Denis Zeunert, who together with Peter Webster and the Brownlow Medallist John James formed Carlton’s much-celebrated half-back line of the mid-to-late 1950s, has died at the age of 77.

Zeunert, a 110-game footballer for the Blues between 1954 and 1960, earned a handsome reputation for playing the game hard but fair. Twice runner-up in his club’s best and fairest award (to James in 1955 and Doug Beasy in ’56), Zeunert was portrayed in The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers’ as “strong and ruthless”, the last word having somewhat troubled him.

“‘Ruthless’? I never went around belting people behind the ear or anything like that,” Zeunert said, in what was his final interview at Hamilton last June. “If there was somebody between me and the ball, I would certainly take the shortest route to get to that ball. My coach at Heywood, Harold Peacock always said that the shortest route from you to the ball is a straight line, and that’s the attitude I took.”

Denis Zeunert was born in Hamilton on July 12, 1931, but spent his formative years in Heywood, by the Fitzroy River in western Victoria, when his father relocated with all members of the family to a dairy farm.

After turning out for the local Heywood state school team, Zeunert represented the Portland High outfit, learning the craft with the likes of future Melbourne premiership footballers Stuart Spencer and Clyde Laidlaw. In time, Zeunert chased the leather for Heywood, progressing from reserve to senior grade as a half-back flanker/centreman.

Denis Zeunert Although Geelong had secured his signature on a form four, and he briefly trained at Kardinia Park through the Cats’ golden era of the early 1950s, Zeunert doubted his capacity to break into Reg Hickey’s team, and so returned to the bush, where he played his part in Heywood’s inaugural Grand Final victory of 1953.

When Geelong’s two-year hold on him expired, Zeunert became the subject of Carlton’s intense interest. He earned a visit from the then Senior Coach, Perc Bentley and agreed to make the trek to Princes Park for pre-season training in the summer of early 1954. Crucially, he fared well in a subsequent practice game.

“I got to the ground, played the match and I’m not quite sure what triggered the final decision that they select me,” Zeunert said. “But at one stage I can remember racing up the ground, the ball was coming between me and an opponent and we bumped eachother. Anyway, he fell over, I had a clear run through the ground with the ball and maybe that was the final spark that prompted their decision ‘Yes, we want you down here’.”

At Carlton, Zeunert wore the number 19 guernsey just as he did for Heywood, and, like Ron Cooper before him, and Ian Collins and John O’Connell since, he sported that number in more than 100 senior matches for the Blues.

The great John Nicholls, who picked up on the defensive craft as a budding back pocket in his maiden season of 1957, was always taken by the way Zeunert hugged the boundary line during circle work at training so that he was more able cover the ground on matchdays.

“I felt that from running around the boundary, and especially if you’re playing off a half-back flank, you get a better perception of the area you can run into, whereas if you’re more in the centre of the ground you’re more compact,” Zeunert said.

“I learnt this from coach Harold Peacock when I was at Heywood. He used to say ‘Unless you put in your work on the track you probably won’t find it as easy on the ground later on’. So I was always determined to put in plenty of work into training, and later when I coached I tried to drum this into the young players, which didn’t go down too well at times.”

At Carlton, Zeunert originally earned the nickname “Socks” for his propensity to wear his socks low down over his boots. But a subsequent kick to the shins ensured that from then on he took to the field wearing garters and hose-covered shin guards, and the nickname quickly wore off.

Zeunert served his club with distinction under the coaching tenures of Perc Bentley, Jim Francis and Ken Hands, for whom he had the utmost respect. After he took out his second successive Arthur Reyment Memorial Trophy as runner-up in the best and fairest, Carlton’s then Acting Secretary Newton Chandler, in the annual report of 1956, wrote; “His Zeunert’s electrifying dashes from the half back line thrilled both ‘Blues’ supporters and followers of other clubs who appreciate spectacular football. His long kicking to position repeatedly repulsed attacks and put his team on the offensive”.

In terms of the irresistible partnership with Webster and James, Zeunert said: “You know, we all played a slightly different type of game”.

“Peter was always the backstop. He was a solid player there and if we were looking for help he was always there to give us a hand-out,” Zeunert said.

“Johnny James was a different style of player to me again. I don’t know whether he had a magnet in his shorts or what, but he could be running the other way and the ball would always bounce into his arms. He had a terrific reading of the game.

“In my case I always liked to be out in front of my opponent if I could, and just get that run on the ball and send it down as far as possible.”

After completing seven years with Carlton, Zeunert resolved to return to Hamilton after accepting a once-in-a-lifetime offer from the Kraft organisation to serve as a sales representative.

If Zeunert harboured any regret, it’s that circumstance robbed him of representing his beloved Blues for an eighth season to earn life membership.

As he said of his Carlton days; “I treasure them as much as I treasure anything because I say to myself; ‘Well, I’ve done it, and there’s a lot of others who haven’t’”.

“And I don’t want to be skiting about this,” he said, “but to be able to go through the experiences I had down there is just something that nobody can take away from me”.

John James, Carlton’s 1961 Brownlow Medallist, said that the club’s 1964 Brownlow Medallist Gordon Collis had recently visited Zeunert in hospital, and had telephoned to advise of the former player’s condition.

“I did try to call, but he was asleep,” said James.

“Denis was an utter gentleman, both as a man and as a footballer. He was a very, very, very fair player. and despite the fact that he was so gentle, he was extremely strong. He had very strong legs and a strong physique,” James said.

“He had great talent and he was an attacker. The thing I noticed most about him was his ability to attack. He didn’t bounce the ball much, but he’d run his ten yards and he’d kick the ball about 50 . . . and he always kicked to position.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a half-back flanker attack in those days as well as he did from the backline. He could run very quickly, he had fantastic judgment and his eye was always on the ball. I’ve always admired him and you just couldn’t wish for any better.”

James said that he and his wife Maureen last saw Zeunert and his wife Pat about eight years ago, when the Zeunerts paid a surprise visit to their home in northern Victoria. He admitted that he was “caught on the hop” and it took him some time to recognise his former teammate.

“A car pulled up and I went out thinking ‘Who’s this?,” James said. “Anyway, he got out of the car, I looked at him, he looked at me, and he said, ‘Come over here’. So, he took me around to the front of the car, and it had CFC on it . . . and then I woke up and said ‘How are you going?’. It was fantastic to see him.

“They came inside, and we poured over some old photos where all of us were sitting down at some sort of function there at Carlton in the early days in the ’50s . . . and that was great, just to reminisce.”

Peter Webster was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of their old teammate.

When asked to best describe the on-field relationship shared with the two half-back flankers, Webster replied: “Well, John James won a Brownlow Medal and Denis Zeunert was such a very good player, it makes it a little easier doesn’t it?”.

“Denis was a long-striding run-through type of player, and he was very quick of course. He was a dashing player, put it that way,” Webster said.

“When I first came to Carlton John Brown, the brother of Vin Brown, was there. John used to play rugby and he tended to tuck the ball under his arm, run, and forget to bounce it half the time. Anyway John Brown left, can’t remember why, and that’s when Denis turned up.

“Denis was a very good player. The ball would come down and if he got it he’d take off. He was a straight ahead dasher, he was very fair, and I believe he was a very good citizen too.”

Webster confessed that while he hadn’t managed to keep tabs on too many of his Carlton contemporaries, Zeunert included, since he departed Princes Park and relocated to Mildura almost 50 years ago, his fond memory of Zeunert had not diminished.

“He was a fairly unassuming fellow. He was just one of those really nice guys,” Webster said.

“I thought he’d be the last to go. He was one of those fellows who didn’t smoke or drink, and he was a real gentleman.”

Denis Zeunert died in Geelong on Friday night (February 13) after a short illness. He is survived by his wife of 52 years Pat, children Ian, Sheryl, Paul and Carolyn, and eight grandchildren.

The Carlton senior players, number 19 Eddie Betts included, will wear black armbands as a mark of respect, in Friday night’s opening match of the pre-season campaign against North Melbourne.

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