By Russell Bennett
It’s actually hard to imagine anyone who typifies the Bunyip spirit more than inspirational leader Brad Walker.
The man simply known as ‘Tex’ – like most footballers with his surname – reached his 200 senior game milestone for his beloved Bulldogs recently and on Saturday celebrated the occasion at his home ground alongside the family and friends who’ve helped shape him into the person he is.
But his senior career could have been done and dusted soon after it began following a freak on-field accident in 2006 that left the then 19-year-old with a broken neck and within milimetres of having his football dream, even his life, taken away forever.
It’s more than a slight understatement to suggest the now 31-year-old has experienced the gamut of highs and lows footy has to offer.
“It was in Round 2 (2006) against Nar Nar Goon – I was basically just picking the ball up off the ground in the middle,” Walker said after captaining Bunyip to a famous senior premiership win in front of a monstrous crowd on enemy soil against its most famous rival Garfield back in 2012 – the first of back-to-back senior EDFL deciders featuring the two clubs.
“I’ve gone to try and burrow my way through and a guy’s quad has come through and hit me in the top of the head.
“Because I had my head over the ball, I was thrown backwards and landed on my back.
“I went all numb down my left side, which I later found out was part of my vertebrae going into my spinal cord.”
At the time, Walker brushed the injury off as a possible dislocated shoulder. The hard-as-nails utility even returned to the field and it was only when he started having blurred vision that he knew something was desperately wrong.
The incident ultimately led to him spending a month in the Alfred, and more than two years away from the game he loves.
He’s got fused C4 and C5 vertebrae and two artificial discs in his spine, and was once told by his doctors that he’d never play again.
But since 2006 he’s not only captained his beloved club to a senior flag under mentor and great mate Cal Pattie, but he’s coached it to grand finals in his own right, and is now part of the veteran leadership taking it forward in a new era under co-coaches Aussie Jones and Ricky Clark.
Except for his time with the Gippsland Power, and the 2010 season at Drouin with some of his mates under Ben Soumilas, Walker’s entire footy journey has been in Bunyip colours.
He started playing seniors at 15 in 2002 and has been influenced by some pretty special people along the way.
While 2018 has clearly been one of massive change for Bunyip following the departure of a number of the club’s long-time senior players and the arrival of co-coaches Jones and Clark, Walker says there’s a huge sense of optimism about the future.
“We’ve got some really good leaders who’ve come from other clubs such as Cley Bertoncello and Damo Szwaja, and Tommo (Eamon Tomlin). They’re really good guys who just bought into the club straight away,” Walker said, standing with his grandparents as they watched the reserves run around on Saturday prior to the seniors.
“Aus (Jones) and Rick (Clark) were always going to do that – find guys they knew would fit the mould of the Bunyip footy club.
“That’s been really good, and it’s given guys opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily get straight away otherwise.”
The rebuilding season – in which Bunyip has already won as many games as it did in the entirety of 2017 – has allowed the likes of key defender Matt O’Halloran and forward-turned-defender Dylan Gallasch to shine.
“I haven’t always been the most talented footballer but I’ve just enjoyed my footy,” Walker said modestly.
“It’s just what I was brought up doing. When I was a kid I’d come down to the ground and the current basketball stadium wasn’t there – it used to be the old wooden stadium – and there was the likes of me, Puppy (Michael) Whyte, and Nath Lieshout and we’d get dropped off there at six o’clock and get picked up falling asleep at 10 o’clock at night.
“I’ve just been around the club ever since I was about 10 and haven’t known anything different. It’s just a part of me, and I’m coaching the under-18s this year and my job is to try and instil something similar into those boys – trying to get them to enjoy the game.
“Everyone is buying in and we’re doing what we can, but unfortunately due to circumstances we’re struggling a bit right now.”
Looking back now on the injury he sustained as a teenager, Walker said he couldn’t even fathom not being able to play footy at 19. He’s since had to adjust the way he plays, slightly, adding that he was “more of an inside player back then”. But by the same token, he knows he can’t hesitate at the contest – that’s where another injury could happen.
“It’s just trying to find the right time to go, and being a bit smarter about when you do go,” he said.
But there are the non-negotiables in his game that have never changed – his leadership, through both his words and actions, in particular.
“Even if you’re not playing good footy you can still get involved by directing and encouraging and pushing blokes along,” Walker said.
“I think Souma (Ben Soumilas) is probably the one who really instilled that in me, and even learning from Andy with just how smart he is on a footy field.”
Looking back on the famous Bunyip/Garfield grand finals of 2012 and 2013, Walker only has great memories – like the two clubs celebrating their Mad Mondays together regardless of who won, and being able to play against some of his best mates including former Stars champion Tom Marsh.
“There’s always that first five minutes of awkwardness on Mad Monday where you tuck that medal down your top because you don’t want to be boastful, but then all of a sudden you’ve had a couple of beers and the medal comes back out again and you’re up and about!” Walker said with a laugh.
Outside of the grand finals, Walker’s most memorable game was the final against the top-of-the-ladder Cora Lynn in 2012 that gave Bunyip the belief it could go all the way.
“We really had the determination and we actually felt going into that game that we could beat them,” he said.
“It was that belief that we could, even though they were better than us, that got us over the line. We just played so well that day, and that’ll forever stick in my mind.”
When Walker was a junior, he used to idolise the likes of Andrew Hobday, Rob Hughes, and Marc Jolley.
“It was just fantastic – you felt like you were a king when you were standing in between those guys on the footy field,” he said.
Now, whether he’ll admit it or not, Walker is the sort of player Bunyip’s current crop of youngsters looks up to.
“We’ve had our first West Gippsland (Football Netball Competition) premiership last year in the under-16s and we’ve got some really good kids with the likes of Will Papley making his debut, so there are some really good signs there for the future,” he said.
“If we can get these kids to hang around for the next five or 10 years, we’ll definitely be in that premiership window again sooner rather than later.”
And some of Bunyip’s newer, yet most experienced senior players could be a crucial factor behind them staying.
“Rick is one of the hardest players I’ve ever played against,” Walker said of Clark.
“His work rate and understanding of the game is second to none, and he’s a bull – he and I had many a battle on the field.
“Since Rick has been over he’s been awesome, and his ability to deliver his message to us has been huge.
“Then there’s Damo Szwaja. His work rate is elite, and he’s so tough and hard at the footy it’s unbelievable. I would have loved to have played alongside him in his mid-20s. He’s taught the group so much, just by way of professionalism and how to push yourself. He got pulled out of retirement by Rick and Aussie this year, and I don’t know what he’s doing next year but I’d love to see him go around again.”
And in the long-term, Walker hopes to see one youngster – in particular – pouring his heart into playing for the club.
Walker and his wife Sam, a champion netballer for Ellinbank, will no doubt both be trying to convince their son Darcy to play for their respective clubs.
“I’m definitely the less talented one out of the two of us,” Walker said.
“Sam has seven best and fairests to her name and four flags – I’ve got nothing on her.
“Hopefully he’s got his mum’s genes and not mine and has a fruitful career at Bunyip. She thinks it’ll be at Ellinbank and I think at Bunyip so that’ll be the next tough decision – to work out where he plays his footy.”