On a recent family holiday to Adelaide via Wagga Wagga, I felt the urge to visit Turvey Park. I had little reason to do so and left my wife and kids in a coffee shop to take the short drive to the quiet suburb. When I got out of the car and breathed in a good gulp of southern New South Wales fresh air, I began wondering why I was there in the first place.
I was there for the Mortimer brothers. In total, there are four. Chris was a terrific State of Origin centre blessed with defensive prowess and courage, brother Peter also represented his state, was an underrated finisher and now an excellent winemaker in Orange. Youngest brother Glen was less successful at the top level yet still worth 27 games of first grade at the Sharks.
However it was the first born who interested me the most. Steve Mortimer is part of Canterbury folklore. A nervous young kid, battling asthma and frightful of the move to the big smoke that the Bulldogs hoped he would make.
Mortimer was first spotted playing against Canterbury in 1975 and the determination to bring him into the fold was considerable.
Partiarch Peter Moore and his recruiting team were as canny and shrewd as the best of them back in the day and with their assurance that young Mortimer would be well cared for in Sydney, the move was made soon after.
He arrived as a brash and raw talent, annoying some veteran types who saw an upstart with eyes on their share of the headlines. As the seventies came to a close, Mortimer’s developing skills would see him guide a young group of firebrands to semi-finals in both 1979 and 1980.
Canterbury-Bankstown fans old enough to remember will never forget that squad. With the three Mortimer brothers, Graeme, Garry and Mark Hughes, as well as Greg Brentnall, Steve Folkes, George Peponis and Steve Gearin, it was a team for the ages and the cheeky half-back was the fulcrum.
Such was his talent that representative selection (of which he had had a taste in the late seventies) was not too far away once more. Nine State of Origin matches and the same number of tests between 1981-85 reflect the respect he earned in the football community, especially considering Peter Sterling was forging his own legendary career in the same position at the Eels.
Perhaps the images of Steve Mortimer thumping the ground after captaining the New South Wales Origin team to victory in 1985 are the most iconic, yet for the blue and white faithful, there are a million flashes of brilliance that still pop into minds on a regular basis. His 272 games were filled with skill, cheek and inspiration.
Whether it was the chip and chase, the grassing cover tackle or an astute run that broke open the defensive line, Mortimer did it all. His staccato style of play was accredited to his asthma, with which he struggled throughout much of his career.
Further Premierships in 1984,85 and 88 saw his legacy grow, despite missing some key moments due to injury and suspension. The 1988 Grand Final saw a cameo appearance to end his career, as the Bulldogs held a comfortable lead against the Tigers. It was the day we said goodbye to our hero.
Thankfully, he has never really left and has remained part of the Canterbury fabric over the last twenty years. After a decade or so establishing business interests and enjoying retirement, Mortimer returned to the Bulldogs in 2002 and inspired the entire organisation after the disaster of the salary cap scandal.
Whilst resigning as CEO a few years later, Mortimer has returned in recent times to take a place on the Bulldogs board, a place he holds as we speak.
Watching him view the game as he stood behind me a few weeks back at ANZ made it abundantly clear that the passion is still there and the blue and white seeps through his veins just like the old days.
Thank goodness the Bulldogs had an astute and honest man in Peter Moore around when Mortimer was first spotted. The words he uttered after watching him play were simple, sincere and proven correct.
Moore bluntly said that Mortimer “would never play against Canterbury-Bankstown ever again”. How right he was.