By Gazette sports editor Russell Bennett
Loyalty – to his club, and to his mates.
That’s the first thing that springs to mind when those closest to Owen Fitzpatrick talk about him.
The big-hearted Catani spearhead with a competitive spirit to match doesn’t sit comfortably with stories being written about him. For him, footy is about the team, the club, and the mates all bound together by the colours.
But this week, he simply has no choice – or no say in the matter. His story needs to be told.
On Saturday the three-time senior premiership winner played his 300th club game for the Blues – earning him life membership.
And in a matter of weeks, the 32-year-old is set to slot his 1000th senior EDFL goal; a milestone never reached before in the recorded history of the competition.
He currently sits on 989 majors after his three on the weekend, and just as he has been for 15 years, he’s critical to his side’s chances for success.
Four of the central figures in Big Owy’s footy journey each spoke to the Gazette for this story. There’s Brad ‘Snags’ McDonald – more like one of his brothers than a mate; Paul ‘Algs’ Alger – the great mate, coach, and mentor throughout his whole senior footy journey; Shane ‘Ralphy’ Warren – the inseparable mate who bleeds blue just like the big man; and ‘Big John’ Fitzpatrick – his father.
When each of them spoke, that word ‘loyalty’ was brought up.
“I’ve known Owy since he was in nappies, and I played with Big John from ’89 to ’91,” said Snags, who literally lives a stone’s throw away from the Blues’ Taplins Road home.
“The number one thing about Owy – and you’d get this answer from everyone – is his loyalty.
“He’s turned his back on some massive offers to stay a Blue, and he’d never talk about it, but we often do behind his back because that’s the sort of guy he is.
“He didn’t just take any offer from another club throwing cash at him – he stayed at Catani.”
When talking about Fitzpatrick’s game, two words spring to mind for Snags: “His hands”.
“If you kick the ball in his area, he just doesn’t drop it,” he said of the traditional, larger than life full-forward that seems to be a product of a bygone footy era.
“As a crumbing forward I died of starvation because the ball just didn’t hit the ground. He finished me!
“And the thing is, a lot of people try and push him further out from goal, but that just works against them because he’s better further out.”
Snags said Fitzpatrick has had to put up with plenty of would-be heroes over the years trying to make a name out of stopping him physically – however they could.
“Everyone wants to say they’ve taken the big fella down, but I actually can’t think of a player who’s beaten him one-on-one. It normally takes a few of them.”
McDonald said that Fitzpatrick had a temper on him in his younger days, adding: “He can handle himself too, so I’m amazed he hasn’t used up all his weeks (suspension)!
“To his credit, he just stays focussed on his footy.”
As Fitzpatrick edges toward 1000 senior goals, McDonald said his great mate had been responsible for “countless” match-winning performances.
Perhaps the most memorable of those was in 2004, when he won the best on ground medal in his first senior premiership. He was a teenage centre-half forward.
From those days until now, Ralphy, Algs, and Owy have always been particularly close.
In fact, Ralphy, Snags and Owy will always be intertwined as three of the five Catani people to earn life membership from playing 300 club games. The other two are Luke ‘Chops’ McFarlane and his brother ‘Mash’ (otherwise known as Shane).
“That’s one of the main things he’s stuck around at Catani for,” Ralphy said.
“The thousand goals doesn’t really stress him too much.
“For him, everything about footy is playing with your mates. Everything.
“On Friday he was more happy there were two kids playing their first games (on the weekend) than he was his 300th.”
Big John said he was incredibly proud of Owy’s life membership.
“He stuck by the club through thick and thin, and that doesn’t happen too often these days,” he said of his son.
“We’d like to see it as a message to other young players to stick by your club and pay something back when they’ve made that investment.
“He respects the people at the club, and he’s seen it on both sides of the fence too. He just respects everyone.”
Big John said another thing that would spring to mind about his son’s game is his courage.
“He started at 17 playing senior footy, and he’s a big fella, but he was still only a kid playing against seasoned men and some tough guys out there,” he said.
“He’s never been frightened to position himself in front and keep his eyes on the footy. He hasn’t worried about who’s come.
“But as he’s got older and a bit grumpier, there’s a receipt these days if you’re game enough to do it! What goes around comes around.”
Though Owy now lives well out of the area – at Wattle Bank down near Inverloch with his young family – he’s still committed to pouring his blood, sweat, and tears into the Blues. Big John doesn’t know how much longer that’ll continue for at Catani – given his family circumstances – but he wants to see him continue to play the game he loves.
“He’s heard it all, about his size, and copped all sorts of comments from over the fence but he just turns around smiles and lets his footy do the talking,” he said.
“Kick it in long to him, and you’re a chance – it’s old fashioned footy, and that’s the way he plays.”
And that includes his toughness. Big John recalls a time when he coached a 14-year-old Owy when he played through a horrific hip injury… for weeks.
“Catani was really battling for juniors,” Big John said.
“Owen was my first ruck, full-forward, centre-half forward, centre-half back – you name it.
“He’d been complaining about a sore leg for a while and I just said he’d be right – we’d find someone else to ruck.
“But he said he just couldn’t play, so we went to the doctor and he got an x-ray. His hip was displaced and had to go straight into the Monash to get it put back in!”
John said Owy had spoken of the discomfort for about a month leading up to that.
It’s little wonder Algs said Owy had always been “a pretty special player”.
“He’s always been a great set-shot – he strikes the ball well, and he was kicking bags of five, six, seven, or eight from centre-half forward as a kid,” he said.
“He was quick off the mark and fluent on both sides of his body.”
In fact, Algs said he’s always been able to tell if Owy is set to take a big clunking grab, even with the ball still 30 to 40 metres away.
But it’s not the individual stuff that sticks most in his mind. It’s Owy’s team and club-first mentality.
“He kicked 146 goals for us one year and didn’t get paid a cent,” he said.
“And he’s always been team first – I reckon he would have given away at least half as many goals as he’s kicked.”
That’s the thing – he’s always been a super skilful field kick, too.
“He probably would have kicked 2000 if he’d have been kicking to himself,” Algs said.
But the job isn’t done yet.
After winning his third senior flag last year, Big Owy will be pushing his team mates to continually improve throughout the rest of this season to go back-to-back for the second time in his career.
And he’ll be looking to improve too. He’s leading the EDFL’s senior goal kicking again with 24 so far through the first six rounds, but has still missed a few chances. It’s something that won’t sit comfortably with him, so full-backs beware…the big man is still on the warpath.