To Hunter’s surprise, however, the AFL has not spoken to him at any stage since 1999, to discuss his mental health issues, the Carlton great having written to the league before Christmas last year.
Hunter, a Hall of Fame half-back flanker who flung his slender frame into the hurly burly throughout his careers at first Claremont (WAFL) and then Carlton (1981-89), had been thinking “long and hard about what might have happened throughout my career” after revelations about CTE in the NFL in the United States, “Polly” Farmer’s diagnosis and then with the subsequent findings, all within a 12-month span, that Frawley and Tuck (who died last year) had been found with CTE.
Hunter differentiates incidents in which he was knocked out – at least four times – and those that stunned, but didn’t force him from the field. The most celebrated concussion came in the first quarter of the 1982 grand final, when Tiger Jimmy Jess levelled Hunter with a heavy bump that forced him off on a stretcher, only to return later in the first quarter after the Tigers surged.
Hunter does not remember returning to the field in that grand final.
“I reckon I was knocked out at least four times – lights out, including the grand final. I can’t remember coming on [in the grand final] until after half-time.
“I think when I was off the ground [Richmond’s] Maurice Rioli kicked two magnificent goals and they probably wanted to get me back on the ground as quickly as possible. But I can’t remember coming back on. I just remember that I was in a grand final, like I started come to at half-time.
“And then I reckon [there were] another 20 where, like a lot of blokes would be in the same boat, where, you know, you’ve gone up for a mark and you’ve got a punch in the back of the head, or a round-arm going for the mark, across the head, or you’ve been, you know, hit your head from a tackle. Or you’ve got a punch on the ground in the pack or whatever.
“You weren’t out, but you had a surreal sort of feeling, where you sort of played on memory for a little bit and then you come good.”
Hunter believes those 20 or so hits would be classified as concussions. “Well, I’m sure they would have been concussions if, now they would recognise that and take you off the ground. But before, you just shake your head and just wait until you come good and know where you are again.”
Hunter said, when he was examined for concussions, the club doctor would ask “what day it is, do you know where you are? Pretty simple type questions that you could probably bluff your way through.
“You just wanted to get out there and play – you didn’t think of any of the consequences.”
The ex-Western Australian, who still resides near his club’s base in North Carlton and does corporate speaking on mental health, guesses that there are many more ex-players of his era living with depression, anxiety or related alcohol and drug afflictions than we know.
“They come from a generation I guess where people tried to deal with problems themselves.
“I think there are blokes out there that are suffering from depressions, alcohol problems and drug problems … I think it might be bigger than we think.”
Those who watched Hunter risk neck and shin for the Blues may not be surprised at the quantity of head knocks. Long armed and 183 centimetres in height, he possessed a rare ability to read the ball in flight, leaving himself “wide open”.
“I guess if we knew then what we know now, then the rules would have made me change my game,” he said. “But I enjoyed the way I played footy, I like the way I played footy, but I played within the rules, what they were at the time.
“I might have been considered reckless by a lot of people, but that’s the way I played it.
Hunter, thus, had “no regrets” on his playing style. “The only regrets I get is, I suppose when I spoke with Caro about the story, I didn’t hear from the AFL about it and I haven’t heard from the AFL now about it … not that I expected to at the time.”
If technology advanced to the point that his brain could be safely examined while he was alive, Hunter would do so. “I’d be up for it, for sure. Whatever helps, I’d contemplate.”
Hunter wishes it be known, too, that while his 1988 depression was serious enough for him to be hospitalised and required medication, he has not had a major episode of depression since and not needed any subsequent medication.
“I do know that it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. You can have a long and healthy life.”
As the AFL and NRL have followed the American model of CTE diagnoses, a class action launched by concussed players is on the menu for the AFL, which, until 12 months ago, did not have a CTE case and has mandated a 12-day absence for concussed players. Hunter, while concerned enough to pledge his brain, does not considered himself impaired.
“I can’t say I feel like I’m in a position where I feel like, you know I’ve been damaged … where I can’t function, which is not the case at all. I’m fully functional.
“But I do know that in my journey over the years, there are a lot of people out there that are suffering.”
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.
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