On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, sometime just after the summer’s end, the crowd grows silent for just a split second. Then a man decides to touch the sky, both because he can and to grab an errant ball.
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That player is Harry Himmelberg, perhaps the best high flyer going around right now. He’s so good that the gravity-defying feat above might not be his best speccie this year.
Alongside the kick, the mark might be the most foundational part of Australian football. From backyard kick to kick to the chip-mark game on the big stage, the mark is a big part of why the game we love is the game we love.
Defining a mark is pretty easy … sort of. According to the Laws of the Game a mark occurs if a player catches or takes control of the football within the playing surface after it has been kicked by another player at least 15 metres and the ball has not touched the ground or been touched by another player.
In layman’s terms, it’s a decent length kick clutched in the mitts, sometimes on the chest, sometimes out in front.
But there’s a type of mark that’s a bit more … special than the ordinary one. The speccie, or spectacular mark, is a mystical thing, the type of thing that songs are written about. If the normal mark is critical to ball movement, then the speccie is what draws punters to their seats.
From Alex Jesaulenko to Jeremy Howe and all leapers in between, the best hangers leave an indelible mark in the minds of the old and young alike.
If working out a mark is pretty easy, then trying to work out what exactly is a speccie is a bit harder. It might take an expert, like Himmelberg, to help work it out.
What makes a mark of the year
While that age-old question of what a speccie is might be a bit hard to quantify, there’s a couple of things that can help you work it out.
Firstly, there’s the sound of the crowd. The moment of awed silence before the big roar. The flash of the cameras, the reaction of other players.
But the clearest way happens after the game.
The best grabs at the top level are in the running for one of the most famous awards in the game — the Alex Jesaulenko Medal for Mark of the Year.
Originating after Alex Jesaulenko’s fantastic fly in the 1970 Grand Final over Graeme ‘Jerker’ Jenkins, the Mark of the Year is arguably the most important subjective sporting award outside of the gold medals handed out for Gymnastics at the Olympics.
Jezza, for what it’s worth, didn’t think a whole lot of his famous grab.
“After the game, I couldn’t even remember taking the mark. It’s become bigger as the years have gone by, because it was a grand final and people try to make things bigger than they are.”
The biggest stage does tend to see its fair share of Mark of the Year winners.
Jesaulenko also volunteered that the mark he took in the fourth quarter of that decider was a better grab, but on the wrong side of the ground for the cameras.
Both those grabs came at the expense of Collingwood. The biggest club in Melbourne has been most often to both take, and concede, the year’s biggest hanger.
Jezza’s grab was the start of a new era. A surprisingly complicated one in retrospect.
At the start there were rival Mark of the Year awards — one handed out by Channel Seven’s World of Sport panel and one by the ABC. Often, the two organisations would award different marks for the year-ending honour. Of the two, players tended to hope for the World of Sport award as it came with a car.
A select few, such as Collingwood’s Geoff Banks and Michael Roach noted their slight displeasure of only winning the ABC’s pewter mug years down the track.
The official AFL award didn’t start until 2001, voted by fans and acclaimed by all. There are also some patterns in the Mark of the Year that can help us break down what a speccie is.
The ABC have broken down the characteristics of four decades of Marks of the Year to find out what makes a mark special.
The most archetypal Mark of the Year is marked off a teammate’s kick (78 per cent), over a stepladder player (88 per cent). Initial contact, especially in recent years, is made to the player being jumped on by the marker’s knee (71 per cent).
They’ll most often jump roughly straight upwards (49 per cent), probably in a pack (51 per cent). They usually take it arms extended (49 per cent) rather than on the chest, and a clean first grab is a near requirement (90 per cent). It is also important to dramatically crash to earth (83 per cent).
Following that logic, the two most typical speccies to win Mark of the Year are Tony Modra’s spectacular 1993 effort and Jamie Elliot’s grab 20 years later.
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That bodes well for Himmelberg, with both of his efforts hitting most of those standards.
Himmelberg’s journey to the literal top of the league is one of perseverance. As a young footballer Harry was undersized, but a late growth spurt put him in the draft frame.
A broken jaw in his nominal draft year saw him overlooked by all 18 clubs. Work opportunities for his parents saw the family plan for a move to Queensland, leaving Harry with a big decision.
Would he follow them up north, or strike it out on his own?
Himmelberg got offered a spot in Canberra at Eastlake, about three hours away from Wagga. But the move would keep him in touch with the Giants Academy, and the NSW/ACT underage program.
Still, the new start was tough.
“(The move) was especially (hard) because I hadn’t lived out of home before. I was working as a cabinet maker in Canberra here, so that was good fun.” Himmelberg reflected.
Once footy season started Himmelberg found the trade too tough to balance. So he had to find a new fit.
“The labour intensive stuff was making footy training a lot harder, and working on weekends. So I went into the suit business. I’ve still got no idea how to fit them or sell them.”
Himmelberg’s big decision paid off. At the end of the year the Giants picked him up in the draft in the first round.
Like many players, Himmelberg started out at a proud community club — the MCUE Goannas, short for Mangoplah Cookardinia United Eastlakes. Despite Mangoplah and Cookardinia only being the home to about 500 people between them, the merged club and its predecessors boast at least 13 V/AFL players.
Himmelberg started his footy journey as a youngster in a solid senior competition, the Riverina Football League. His coach at the time, former Sydney Swan Nathon Irvin, brought Himmelberg up in defence.
“Yeah, I played a little bit of half back as junior. I was really small and skinny, so he sort of had to play me at half back and hid me on the wing away from the bigger bodies in senior footy. I was only about 16 or 17. ” Himmelberg said.
“That taught me to be quicker — get rid of (the ball) quicker — to avoid getting tackled, so it was good.”
Throughout his junior career Himmelberg was thrown all around the park, helping his ability to read the game. This year GWS coach Adam Kingsley has been able to use Himmelberg as a tall Swiss Army Knife in the style of a Justin Westhoff or Mark Blicavs.
“Well, yeah, it’s a hard one given his ability to be able to do both (play forward and back),” Kingsley told the ABC.
“It’s an ongoing challenge for us as a coaching team to place him where he’s going to have maximum impact.”
Last year interim Giants coach Mark McVeigh threw Himmelberg down back after he took the reins, prompted by their work together in the junior NSW/ACT programs.
The results were nothing short of spectacular. Himmelberg immediately contributed at a truly elite level down back, albeit in a defence that saw a lot of the ball. This opened up his ability to use the ball more by foot to set up counterattacks, with his kick a long term strength.
“I think it just comes with practice. I always had a decent, decent kick. The distance and that sort of stuff came as I sort of grew up a little bit and brought some size,” Himmelberg said.
But that boot is often put to best use up forward, closer to goal. Since his second season, Himmelberg has kicked the third most goals at GWS and sits 27th in the league.
But for Himmelberg to kick goals, he first needs to get the ball.
So how do you take a hanger?
Himmelberg has taken all of the types of classic mark as listed above, from the skyscraping to the courageous and the simply outrageous. But to get that good, it took work.
“We do. We definitely practise that sort of stuff.” Himmelberg said.
When elaborating about the most important element, he was clear.
“It’s more so timing. Getting your timing right is the main thing.”
The situation also matters a lot. Practising hangers is often about practising reading situations as they evolve.
“You identify if there’s people in front of you, when to jump, where to jump, how high the ball’s coming in — that sort of stuff.
“So you gotta toss up a few different things coming in.”
As Harry sits down to talk about just how he takes those marks, he winces immediately at the first image on the screen.
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“My back still hurts from that one.”
This is the type of speccie that takes more courage than aerial prowess, like Jonathan Brown’s grab in 2002. It also highlights the danger of the whole endeavour. Despite happening in 2019, he remembers everything about it clearly.
“I sort of realised that the ball was going to land on Brent (Daniels) and his man’s head. I thought that if I jumped early I’d be less chance of getting hurt there. It didn’t turn out the way I’d planned but got paid the mark which was good.”
Other marks have fonder memories, such as that beauty from the first round this year. For that one, he owes his old housemate Matt Flynn one.
“Yeah, that’s what I said to him. Get the big rucks to just stand in front. I jumped early and tried to get the knee up on the shoulder.”
Sometimes all planning goes out the window, especially as the game draws late. But those core preparations, and key elements of taking a grab, hold firm.
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“That one I was just watching the ball. I knew that we were down by a couple of points there. Obviously we needed a mark and a goal so I just sort of had my eyes on the ball the whole time. I noticed that there was a pack in front.”
“Like I said, go early, put my knee out to protect myself.”
There’s a little bit of awe showing in his eyes as he sees himself fly, as if there’s an element that he can’t quite believe that’s how high he went. That’s the magic of the screamer — an element of disbelief entering the mind, challenging exactly what you are seeing.
But the whole time it seems like Himmelberg is rightfully more concerned with creating his own legacy, and helping his team win.
A high flying future
This year GWS have battled hard through year one of Kingsley’s repositioning of the club.
Up forward, the Giants look to be finding their feet.
“We’ve had a really strong preseason, Jesse (Hogan), Tobes (Greene) and I working together — Brett Daniels is back too. Getting that continuity with the forward line as a whole and staying on the park together is what creates that synergy.”
Himmelberg will also face maybe his biggest decision since moving to Canberra about a decade ago at the end of the year. As perhaps the league’s best available tall in free agency, Himmelberg will be able to decide his playing future with several clubs vying for his services.
For now, he’s focused on just two things — getting the ball, and helping the Giants rise up the ladder.