The 1976 Grand Final was Hawthorn's opportunity to reverse the 1975 Premiership loss to North Melbourne. Former captain Peter Crimmins, ravaged with cancer, listened to the game at home. He died just three days later, aged 28, but not before he posed for one of Australian football's most iconic images. This is the story of that famous photograph.
Peter Knights sat amongst his 19 teammates, fully expecting coach John Kennedy to begin his 1976 Grand Final address to the team slowly, before building to a roaring crescendo. Instead, Kennedy was holding a piece of paper in his hand with the words TELEGRAM printed down the sides. He appeared more apprehensive than usual.
"The telegram…" Kennedy paused, years later, when reflecting on that day. Initially, he was reluctant to mention Crimmins in his pre-game address, "but on the other hand, I thought it should be said."
The telegram was from a dying Crimmins to his coach and teammates, which Kennedy read aloud: "Good luck to you and all the boys. It will be a long hard 100 minutes. But I am sure you will be there at the end. Regards Peter Crimmins." The coach then added in a calm but stern voice: "There are a lot of reasons why you have to win today, most of all though, win it for the Little Fella."
Knights said there was silence afterwards. "It was sombre, it was quiet. We were all steely-eyed and focused. We knew what had to be done because this was going to be a game won for Peter Crimmins."
In a thrilling, end-to-end contest, Hawthorn defeated the Kangaroos by 30 points. When Crimmins heard the final siren, confirming his teammates had secured the premiership 13.22 (100) to 10.10 (70), his grin in that moment and for hours afterwards said everything. "He was very, very happy, very elated," Gwen Crimmins said of her husband. "But he was also very sick that afternoon."
That night at the Hawthorn Social Club, The Sun's Bob Crimeen was enjoying the festivities when he thought of Crimmins who, in normal circumstances, would have been there amongst them.
"I had a rather audacious brainwave to ask the then president, Phil Ryan, if he would trust me to take the cup with a group of the players and go out to Peter's house and have a celebration with him. Phil unequivocally said, 'Yes, go ahead' and he gave me the cup."
However, Barry Crimmins - Peter's older brother - said things played out differently. "Myself and my two mates from Shepparton, Ray Glynn and Angelo Limosani, took the cup out to Peter," Barry explained.
"The story had to come over that it was taken out there by the boys, but the truth was we stole it. Everyone was having a good time, but I thought, 'Peter is sitting out there in Croydon and it's his bloody cup, too.' So, I grabbed the cup and said to the guys, 'We've gotta take this out to Peter.'"
The decision, whosever it was, to deliver the newly-won premiership cup to the club's beloved leader on what proved to be Crimmins' death bed, became an act which typified the oft-spoken-of, sometimes derided Hawthorn mantra: the family club. No photograph in VFL/AFL history has better encapsulated the joy of achieving team success, of friendship through tough times, and of one's love for his mates, than Clive Mackinnon's picture of a skeletal but beaming Crimmins, seated on his couch in pyjamas and wearing a wig to cover his naked head, surrounded by teammates Bernie Jones, Brian Douge, Alan Martello, Knights, Barry Rowlings and John Hendrie. It is said a picture tells a thousand words, and Mackinnon's enduring photograph does precisely that.
Closer inspection of the photograph shows a raised thumb protruding from behind Douge's head. Barry Crimmins declared, "That's me!" He recalled being "at the back, at the bar, and they wanted to put me in there with Peter, but I said: 'No, this is just a special one for him and the boys who played.'"
Ray Glynn, however, believes it is his thumb in the picture. "It's definitely me there, but I didn't actually think it would get in the paper," Glynn said. "I thought it would just be Peter with the trophy and I wasn't thinking about where it might be published."
Days after Mackinnon's photograph of Crimmins and his teammates first appeared in The Sun, his picture won the VFL's "best news photograph of the season" award. Crimeen said in 2019, "I didn't know it would become an iconic image. You can't look ahead and know whether a photograph like that will be looked at and celebrated in such a way for years and decades to come. But I felt it was crucial to the Hawthorn victory: the fact that Peter, who had been so much a part of the club in its rise to power, should have been a part of it that year."
CRIMMO, the Peter Crimmins Story, by Dan Eddy (Slattery Media, 2020), is available at participating bookshops, hawksmerchandise.com.au/crimmo-the-peter-crimmins-story/ and books.slatterymedia.com.