Kardinia Park in the 1920s and 1930s was a fearsome venue for the VFL footballer. One wet day in the match between Geelong and Fitzroy the crowd was calling for the blood of just one man: Frank Gibson. They had poured onto the ground after the siren and the situation seemed set to turn violent. A police escort was called, but he waved them off, refusing their help as he pushed his way through the crowd to the change rooms. He was later suspended for four weeks.
It was as a footballer in the 1920s and 1930s that “Hoot”, as he was fondly known, made his name. He played 63 games in the Fitzroy firsts over five years, a period that included a stint as Captain-Coach of the reserves. He also represented Victoria in the State of Origin series.
Frank was born into a simple, loving but poor life on St Patrick’s Day, 1904. His parents had intended on naming him Francis, but due to the day of his birth, the parish priest had insisted he be named after the patron saint of Ireland. As a result, Patrick Francis Gibson lived his life going by his middle name.
For the South Melbourne supporter who rowed and scrubbed his mother’s floors to keep fit, other things awaited. He would become a fierce footballer, but his first direct brush with league football was sour. After following up on an invitation to train at the Carlton Football Club, Frank opened up his kitbag after the training session to find it filled with toilet paper. He would later discover that the culprit was Paddy O’Brien, the Carlton captain at the time. While a fearless footballer, he was a sensitive soul, and he left, never to return.
Despite his embarrassment at Carlton, he was undeterred and moved onto the Fitzroy Football Club in 1928. Here he achieved his fame as a footballer and had a lasting impact on the game.
Few players can claim to have had a rule changed as a direct result of their actions, but Frank is one of the minority that can. When the umpire bounced the ball, he would rush in and smother the bounce, capturing the ball in his arms and running away with it. A rule was made to combat this, stating that the ball must be allowed to reach its zenith before players can contest for possession. You have to marvel at the ingenuity of it.
His football nous and courage were rewarded with state selection and he played for the Big V in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. He had achieved a level of stardom worthy of few.
On one occasion he was suspended for striking. Although it was something for which he said he was guilty, he claimed the action to be justified, stating he would do it again; he was backing up a fallen teammate. He was also suspended for striking goal kicking legend Bob Pratt, but he said it was a case of mistaken identity, he was not even there.
His son Patrick believes that the man’s word was good enough for him. “He simply did not have it in him to lie.” So proud were his children that they wore his State of Origin jumpers to death. Frank did not mind, he was proud of his achievements, but he remained “unimpressed by his own fame”.
His league football career was over by 1933, but his involvement in football continued. He was a playing coach of Northcote CYMS and coach of Thornbury CYMS and the long-time, renowned coach of Thornbury YCW. Here he would walk onto the ground during game time to instruct his players. Not only did the league itself not attempt to curb his behaviour, the boys who played under him appreciated his wandering feet.
But the game was not his first love. That honour was left for his beloved wife, Lorna, and his young family. Picture the postie riding his bike on a Sunday. Put a child on the handlebars, another of the frame in front of him, one on the back and one on each arm and you will have an image of Frank taking his young family to mass. Picture this and you may come part way to understanding why members of his family describe him affectionately as “a determined old bugger”.
This fit, healthy, active man who had never had a drink or smoke in his life was, in later life, diagnosed with bowel cancer. It was then, with his decline in health, that Frank proved himself to be that “determined old bugger”. Frank had what was known as Whipples Syndrome, which resulted in him having half of his stomach muscles and intestines removed. This was an extremely experimental procedure at the time and he was not supposed to do any physical labour, and was, in fact, expected to die shortly after. But he would defy on both of these counts.
Another of his sons, Dan, recalls when he was in his mid twenties he and his father, who was by that stage in his mid sixties, would sometimes work on their property. Dan could work flat out for ten or twenty minutes and then have to have a rest, but Hoot could work all day. Be it building a fence, digging a hole, or using a saw, the man would just not stop. He could and would go all day. His training in rowing, in scrubbing floors, his VFL training and playing, his riding a bike as a postie for 50 years, plus his single minded determination had kept him in good stead.
Determination alone, however, cannot overcome all the obstacles in life. Frank relented to his illness in 1977, aged 73, loved wholeheartedly by the family he had given his all for.
I never met my grandfather Frank. My dad Patrick has told me on more than one occasion that anyone who did not know Frank was missing out. But the human mind and emotions play funny tricks. I feel like I do know him. Looking into people’s eyes as they reminisce, I can see a reflection of their memory of him. There is a fondness there, the kind you only feel when you think of someone special.
It would seem that as a race we are on the decline, for Patrick has said that were he to be only half the man his father was, he would be happy. This acts as a strange parallel, for I feel the same way about my dad. If we learn from our memories, from our loved ones, we carry them with us in the things we say and do. We humans are great imitators, and I truly do feel like I know Hoot from the stories I’ve heard of him. It almost seems like he raised me himself.