite – a legendary creature with magical powers). Congratulations, tough elf, on 300 bone-jarring games. Congratulations and thanks for it all, the great long story you've told. Your story isn't done yet. It will run long after we're gone.
I remember distinctly the first time I saw The Artist Formerly Known As Robert Murphy play for the Dogs. As a fellow Gippslander I was excited to see this player who had been described as having the skill of a young Robert (Robbie not Bob) Flower.
But when young Robert took the field wearing the number 22 on his back, it seemed like the club was so poor they had got him a guernsey two sizes too big in the hope he would grow into it.
Physically he probably never did - I have a theory the reason he ended up wearing number 2 was, when they took the jumper in, his shoulders weren't wide enough for two numbers - but 300 games later he is a giant of the club and the game.
Sometimes as footy fans I think we are disappointed when the way someone plays on the ground doesn't represent who they are off it. But that has never been the case with Bob.
On the field his greatest skill is that he makes those around him better, and in turn makes the game better. And that's what he's like off the field too. A unique individual who loves being part of a team.
So congratulations, Murph. As Bulldogs fans, we've had way more than our two Bob's worth. In fact there's an idea, is it too late to clone him?
Champion Footscray ruckman, 1960 Brownlow Medallist, mentor
I first met Bob during the pre-season of 2000 when I was fortunate to act as a mentor at the induction of the 1999 draft players. Former players are often asked to speak to inductees to explain what they can expect. We, past players, are always interested in the composition of the team each year and when you speak at an induction you forever have a special interest in these players. I found Bob to be a particularly interesting person; he certainly thinks outside the square and is, in many ways, not your typical league footballer. I recall him lobbying to retain the old tree stump in the property room, the stump that the boot-studder had used for many years as a support when he worked on the boots. I think Bob thought it had historical significance.
What a draft year that was for the Western Bulldogs. Bob, Daniel Giansiracusa, Lindsay Gilbee, Mitch Hahn, Ryan Hargrave and Nathan Eagleton. They formed lifelong friendships and Bob and Gia, who is now a Bulldogs coach, still do part of Bob's pre-game warm-up together.
When Bob seriously injured a knee in the dying minutes of an exciting game against the Hawks on Sunday May 10, 2016, he only needed five more games to achieve the dreamed-of footballer's goal of 300 games. It was an especially cruel blow because Bob had a similar injury in 2006 and he knew the hard work that the recovery would entail. His dilemma was whether to retire then or at his age try to recover the fitness and form that would assure him of a place in the side. Thankfully he decided to play on and what a joyous celebration it will be when he runs onto the ground on Saturday.
In 2008 we struck a deal with a handshake, a so-called gentleman's agreement, Bob and me. "I will get you to 200, but you have to get yourself to 250." Back then he was injured, low, uncertain, hurting – but I knew he would get better, he just needed to become whole again. He couldn't even see himself making it to 150 games, but he worked hard – physically, emotionally and mentally.
I used to tell him in those dark days, "I begin the treatment and will help bind your wounds, but it's you who finishes it and heals them." He is smart. He understood what needed to happen. He trusts me and I trust his health. This is the basis of our relationship. He bestows upon me the great privilege of caring for that which is most precious to him – his health. Even more importantly, the health of those he loves most – his family.
You can judge the size of the man by the size of the things that bother him, and recent setbacks have changed the way he views the horizon. But Bob understands perspective. In treatment we talk all sorts of things – about his body, what worries him, what's on his mind and what's in his heart. He's not a tortured artist, though – he loves stories and he laughs easily, which can only be a good thing in the magnified world he exists in.
They also say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. Bob is wise enough to realise you only become better if you surround yourself with people who are better than you. He definitely has that in Justine. She is his wife, adviser, confidant, right-hand woman, the mother of his children and the real captain in his most important team. My wife describes Bob and Justine best. "When I'm around them I just feel like hugging them all the time."
I'm proud to have watched the young rebel become a wise leader. Proud that he picked himself up from the ashes again. Proud that he stands up for what he believes in. Proud that on the field he can once again "move like Jagger". Proud to call him my friend.
He cares for people, and that's probably something not as common in footy circles. He's the first to admit he's not your typical footy nut, but you can see how the young players at the Bulldogs admire the way he goes about things, and he shows that care and empathy that goes beyond when they cross that white line.
I was lucky enough to share car rides with him to training, so I got to listen to his music and see what he wore into training. His fashion is left of centre and his music is the same, but that's what makes Bob unique and such a loveable character. He's pretty quiet and likes to keep to himself. Probably, in all honesty, he hates all the attention he's copping his week.
When Luke Beveridge gave him his premiership medal, that'll go down as one of the greatest sporting moments. When Beveridge let him lift the premiership cup, it was very emotional, but at the same time you could see the passion and care and what it meant to him, but also to all the supporters in the west. For that iconic moment, he got to share that moment that not many captains or players get to do. You'd have to ask him how he felt about not being able to play, but I reckon, at that split second, he didn't care.
I've always said that if somebody was going to marry your sister you'd be pretty happy if it was Robert Murphy, and if you needed someone to find a target on their non-preferred side you'd be equally pleased.
We met for the first time in my pub, not long after he wrecked his knee for the first time. I was struck by him from the start – he was interested and interesting. Always admirable qualities, but especially so for someone who lived in the rarefied air of AFL. I felt like we were from a similar place. We talked about music, travel, love, family, writing, Guinness and sunscreen, occasionally arguing about football despite the vast difference in our qualifications.
We've covered a fair bit of ground since then and my understanding of a footballer's life has changed how I watch the game. What hasn't changed is that I'm very proud of my friend.
Usually after Christmas we have a kick, where he does all the running. I have never got a better appreciation of how good he is than in these moments. It's like standing in the straight as the ponies head for home. If we get interrupted by his kids, or someone else's, his football face goes and the other Robert seamlessly appears. Then it's back to business, and just so you know, even when he's easing into it, the ball smacks into your hands well before but exactly where you expect.