Graham Cornes was 20 – the same age as some of Adelaide’s players who sat in silence absorbing his every word on Friday – when he received a letter advising him to enlist in the Australian Army during the Vietnam War.
It was 1968 and Cornes was in his first season of SANFL footy with Glenelg when he learned that not only his football career but his civilian life would be on hold while he became a soldier for the next two years.
“How would you feel if you got that letter?” Adelaide’s inaugural AFL coach asked the current playing group at West Lakes.
“Shocked” and “unsure” were two answers.
Cornes then asked them a question that many would have found impossible to answer even if they tried – so he answered it for them.
“What sort of soldier do you think you would be?” he asked.
“You would be great soldiers. But you don’t have to be. You probably can’t even comprehend it, but you don’t have to.
“You just have to be great footballers, but the reason I think you would be great soldiers is because of the three characteristics you show every day.
“Courage. Sometimes I sit I the outer and think ‘how did I play that game for so long?’ I see guys going back with the flight of the ball and putting their head in places they shouldn’t, the collisions are so violent and the tackling so rigorous, so you have courage to do what you do.
“Sacrifice – of course incomparable to those who have served our country and not the ultimate sacrifice like those who died, but you sacrifice every day for the team.
“And mateship, the mates in this football team you will have for the rest of your life, you rely on each other so much, that is the importance of a team.”
Cornes was an infantry soldier during the War whose job was to carry and fire a machine gun which he did until he returned home in 1970 and stepped straight back into the team at Glenelg.
“The man who replaced me on that gun in the 7th Battalion was a man named Milton Dufty, and I never met him, but he was shot in the chest twice and died at the age of 22.
“All that’s left is this plaque,” Cornes says, pointing to a photograph on the wall behind him.
“I look at it regularly and I don’t know how I feel.
“He came over and took over a gun because someone else (me) got to go back to civilian life and he was shot three weeks before he was due to go home.
“We owe them (servicemen and women) an enormous debt to be able to do what we do now.
Cornes, who coached the Crows from 1991 to 1994, was back at West Lakes to share his story in the lead-up to Adelaide’s clash with Hawthorn in Launceston on Sunday.
It will be the third time in the Club’s history the team has played on Anzac Day after beating Sydney by 81 points in 1999 and losing to Melbourne by nine points in 1993.
His visit continued a week-long theme at the Club of learning about and honouring the sacrifice made by Australia’s servicemen and women.
The 1-3 year players visited the Edinburgh RAAF Base on Thursday afternoon to spend time with the 1st Armoured Regiment to learn more about team work, communication and national service.
Assistant coach Michael Godden shared the story of his wife’s grandfather who served in Kokoda, and he retraced his steps by walking the Kokoda Trek in 2017, as has Scott Burns and CEO Tim Silvers.
Midfielder Ben Keays also spoke about his family’s proud military history which dates back to his great grandfather Fred Keays.
Fred served in WWI when he was 16 and again in WWII when he was 40.
“He had 11 kids and five of those kids went to World War 2 with him, the eldest Desmond was a prisoner of war in Malaya and didn’t make it back sadly, and he also had one adopted son as well who was also a prisoner of war and did make it back,” Keays said.
The third youngest of Fred’s 11 children was Ben’s grandfather, Brian, who was too young to serve in WWII and died when Ben was 11.
“I’ve got most of the stories off dad,” Keays said.
“We were aware of our family’s national service but it wasn’t until the Footy Record rang up a few years ago when I was playing at Brisbane and they wanted to do a story on it that we really delved into it.
“Because dad’s side of the family lives in Melbourne and we moved up to Queensland (as a kid) I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s siblings, so that’s when we realised that a lot of people served in the war with my last name so it’s pretty special.
“And on mum’s side (of the family) my great grandad is Scottish and he was a captain in WWII for the Scottish Army.
“It’s super important to recognise and honour them, and the link between footy and sport in Australia and that Anzac history is so strong. Fred Keays played footy for Collingwood and Fitzroy as well as serving in the two wars and one of his other sons Terry played for Collingwood and Richmond so there is such a crossover of that in my family, so I feel that pride when I play footy.
Adelaide and Hawthorn will do battle for the Alec Campbell Cup in Tasmania on Sunday, named in honour of the final surviving Gallipoli veteran who was born and raised in Launceston and died at the age of 103 in 2002.
Campbell joined the 15th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force at just 16 and landed at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli in August, 1915, risking his life carrying ammunition, stores and water to the trenches.
The Hawks currently retain the Alec Campbell Cup after beating Carlton in Anzac Round in 2019.