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Vale John Kennedy: he thought, and he did

It defined Kennedy, at first to his annoyance, though in the mellowing years he would sometimes perform it on request, and in 2012 said to Flanagan that he imagined it echoing through the church at the end of his funeral. Sadly, that moment is upon us.

When Kennedy arrived, Hawthorn had been in the competition for 25 years, but had finished higher than third-last only four times. He won the best-and-fairest in his first three years, but the Hawks didn’t win a game in his first season and only nine in the next two. The hollowness instilled in him the conviction that only team success mattered.

He was a shy and gangling ruckman. “My friends say that they saw me play, and it wasn’t a pretty sight,” he said this year. He saw up close Ron Barassi and Lou Richards bawl out prone teammates and realised that this was a hard game and had to be played that way. Thenceforth, it was pretty is as pretty does.

“You are judged by your performance and nothing else,” he once said. “The score goes on the board after every week, and that’s the judgement.” It fitted his world view.

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In 1957, he captained the Hawks to their first finals win – legend says he played on with a broken arm – and in 1961, now as coach, led them to their first flag. The second-semi-final win over then dominant Melbourne remained a lifelong cherished memory. But Kennedy admired the Demons legendary coach Norm Smith for the way he balanced discipline with licence for his players. The pair struck up a rapport.

A teacher, Kennedy was posted to Stawell for four years, but returned to to his true vocation to lead the Hawks to further flags in 1971 and 1976. His ethos infused the club and its many premierships since.

He was practically an ascetic in his insistence on team, stringency, humility and grace. His supremely fit outfits were known as Kennedy’s Commandos. He was exacting. “He made us brave,” said 1971 premiership centreman and friend Ray Wilson. “I would rather be run through by the pack than face him at quarter time.”

Martello recalls a day at Waverley when he nearly broke his fist punching a whiteboard as Hawthorn trailed Essendon a half-time, and that he turned white, and the pin-drop silence that followed, but also that the Hawks won.

Kennedy could and did quote Marx, Shakespeare and Cicero, but met footballers on their terms, never complicating the game. Peter Hudson played all of his stellar career under Kennedy, and the unvarying instruction to the rest was: “Kick it to Hudson.”

Too crude? It did lead to rule change to stop the Hawks concertinaing themselves in one half of the ground with Hudson in the other. Besides, have a look at their record. The sophistication was in Kennedy’s man management.

Kennedy resisted overtures from Carlton and Collingwood, but from 1985 coached North Melbourne for five years, adding no more premierships, but widening the circle of those who count him as the seminal influence in their lives and leaving only good memories.

Kennedy served on the boards of Hawthorn and North, and as AFL commission chairman 1993-7, an office he dignified but never paraded. He was one of the inaugural inductees into the Hall of Fame in 1996 and earlier this month was elevated to Legend.

The statue of John Kennedy snr at Hawthorn's Waverley headquarters.

The statue of John Kennedy snr at Hawthorn’s Waverley headquarters.Credit:AAP

But he was first and last a man of the club he fashioned in his image, now to be seen cast in bronze, crumpled raincoat flapping, outside Hawthorn’s headquarters. Here is one statue worthy of its plinth. He was and remains a towering figure.

“I hope I’ve learned to be tolerant,” said Kennedy when interviewed by the AFL’s Patrick Keane to mark his official legendhood earlier this year. “Winning and losing is both part of football, and it’s part of life, so you must be tolerant of what you have and what is in front of you.” For him, it was a mercifully short last illness.

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