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Recently we celebrated the life of a man who was larger than life – in every way imaginable.

The Whale was an appropriate name and descriptor for Brian Roberts, a champion footballer from the 60’s and 70’s. Standing 199cm and weighing 120kg on a good day, he was a hearty and generous man who, post his celebrated football career across three states, became one of the best known publicans in Melbourne.

Having an “Ale with the Whale” almost became a rite of passage in this town, with the ceremony being consummated either in The Cricket Club in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne or The Duke of Wellington on Flinders Street in the city. If TripAdvisor were alive back then, both establishments would be regarded as 5-Star “must-sees” in Melbourne.

It wasn’t just to see this giant of a man, but to experience his “presence” and soak up the atmosphere in a room full of wonderful sports memorabilia, including many of the legends who featured.

I was fortunate enough to play in a Richmond Premiership with the Whale and during an important and memorable period of my life he became a mate – as he was to all of his teammates.

He was the heart and soul of a club who had many hearts and souls but none of them like Mr. Whale, his true title. Befriend the Whale and you had a friend for life. Such was his personality and bon homie that Prime Ministers, Premiers, top-end-of-towners and other “names” came to rub shoulders with the Whale. He was their photo opportunity!

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Imagine the eulogies?

The stories from that era have taken on their own life and his funeral saw them further embellished by the last semblances of truth.

Beautifully told by friends of much longer and stronger standing than myself. But hidden amongst them were stories of a man I barely knew. How could it be that I actually knew so little of the true essence of the man? How did I have to wait until he died to discover there were two men lying at rest – Mr. Whale, the public face we all knew, and Brian┬áRoberts, the loving father of two precious daughters, with an intellect and depth of knowledge that he shared with very few. Perhaps because many of us didn’t try to find out.

This is my regret and it’s not the first time that I’ve attended a funeral and made such a revelation. Does it happen only with men? We may spend hours of time together but never get to know the other person. This is not the same as the “Are you ok” question but rather the question “Who are you?” If we knew the answer to the latter, we may not have to ask the former.

I believe there were two Brian Roberts. The public figure – The Whale – was always recognised and acknowledged. The private man -perhaps the real Brian Roberts – was little known. He was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire and the family emigrated to Australia.

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But at heart he always remained an Anglophile. He loved the history of the English – the language, the people, its Kings and Queens. The Tudors fascinated him, especially Henry VIII – he may even have imagined himself to be a latter day Henry Tudor! I wouldn’t put it past him, and it’s too late now to find out.

He read vociferously which added to his general knowledge and supported his powerful memory. He was a gardener and a lover of antiques. To cap it all he was a sensitive man. He was an enigma. The type of enigma I would love to have explored.

Perhaps we are all far too sensitive. Never once did I think of asking Mr. Whale what he was reading. I probably stuck with “what are you drinking” rather than risk being stared at with a quizzical eye. I didn’t ever venture into his garden to hear him discussing his plants or his compost. Too banal for a couple of broken-down old footballers. I hear the word “wanker” resonating in the background.

It’s too late now to make up for that lost ground but it’s never too late to find out who hides behind the mask of all our other mates.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Nothing lost through trying.