More than 80 years have passed since Ronald Reagan, then a Hollywood actor, put into folklore the line: “Win just one for the Gipper” – the American college football player George Gipp.
Reagan, the politician, later recycled the line – originally delivered from Gipp’s hospital bed a century ago – for a US presidential campaign.
The theme echoes today at Alberton, on the eve of Port Adelaide’s preliminary final battle with the Western Bulldogs at Adelaide Oval, with the very healthy Travis Boak.
“(Port Adelaide senior coach) Ken (Hinkley) has made the playing team aware of the people who have been here for a long period of time and have contributed so much for our footy club,” says Power forwards mentor Nathan Bassett.
That list definitely includes Boak, one of 22 Port Adelaide players who in 2007 entered Australian football’s record books for the biggest grand final loss – 119 points – to Geelong at the MCG.
There is also Robbie Gray, who also came to Port Adelaide from Victoria in the 2006 AFL national draft. But Boak would be No.1 on the list of Port Adelaide players “deserving” a premiership.
Port Adelaide vice-captain Ollie Wines, who has been part of a powerful midfield tandem with Boak in recent seasons, certainly has picked up the theme of honouring club veterans with the premiership medals that would take prime position in their stacked trophy collections.
“That is my one motivation at the moment – Travis Boak, Robbie Gray and Tom Rockliff,” says Wines, who included former Brisbane captain Rockliff, who has retired after developing blood clots after surgery to correct knee injuries suffered while representing Port Adelaide in the SANFL.
“The amount of work those guys have put in throughout their careers, not just to improve themselves as individuals but also the club,” Wines says.
“For our club to be at this point (a win from an AFL Grand Final), is off their backs. To reward them with a premiership is what I am chasing at the moment and I know all the boys are on that mission with me.”
Boak, 33, has played 305 AFL matches; the 2007 AFL grand final was his 14th appearance in the national league. He was the youngest (19 years and 59 days) and least-experienced player involved in the one-sided grand final that ended Geelong’s 44-year premiership drought.
Gray, also 33, has played 254 AFL matches and was not – by injury – as well established in the Port Adelaide line-up by the end of the 2007 season.
The “Do it for Boaky” or even “Do it for Robbie” theme – the Australian sporting equivalent of winning one for the Gipper – is not exclusive to Port Adelaide while the AFL premiership race continues, with just four of the 18 clubs still standing during a marathon season for this weekend’s preliminary finals.
In the other preliminary final, played on Friday night at Perth Stadium, Melbourne has its 300-game warrior – former captain Nathan Jones. Geelong has Brownlow Medallist Patrick Dangerfield. This will be Dangerfield’s sixth preliminary final, that includes the 2012 loss to Hawthorn at the MCG while he was an Adelaide player.
Jones has not played an AFL game since round 15 and it would be difficult for Melbourne to resist naming the 16-season veteran as the medical substitute in the grand final; a role that would bring a premiership medal even if the 33-year-old midfielder never took to the field at Perth Stadium during the AFL Grand Final on Saturday, September 25.
Boak, Gray (for his comeback after a serious knee injury in 2012 and successful battles with cancer), Dangerfield (for his grand status in the game) and Jones (for his loyalty to Melbourne) all merit having “premiership player” on their marvellous but supposedly incomplete resumes.
Boak has many claims to an AFL premiership medal as a reward for his 15 seasons in the big league: champion footballer, model athlete for his dedication to his craft with an extreme pre-season preparation, cornerstone of the “new Port Adelaide” by his loyalty to the club after being courted by Geelong in 2012, and devoted humanitarian with his work for childhood cancer campaigns.
Boak wore the traditional No.1 jumper as Port Adelaide captain in 138 of 139 AFL matches. He stepped back to his original No.10 guernsey for one match in 2018 to allow eight-year-old Henry Mickan, who was fighting acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, to lead the Port Adelaide team onto Adelaide Oval in the No.1 jumper against Greater Western Sydney.
In the lead-up to the qualifying final against Geelong last month, the fully recovered Mickan – now a promising under-age footballer in the Barossa – and his mother were at Alberton to film a documentary for the Childhood Cancer Association. As the cameras were being put in place in the old grandstand, Mickan’s mother forewarned the film crew she would be in tears when speaking of Boak’s continued support of her son. She did cry while running out of emotive superlatives to praise Boak.
“He is just an extraordinary person,” says Port Adelaide chief executive Matthew Richardson. “When I think of Travis, I remember how he always is concerned about helping other people, be that inside or outside the club. There is the amazing work that he does with childhood cancer and other charities. He is just a fantastic person.”
In a pure football context, Boak’s contribution to the Port Adelaide Football Club is repeatedly summed up by his decision to rebuff the brazen sales pitch from Geelong coach Chris Scott, captain Joel Selwood and the other senior players who boldly came to Adelaide on a Sunday morning in mid-July 2012.
I can leave the game knowing I gave everything I could and helped others along the way. That is the success I want.
Richardson was at Alberton trying to hold together a rebellious membership during this “dark chapter” while then chief executive Keith Thomas and then coach Matthew Primus knew they had to retain Boak if the club was to avert disaster – that included losing its AFL licence.
“Travis symbolises the Port Adelaide Football Club as a whole,” Richardson said. “Even in the past couple of years when he has stepped away from the captaincy, he has gone to another level.”
Boak is seen at Alberton as a hero who not only led a football team out of a dark tunnel, but also a proud club that was at risk of losing its century-old identity if the SANFL had cut a financial lifeline, or if the AFL Commission had reclaimed the debt-loaded licence from 2010-2012.
“I genuinely feel like the way the Port Adelaide football community is so connected today is a reflection of Travis – he kept the team together and that kept the club together,” Richardson said. “He has been there for the whole journey and it is well documented back in 2012 how he stuck with the club.”
Most remarkable in Boak’s decision to rebuff Geelong – while his family also wanted him to return to Torquay in Victoria to fill the gap left by the death of his father Roger to cancer in May 2005 – was his belief in Port Adelaide when he had not grown up in the club’s heartland on the LeFevre peninsula. He was not “indocrinated” in the Port Adelaide way from birth.
“Some of our greatest people have come from outside of Port Adelaide,” said Richardson. “You don’t need to grow up with the Port Adelaide Football Club but once you get here, you understand what this club means and its importance to its people and the community. It is not difficult to embrace that.”
So is now the moment that Boak is rewarded for his sacrifice to Port Adelaide?
“Ollie Wines has spoken about how Travis and Robbie are such a motivating factor for the playing group,” said Richardson, “and that is because of what those guys in particular have given to the group; how invested they are in helping others.”
The emotional card in football – as much as it made for a great movie scene for Reagan – is always dangerous for running the risk of distorting a team’s focus. This could be even more risky during a preliminary final, a match Bassett notes is already emotional charged by describing the game as the “scariest” for a player.
“Even those guys who have been here for a long time (such as Boak and Gray) have a responsibility to play the best footy that they can for the team this week,” adds Bassett.
“(The do it for Boaky theme) certainly adds a little bit for the team. But once you are out there on the ground, does it help you win the next contest? I am not so sure.”
Boak joined Port Adelaide as pick No.5 in the 2006 AFL national draft which left Adelaide frustrated in being denied Bryce Gibbs as a father-son pick (he went to Carlton as robe No.1 pick). The Crows also knew fellow Glenelg player James Sellar had been eagerly scouted by Power premiership coach Mark Williams as the “next best” local talent.
Port Adelaide’s recruiting team won the debate on looking beyond South Australia – and that argument even continued at the draft table – by claiming Boak while Sellar went to Adelaide at pick No.11.
Boak has played the most AFL games (305 to date) of all the men recruited with top-10 picks in that national draft. His resume includes most AFL games for Port Adelaide (a record he took from 300-game premiership hero Kane Cornes earlier this year), three All-Australian honours (2013, 2014 and 2020), two John Cahill Medals as Port Adelaide club champion (2011 and 2019) and three Showdown Medals as best -afield in the derbies with Adelaide (2013, 2020 and this year).
But there is no AFL premiership medal.
Should this define Boak?
In the lead-up to his 300th game, played against Collingwood behind locked gates at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium after originally being assigned to Adelaide Oval, Boak answered this question saying: “If we talk success, then the premiership is the one. I would love to win one. No doubt that is my dream. But success for me is about becoming the best athlete and person I can.”
There was a time when Port Adelaide league footballers celebrated premierships before reaching their 100-game milestone. That was the SANFL State league, however, and the national AFL has proven to test Port Adelaide in far more than just winning football matches.
Boak has played in two AFL preliminary finals, losing to eventual premiers Hawthorn by three points at the MCG in 2014 and by six points to defending champions Richmond at Adelaide Oval last year, since the 2007 Grand Final.
Boak’s resume remains open to adding a hard-earned premiership.
“Whatever that may be, with a premiership or without,” says Boak. “I can leave the game knowing I gave everything I could and helped others along the way. That is the success I want.
“I would love to have that premiership medallion, but a lot of that is out of my control.
“I just want to go about my career finishing off as the best athlete I can possibly be. And that is about helping our footy club and our younger players become great athletes as well as great people. That is the ultimate success for me.
“At this stage, I have no limit to where I want to get to. My body and my mind – and I do love the game as much as I ever have – feel really good. I am really energised to keep learning, to keep growing, to keep getting better, to keep helping our younger guys come through.
“I don’t have a number (of games) in mind. It is just continue to play footy and continue to enjoy footy and the moment I don’t enjoy getting the most out of myself and wanting to train and get better is probably the time I will be ready to hang it up. But at this stage I still enjoy it as much as ever, so I have no end in mind. And hopefully there are still plenty of years left.”
Australian football’s gallery of superstars is crowded with players who have built up a grand collection of individual awards such as Brownlow Medals, club champion titles and All-Australian blazers – but not the ultimate team success that is measured by premierships.
Some refuse to be defined by this, as emphasised by Collingwood ruckman, South Australian Brodie Grundy at the start of the season in March. He said: “A lot of the messaging (in Australian sport) is, ‘Your career is only successful if you win a premiership’. It has never made sense to me. How can you go through 15 years of your life playing at the highest level but not see it as a success?”
Indeed, without a premiership Travis Boak always will be hailed for his part in keeping the Port Adelaide Football Club afloat. But with a premiership, the storyline seems much more complete.
This is why Ollie Wines and his Port Adelaide team-mates will be trying to win one for Trav.
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