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Garry Crane on Spirit of Carlton TV

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Today we highlight an interview from our archive of Garry Crane, who played in 3 premierships during his 148 game career at the Blues.


Blues greats back “The Farmer’s” lead for men’s health

By Tony De Bolfo

About 303 kilometres north of Albany, way down in the far south of Western Australia, is the tiny wheatbelt town of Kukerin. To the south west of Kukerin is Lake Dumbleyung where, in December, 1964, the late Sir Donald Campbell established a new world water speed record.

With the harvest now in full swing, the Kukerin farmers have put down their heads - for work is hard and gain is slim when the land is ravaged by the on-going effects of prolonged drought.

“The people are so close, and we’ve had some pretty extreme events in the past few years,” says Ross Ditchburn, Carlton’s 1982 premiership-winning full-forward and Kukerin country’s most famous football export.

“In 2004 we had a bushfire, and the whole community stopped what was happening and went to the aid of all those who were affected by the fire. This year there’s obviously a drought, and again the whole community’s got behind eachother to make sure they’re all being looked after, and that if someone hasn’t appeared for a while that they’re contacted to make sure they’re all okay.

Last weekend provided some welcome, albeit brief respite for the good people of Kukerin, when the Spirit of Carlton’s past players came to town.

Richard Dennis, Des English, Wayne Harmes, Ken Hunter, Syd Jackson, David McKay and Geoff Southby, together with the former property steward Ken Kleiman, the Spirit of Carlton’s Bob Lowrie, The Blueseum’s Jamie Sanderson and this reporter, all made the long journey to Kukerin, to renew acquaintance with Ditchburn, the man they know endearingly as “The Farmer”.

Not since the early 1980s, when the then senior coach David Parkin and football manager Shane O’Sullivan crossed the continent to win “Ditchy’s” services, has a Carltonite completed the trek – the triple premiership player Ken Sheldon aside.

But the aforementioned group of former players, who between them share in 17 Grand Final triumphs for Carlton, were truly committed to the cause, not only to see their old mate, but to share in his vision for the bigger picture issue of men’s health.

This story has its origins in Melbourne some months ago, after news came through that Ditchburn, the 28-game player who once reaped a bumper crop of 12 goals in a match against St Kilda at VFL Park, was battling prostate cancer.

When members of the Spirit of Carlton made contact to offer personal assistance, Ditchburn instead suggested that a sportsman’s night be staged in Kukerin to raise funding and awareness for men’s health.

“The night was never going to be a benefit for ‘Ditchy’,” Lowrie explained. “It was his wish that the night was to be supportive of the bigger picture issue of men’s health, and we said ‘No worries’.”

More than 170 people, mostly men who had found time away from their properties in Kukerin, Lake Grace and other locales, filed through the doors of the Kukerin Pioneers Memorial Hall for the event, which earned the support of the Bendigo Bank. There they heard from men’s health experts and shared in the personal experiences of Ken Hunter, Des English and of course, Ditchburn himself.

In the end, around $20,000 was raised for the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, the Black Dog Institute and RFDS – all generated from ticket sales and auction returns, together with Wayne Harmes’ generous gift of $10,000 worth of lime won in a local raffle but donated back to the Kukerin community.

More significantly, 56 men in attendance for the sportsman’s night took advantage of free blood testing at the nearby Kukerin Medical Centre the following morning, with the samples forwarded to Dr. Michael Aitken, Carlton’s one-game senior player of 1985, for further analysis. And as Ditchburn observed: “I’m pretty confident with the current statistics around that there are a couple who will get a phonecall and go in for a biopsy”.

“To get 56 guys through a set-up like that in a morning was just an awesome effort . . . and how good would it be if we can save a life out of that?,” Ditchburn said.

“It’s all about early detection whether it be prostate cancer, skin cancer or diabetes - treat the problem and nine times out of ten you’ll get out of it okay”.

By Sunday afternoon, as the sun began to set over Kukerin, Ditchburn finally found time to reflect on the weekend’s events – a kick-off involving Dennis and Hunter in which a Burley footy was booted over an 80,000-ton wheat storage bin; a rowdy session of lawn bowls involving the Carlton types and the town’s locals, and the great yabby hunt which took in three dams dotted around the vast expanses of the Ditchburn family property.

And of course, the campaign for men’s health.

“It’s been the greatest weekend I’ve ever experienced. We’ve covered such a wide range of issues of men’s health, and we’ve met so many people who have turned up in Kukerin,” Ditchburn said.

“The quality of speakers on men’s health, the boys of the Spirit of Carlton, and the feedback has been so positive. The people have really gained a great appreciation of the players, and I know out of the weekend we’ve got some signed-up Spirit of Carlton members who aren’t Carlton supporters, which reflects the pretty big impact the boys have made.”

Ditchburn also flagged a future get-together, suggesting that “now that they(the past players) have been here once, if they got the opportunity and had a couple of weeks spare, maybe they’d make the effort to come back and see me again”.

“That might not happen, but it’s just been fantastic for those guys to see where I live . . . and I hope they’ve gained an appreciation of what I’m about,” Ditchburn said.

“They call me ‘The Farmer’, I live in a pretty special place, the people are pretty special, and it’s a great place to live.”

With the Carlton back-to-back premiership teams of 1981 and ’82 to be lauded 30 years on from next year, expect Ditchburn to be in Melbourne come rain, hail or shine.

As he said: “I’ll be there for sure. Just tell me where and when and I’ll be there.”

“The boys might have whinged a little about jumping on a plane and travelling four hours by bus to get to Kukerin, but gee, every time there’s a reunion on in Carlton they’ve never thought anything of me having to drive to Perth for four hours, jump on a plane, to Melbourne, get back and then drive home again – and that’s something I’d do without even thinking. I’d never miss a reunion with these guys,” Ditchburn said.

“That’s what I stress to young footballers. It doesn’t matter what level you play at – if you play in a premiership side you’re remembered for the rest of your life.”

And what of “The Farmer” himself? For him, this story carries an even happier ending.

“I’m pretty confident that the surgeon has taken enough of the prostate for me not to have a recurrence. I’m still dealing with impotency issues, and I’m not frightened to talk about it. Men’s health is something I’m pretty passionate about,” he said.

“I’m actually a shire councillor with the Shire of Dumbleyung and the deputy president, and I enjoy talking about men’s health issues more than I do committing my time to local government.

“This might be something I look closer at in the future. If I want to spend a bit of time off the farm I’d rather be helping men become aware of potential problems, rather than spend my time arguing with ratepayers and dealing with the red tape. So we’ll see where it leads.”