By David Nagel
“He’s the hottest football prospect for years in the greater metropolitan area.”
Those were the words of then Hawthorn secretary Ron Cook after the Hawks had outlasted nine other VFL clubs to gain the signature of exciting 19-year-old Officer rover Rob Porter.
Just weeks earlier, on Saturday 23 September, 1961, the Hawks won their first ever premiership with a 43-point victory over Footscray in front of 107,935 people at the MCG.
The Hawks were chock-full of stars at the time, with captain Graham Arthur leading the midfield with champions Brendan Edwards and Ian Law by his side.
The challenge of breaking into such a team would be immense – and in hindsight not such a great career move – but the Hawks earned Porter’s signature by tugging at his heart strings.
The Hawks offered Porter’s beloved Officer Football Club a full set of brand-new jumpers if he would sign at Glenferrie Oval…deal clinched!
It was stroke of genius from Hawthorn, because Rob Porter has always put the Officer Football Club above everything else in his sporting life.
Just a week prior to Hawthorn’s triumph, on Saturday 16 September, 1961, Porter and his Officer teammates created a special piece of history of their own, winning the club’s first-ever senior premiership with a two-point victory over Kooweerup.
No, there were not 107,935 people at the Cranbourne Racecourse that day – the gate was 347 pound – but for Porter it was a special privilege to win a premiership for the town he holds so dear.
And winning the 1961 Norm Walker Medal, awarded to the best and fairest player of the South West Gippsland Football League (SWGFL) – at age 19 – was just an added bonus.
Rob Porter’s roots run really deep at Officer.
His family lived on Bayview Road when he was born at the Berwick Bush Nursing Hospital in August 1942, the third of four sons to Jim and Ethel Porter, who married in 1935.
His eldest brother Ed played alongside him in the ’61 grand final. His next brother George died young at 33, then there’s his only younger brother Russell, who has also passed away.
His dad Jim came out from Ireland, while Ethel Jean was the eldest of six George Tivendale children…and she was born on the family table in Officer.
“We lived through the best era ever, mum’s name was Ethel Jean Porter, but everyone called her Jean,” Rob said.
“We had four boys in our family, and she cleaned all of our football boots and washed and ironed the laces, ready for us to play. Looking back now I feel so embarrassed that she did that,” he says with a chuckle.
“Mum was unbelievable. For the first 13 years of her married life we had no water in the house, all tank water, no power, no phone, no motor car, and she got four boys to school and at no stage did we ever feel disadvantaged.
“Life was very simple back then, free and easy. We’d walk up the bush because there was no junior footy or cricket back in those days, you’d just make your own fun.
“I remember a mate and I climbed up on a power tower on O’Neil Road Hill and my hair stood up like crazy. We could hear the buzz of the 22,000 volts, but it was a great view though.
“We learned to swim in Whiteside’s Dam, which we were banned from, but every kid did in Officer.”
During his childhood, Porter would cross paths regularly with his future wife Carol Gilbert, whose dad was an orchardist on Brown Road, which intersects Bayview and Starling Roads, where Rob and Carol still live today after 55 years of marriage.
“I’ve known Carol since she was three years old, we went to Sunday School together and she went to Dandenong High and I went to Dandy Tech…and we caught the same bus,” Rob recalls.
“When we got older it took me 10 years to convince her to marry me,” he says with a laugh, and with Carol by his side.
Rob’s education consisted of six years at Officer Primary and then fours years at Dandy Tech, and then one year at Caulfield Institute before he did a plumbing apprenticeship with Graham and Nancy Edwards from Nar Nar Goon in 1958.
He had to hitchhike to work for two years before he got his licence.
In 1962 Rob was named the Victorian Apprentice of the Year, receiving his award from Sir Rohan Delacombe at the Melbourne Town Hall on May 14, 1963.
He opened his own plumbing business in 1967 and only handed over the business to his son Geoff in mid-2020.
In total he spent 62 years on the tools!
Porter’s first memory of his football journey is vivid.
His dad Jim was goal umpire for Officer, with a young Rob immersed in the game as he followed his dad around the grounds of the then Dandenong District Football Association.
And his highly-anticipated first game, well it didn’t quite materialise as expected.
“I was probably 10 or 11, my brother was captain of the under 18s and I remember we were playing Berwick,” Porter said.
“We had a boy in our team who was turning 18, who was running late for the game. Bill Mason was president and coach at the time and said ‘Listen boy, have you got your footy boots today.”
“I borrowed a pair of footy boots off Ivan Board, which were massive, and had a jumper on three sizes too big, and I was dying to get out there.
“Anyway, I’m just about to run on and here comes Johnny driving into the ground in a new E-Type Jag that his dad had just bought for him for his birthday. So, I never got on the ground, which was pretty disappointing.”
Porter would soon make up for lost time however, picking apples and carting hay so he could afford a pair of boots of his own, and he certainly put them to good use.
He played in Officer’s inaugural junior team in the SWGFL in 1955 and would make the Dandy Tech team, with seven players from that side either training or playing at VFL clubs in the future.
At his home club Officer he was starting to show the talent that would lead to future glories
“At Officer juniors I remember Ivan Board was captain and Johnny Hicks was vice-captain and I was two or three years younger than them, and I ran second in the best and fairest in my first year,” Porter said.
“Pretty soon it was juniors in the morning and seniors in the afternoon and I loved every minute of it. I was little, but had good peripheral vision and was pretty quick, and gave a lot of cheek.”
Porter soon became an integral part of the senior team, with his electric pace and exquisite skills, on either side of his body, seeing him stand out from the pack.
Officer was a mid-range team in 1960, but an influx of talent saw the club become an instant premiership threat in 1961.
“Bill Mason, our president, he worked at the Dandy Bacon Factory and he talked Beau Lambert into coming to Officer to be our coach,” Porter recalled.
“With that came an influx of players from Noble Park and the Springvale area and we were a completely different side in ’61.
“John Campbell, Kenny Seers, Dougy McDonald, Kenny Delaney, Billy Garrett, Jacky Turnbull and Peter Young…they were all Beau’s boys.
“The new blokes that came in were all older than me and treated me like their little brother.
“If someone from the opposition got me that they didn’t like, they’d fix them up, one umpire, funny things happened, everyone was fair game.”
Lambert had spent time at Hawthorn and knew his footy well. He also shared the roving roles with Porter and built a strong rapport.
“Beau Lambert was great for me, and the team, and I give him a lot of credit for what happened that year,” Porter said.
“I would get to training and get my boots out and he would say ‘leave them off tonight, I don’t want you kicking’ and I would say, ‘But that’s what I came here for.”
“He said you’ve probably been digging trenches at work, you’ve done enough today, it’ll keep you hungry for Saturday.
“He was a coach before his time, he thought about how to get the best out of me, and the team, and he managed me, he kept me fresh…I was so hungry for the footy by Saturday.”
Officer had a fantastic start to the 1961 season, winning its first 10 games, including a record 41.30 (276) to 0.2 (2) trouncing of Narre Hallam in round three.
Porter was everywhere and would soon earn a reputation as one of the best midfielders in the game. By the time he turned 19, in August ‘61, he was at the top of his game, and had to put up with some rough stuff.
“To be honest, I loved that part of the game,” he said.
“I was only small but my shoulders and hands were strong, from digging holes and screwing up pipes. I could throw 100-pound oxy bottles on my shoulders and walk to the truck, never used a trolley.
“I was quick and I could dodge and I could take a mark for my size, and I could kick left and right foot.
“And I had some great teammates looking after me. Peter Young was a fantastic ruckman and would put it right on my chest every time, he looked after me enormously.
“I was reasonably tough, not a wimp by any means, and didn’t mind at all if they gave me a clip around the ear and I got a free kick.
“I gave plenty of cheek, and there were a few chubby blokes we played against that I knew.
“When I tackled them, I’d give the pinch test and I’d get a free kick for dropping the ball,” he says with a laugh.
Porter’s resilience was put to the test in the 1961 grand final, where Officer went in a slight favourite after defeating Kooweerup by four points in the second semi-final.
Porter refused to name names, but when shown a match report that showed Ted Ryan was reported for striking him, he did open up a little.
“When the umpire put his head down to bounce the ball to start the match, I was roving and Teddy was ruck for Koowee, we were standing next to each other and he got me with a beautiful punch, right in the nose, but the umpire caught him out of the corner of his eye,” Porter said.
“I wasn’t good, I had blood going everywhere and I was staggering down to the forward pocket because if you came off, you were off for good in those days.
“As I was heading down to the pocket Paddy Shelton hit me with a beautiful shirtfront that hurt twice as much as the punch in the nose.
“I can’t remember parts of the first quarter, but I do remember Teddy saying ‘you won’t see the day out Porter’.
“I think it happened because I won the medal that week and there was write up in the paper that said I was going to cause trouble for Kooweerup.
“And Teddy was nearly right, I couldn’t breathe, my ribs were almost broken, but I came good and played ok in the second half.”
The game itself was an absolute cracker, played in windy conditions that did favour one end.
Officer did well to contain Kooweerup in the first quarter, trailing by four points, before wasting their opportunities with a 1.9 to 0.0 second quarter.
Trailing by 11 points at half time, Kooweerup would kick 5.2 to 0.2 in the third quarter to take a 19-point lead to the final change of ends for the season.
“We were nervous and there was no time on back then, no out of bounds on the full, so they could just bang the ball into the tea-tree and take time off the clock, Porter recalled.
Officer would kick three goals for the quarter, one to Dougy McDonald and one to Ken Delaney to narrow the margin to four points with just seconds left to play.
Delaney then became the match-winner.
“Kenny Delaney took a mark on the half forward flank, and kicked a torpedo punt that was going out of bounds on the full, then the wind took it and it went straight through the middle,” Porter recalls with clarity.
“We were four points down and won by two points, I remember that very distinctly.
“Carol’s mum, Mrs Board, Mrs Mason, Mrs Edwards, all those ladies were crying, it was a special day for everyone associated with the football club.”
Porter also remembers a bit of the post-match celebration.
“Five minutes after we won the grand final the ground was flooded in WEG posters,” he said with a laugh.
“Bill Mason’s brother-in-law worked at the Herald Sun and printed them the night before the game.
“That sort of thing didn’t happen at our level of the game, it was something quite unique.
That 1961 season put Rob Porter on the map. Winning the league medal at such a young age, and playing a key role in the premiership, had him touted for higher honours.
“With the medal I was always talking to the umpires, and being a rover, always under their eye, so I felt fortunate, but blokes at work were patting me on the back and I became known a bit,” Porter said.
“I was just a basic country lad who lived a pretty sheltered life. There was nothing at Officer, no pub, no picture theatre, nothing. A post office, service station, school, hall and church, that was about it.
“We had an easy life, but things started to change a bit then.”
A well-worn path was made to the Porter’s front door with almost every VFL club keen to secure the services of the hottest young property in football.
Porter would train at South Melbourne, Collingwood, Melbourne and Carlton, before playing six games for Hawthorn in 1962 and ’63, breaking into that team that had secured that elusive premiership in 1961.
“In hindsight, I probably made a few bad decisions,” Porter said, before being pushed to describe in more detail.
“Going to Hawthorn back then was probably the equivalent of trying to break into the Melbourne or Bulldogs midfield today.
“And I gave away a lot of goals.
“My first game was against Melbourne and (Ron) Barassi was my idol.
“I was on the wing on (Brian) Dixon, the ball gets punched past us and Barassi is off after it, I’m after him, he stops, I ran straight into his back, my idol – giving him a free kick is the first thing I do in football.
“I felt like an idiot.
“I got put in the forward pocket in the second half against Neil Compton, and I was too quick for him, he was nearing the end of his career.
“John Peck was our full forward, I gave him the first one, then another, then hit him with a stab pass for another goal.
“I got to trade school on Wednesday and my teacher, who was a Hawthorn supporter, took me into the back room and said ‘Don’t you want to play league football son, stop giving goals away to Peck…kick those and you’re probably in for life.’
“Who knows, in hindsight I probably went to the wrong club and gave away too many goals.”
Porter would then play a year at Dandenong, making his debut against Northcote in the first televised game of VFA football.
His initiation to the VFA was very similar to the opening moment of the 1961 grand final against Kooweerup.
“There was another write up before the game about me going to Dandenong…I went to shake my opponent’s hand before the game and he punched me and knocked me out,” Porter said.
“I had to have 13 stitches in my mouth…without any antiesthetic.”
Porter didn’t enjoy his time at Dandenong, with Sunday football having a detrimental affect on his Monday work schedule, so he returned to Officer to coach for two years in 1966/’67.
He retired as a footballer at an early age to concentrate on his growing business as a plumber.
Porter would then coach juniors at ROC – an amalgamation of the Rythdale-Cardinia and Officer Football Clubs in 1977 – for six years, winning the clubs first-ever premiership in the under-15s in 1983.
He would then coach the ROC seniors for four years – from 1989 to 1992 – building a platform for runner-up years under Peter Bastinac in 1993/94, before Mick Fogarty claimed back-to-back glory in 1995/96.
The story of Rob Porter transcends the football field, with his volunteer and community work the stuff of legends.
In 1974 he was appointed Chairman of the Officer Recreation Reserve, a position, quite remarkably, that he still holds today after 47 years of continuous service.
In 1984 the newly erected social rooms at Starling Road were named the RG Porter Social Rooms in recognition of the many thousands of hours that he has dedicated to the club.
Through his playing, coaching and volunteer days…Porter has never requested one cent for his services.
He won several awards for his community work, including a Bi-Centennial Citizen Award in 1988 and the Cardinia Shire Council Senior Citizen of the Year in 2020. He was the inaugural winner of the Stan Henwood Award in the Cardinia Shire Council…and he’s also been on more boards than Monopoly!
He has also been Chairman of the Officer and District Community Association for the last 40 years, and has been a committee member of the Officer Union Church, Officer Public Hall, Officer Memorial Gates, Officer Primary School Council, and Anzac and Remembrance Day committees.
And Carol has been awarded an OAM for her 50 years of service to the local community!
“We love the town and we’re deeply involved with Officer because we’re four or five generations deep,” Porter explained.
“We’ve got great grand-children now, and both sides of the family go back to great grandparents, grandparents and parents.
“We just love Officer, and the fact that our parents were so involved, it’s just part of our DNA I guess. We both love to achieve a result that was bettering the town, whether it be the hall, church, school, scout hall or footy ground.
“As long as it improves the town I get a buzz out of it.”
Porter also supervisor and builder of the Officer Social Rooms, a project he shared with Ron Valentine and Ken Tivendale. The trio built a facility that included social rooms, toilets, kitchen, tables, chairs, the whole shooting match, and did it with the club remaining debt free.
“I just love it, I love mowing the grounds, I’ve done that all my life, and I’ve enjoyed doing the maintenance, with my son Geoff and great mate Pat Pipicelli.”
Rob Porter is a very unique individual, blessed with extraordinary talent and work ethic to match.
So what does he take away from a life well lived?
“The mateship and friendship from the footy club, those are my friends for life, and even from other clubs you meet some wonderful people,” he said.
“It was dog eat dog on a Saturday, but when we bumped into each other on the job, at smoko or lunchtime, we’d talk footy all the time.
“I was working with my son Geoff on a renovation at the Kooweerup pub one day, both digging a ditch, shoulder deep, when who should walk towards us, Teddy Ryan, the same Teddy Ryan who belted me in the 1961 grand final.
“I felt like ducking my head down, but Teddy saw me, lifted me out of the ditch and wouldn’t stop hugging me.
“Geoff said, are you sure you got the right bloke?
“But that’s the thing about football, it’s rough and tough, but a fantastic way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”
Rob and Carol have two sons, Gavin and Geoff, married to Toni and Jayne. They have six grandchildren Callum, Cassie, Jessica, Lachlan, Luke and Nathan, and two great grandchildren…Banksy and Bentley.
“We feel very fortunate to have such a great family environment; it means everything to us and is the thing we’re most proud of above everything else.”
You should be proud of yourself too Rob Porter…you’ve been a superstar – both on and off the football field.