How life took a left turn for Doggies captain Bob Murphy

In the warped world of silver linings on dark, sobbing clouds, the setting more than holds its own. Autumn sunshine warming a corner table, Ryan Adams on the stereo, serious steak on the menu, a free hit at the wine list, the shackles of a footballer in-season nowhere to be seen.

The elephant in the room – Bob Murphy’s bung knee – rests under a linen napkin. Not forgotten, but for a wistful moment at least, happily ignored.

“Fitzroy was the first part of Melbourne that grabbed me, where I just felt at home,” Murphy says of the streets around us. Aged 18 and fresh out of Warragul he sat at the bar of the Napier and heard The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street for the first time. “I asked the barman what it was. Life just took a left turn.”

In Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels he found “all of my favourite things about Melbourne” – the dry humour, the connection with place (and of that place with its footy team, dearly departed as it is). The rain. “I like Melbourne when it’s grey and cold and rainy, it’s kinda one of those cities.”

Murphy “white-knuckled” the first TV adaptation, praying they’d do justice to Temple’s hapless gumshoe. “They got it just right,” he says, lauding Guy Pearce’s star turn, Shane Jacobson (“a good Bulldogs man”), Roy Billing. He thinks Aaron Pedersen’s Cam Delray might be the coolest character on Australian TV. “He’s my hero.”

We’re in the Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel dining room among the pressed metal and curios, across from a couple of senior gents who it’s agreed are an inspiration for how to spend a Wednesday lunchtime in a quieter, later life. Murphy can see Jack Irish taking a date here – “back to the Prince Of Prussia afterwards, but they’d come here first”. He’s a Bulldog to the roots of his greying hair, but can still imagine being Bill Irish’s Fitzroy teammate, dancing across Brunswick St Oval, a different footballer in another time. “It’s a beautiful footy ground.”

Owner, chef and Dogs’ fan Sean Donovan has popped out to say g’day and offer condolences to one of the game’s most loved figures. The response to Murphy’s misfortune – a serious knee injury on April 10 that could end his career just as the team he captains and club he loves closes in on a second-ever premiership and first in 62 years – continues to overwhelm him.

“It was a wave of love and kindness that I’ll never forget – people hurting for you, sad for you. I can move on but I’ll never forget it.”

Holed up at home with Justine and their children, Jarvis, Frankie and Delilah, the procession of visitors was funereal. The conversations, hugs and tears, seeing the hurt of others matching his own, was incredibly humbling. “It’s horrendous, but also a gift.”

The external case for going on includes that special mark of footballing greatness and durability, the 300-game milestone, being within touching distance. Murphy has played 295 games for the jumper and isn’t about to start playing for himself now; it won’t influence his decision. “Anything that was going to happen with the 300 happened tenfold when this happened.”

He was 23 and had just moved into a North Fitzroy terrace with his now wife when he did his left knee the first time, almost exactly a decade ago. Justine wasn’t at the game, and her phone buzzed with messages checking that she was okay. “She was at home watching Sex And The City, and was like, ‘Carrie’s with Big, Samantha’s got a new toy boy, of course I’m okay!'”

Driving to the hospital this time for reconstructive surgery, he struggled to remember what lay ahead. Receiving the hospital-issue underpants brought it all rushing back. “This is the glamorous side of footy – when you put the hair net and hospital undies on. That’s rock’n’roll.”

Murphy regards his 2006 reconstruction as the moment football came into sharp focus for Justine, pre-empting years of knock-on injuries that he knows left him frustrated and hard to live with at times. It’s also the moment he felt himself become a real pro. A footballer trains to play and when that’s taken away it feels like all purpose and reason has ruptured too. “When your leg’s snapped in half and you’re doing rehab, there’s no ability, no talent. It’s just work.”

As they rode the emotional wave a second time last month, a Bulldogs’ psychologist told Justine that athletes live in their bodies 24-7 but when their bodies break they’re stuck in their heads. They struggle because this is new to them, and it’s not where they want to be.

Murphy likes his broadcasting colleague Gerard Whateley’s description of sport as “the dessert tray of life”; he knows he’s not dying or even sick, but for now – and perhaps forever – the thing that touches his family, his friendships and all in his life is lost to him.

“That was one of the most upsetting things, how it affects Mum and Dad, my brother and sister, definitely my wife. I’ve got the best friends in the world, how it affected them … I married well and I recruited well. My footy club, the support I’ve got in there, the people. It might be the dessert trolley, but it’s my world as well, and this a really tough stretch.”

A glass of Yalumba Octavius helps, washing down what Murphy dubs a “dinosaur cut” of rib eye that’s teamed with a radicchio, blue cheese, beetroot and hazlenut salad. The athlete’s appetite is intact; there are fat chips too, and the raw trout and charcuterie starters are long gone. Ryan Adams is soul-searching his way through Sweet Carolina. As a window on football retirement, it’s not half bad.

Perspective is everything, children its great providers. On the night his father’s anterior cruciate ligament popped, eight-year-old Jarvis Murphy was having a sleepover. Justine collected him for school the next morning, tearfully broke the news that Dad was hurt and wouldn’t be playing football again this year.

“Is Dad okay?” Jarvis asked. Justine explained a second time, said he might never play again, and Jarvis – whose interest in football is less than fleeting – repeated his plaintive question. “Yes, but is Dad okay?”

“On more than one occasion he’s snapped me out of this downward spiral of self pity,” Murphy says, none more amusing than the first time post-surgery that he was well enough to sit down to a family dinner.

“Jarvis asked me, ‘Dad, when are you going to play your 300th game?’ I looked at Justine and said, ‘I’ve hurt my knee mate, I don’t know if or when I’m gunna play again.'”

Unperturbed, Jarvis went back to the well. “But will it be this year or next year?”

Murphy dropped down an octave, brought his fingertips together in contemplation, felt himself turning into his father. “I don’t know if Dad wants to continue following his dream of football and a premiership mate …”

With his sermon of heartbreak cranking up, Justine started laughing. “She leans across and whispers, ‘I promised him if he ran out with you in your 300th game – which he didn’t want to do – I’d buy him the biggest box of Lego he could find. He just wants to know where his Lego is.'”

He misses going for a head-clearing run when he’s feeling a bit frantic, but has been surprised how much he’s enjoying watching the footy – even Bulldogs games. Although seeing them run out to play, the coin toss and the pre-bounce huddle that is the captain’s unique moment, wrenches his heart.

Most of all he misses the physical rhythm – hurting on Monday and Tuesday, day off Wednesday (sans pub lunch), bounce up Thursday for the next challenge. “You hurt yourself and recover, but you lean on that soreness. Whereas when you’re broken … I’ve lost that rhythm.”

Always the question hangs like a guillotine: what are you going to do? “Minute to minute, hour to hour, my answer can be wildly different.”

For eight seasons Murphy wrote enchanting columns in The Age, closing the gap between how we see the game from outside and what it looks like from within. In picturing life without it he can see the upside – commentary on ABC radio, a return to writing, moving his family into a new Northcote home with fireplaces and contemplation in nearly every room.

“I’m not stupid – I’m 33, I’ve known for a while that I’m on bonus time for a footballer. This is a glimpse into what life might look like. And what is it?”

This is Peter Hanlon’s last story for The Age.

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