HOW fitting that the seven-time Superbowl champion Tom Brady should have an encounter with Michael Voss over the weekend.
It was here some 70 years ago that the first VFL/AFL footballer to conquer the American National Football League first chased the leather for Carlton.
Colin Ridgway, who broke into the NFL (as a punter in three games for the Dallas Cowboys in 1965) was only a teenager when he set foot on the then Princes Park in the early 1950s. Hailing from up the road in Coburg, Ridgway turned out for the thirds, plying his craft as a ruckman/forward for the Harvey Dunn-coached teams through season 1954.
Few players of Ridgway’s vintage are still around, but a welcome exception is Graeme Walker.
Walker first met Ridgway at Preston Technical School, whose classrooms of the day also included Masters Ron Barassi and Brian Pert. Their paths crossed again in the Carlton Under 19s after Walker earned a clearance from Fitzroy – the club to which he was originally zoned.
“Colin wasn’t physically heavy, but he was tall and athletic, which is why Carlton played him in the ruck. It’s hard to say if he could have gone on as a senior League footballer as he was a high jumper after all, and athletics was why he went to the states in the first place,” Walker said.
“As a person, Colin was a great guy. He was incredibly sociable. It was a tragedy what happened to him.”
Ridgway would ultimately feature in the ’54 Under 19 Grand Final at Princes Park – a match in which the home team would fall just three points adrift of Footscray – and a story in itself.
Late in the contest, the officiating field umpire Frank Schwab (father of three-time Hawthorn Premiership player Peter) failed to see boundary umpire John McNiff’s signal that the ball had gone out of bounds, and called play-on with most of the players at a standstill. Amid the confusion, Schwab awarded a free kick to a Footscray player, who promptly booted what proved to be the Grand Final-winning goal.
Schwab later insisted that his decision to award the free kick negated the boundary umpire’s out-of-bounds call. But his decision effectively lit the fuse on a powder keg, with Carlton senior footballer George Stafford, a matchday spectator at the game, jumping the fence and striking both McNiff and his fellow boundary Des Fitzgerald – and prefacing the strike on McNiff with the words: “You b------, you’ve waved that out of bounds two or three times”.
Stafford was later suspended by the VFL Investigation Committee for the opening four matches of 1955 and fined £10 by Carlton Court. But the regrettable publicity was not lost on the League and from ’55 all boundary umpires were allocated whistles to signal their decisions.
Ridgway again represented the Carlton Under 19s through season ’55, on top of four reserve grade appearances against Melbourne (on June 4), Essendon (June 11), South Melbourne (August 13) and Geelong (August 20).
But his sporting prowess would extend beyond the boundary line at Carlton oval.
As a high jumper, Ridgway, who stood 6ft 5inches in the old measurement, competed at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and ’58 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and was a regular at the Australian Open Track and Field championships from 1955/’56 to 1959/’60.
In 1961, he became the first Commonwealth athlete to clear 7 foot in the high jump.
After accepting a track and field scholarship to Lamar Tech (now Lamar University) in Texas, Ridgway was approached by the Dallas Cowboys and duly signed. Coach Tom Landry took a chance on Ridgway despite the fact that his punting style differed from anything seen in American gridiron.
In his second game for Dallas, which resulted in as 21-12 victory for the Cowboys over the Green Bay Packers, Ridgway was lauded by a local newspaper reporter who wrote: “Time after time, when the crunch was on, the Boomer punted the ball out of danger”.
After the game, Ridgway himself said: “It was a great thrill to play before so many people (67,954) and play for a winner”.
On a brief return to Princes Park in early 1966, Ridgway, sporting a Carlton guernsey, was photographed showing the club’s then Captain-Coach Ron Barassi how to throw an American football.
In 1980, Ridgway jetted in to pay tribute to Alex Jesaulenko who was the subject of an episode of the Seven Network’s This Is Your Life series.
But Dallas would remain home to Ridgway beyond his NFL career - and it was in his University Park home in May 1993 that his life would tragically be taken in a shooting murder that remains unsolved.
It’s more than 30 years since Colin Edwin Ridgway’s untimely passing at the age of 56. But his place in the annals of Australian and American football history is there for evermore.