First hit-up of the match. The halfback catches the kick and hands off to the charging prop. He does not deviate. He squares himself towards the defence with that distant, detached look, and pistons his legs to gain maximum speed in the minimum space. By the time he reaches the line he is flat-chat, his legs are driving but his knees stay down, he doesn't even take the long hitch-stride that so many forwards take as they meet the defence. Instead he just runs. And is met, as always, by a wall. A shoulder drives under his ribcage seeking to dislodge the ball or an internal organ. Another crashes into his thigh as he is gathered around the tops of the legs. An arm swings towards his head, perhaps striking across the clavicle before bouncing up, perhaps landing higher. Still he is running, as if this interference has come as a surprise and he had the distant try-line in mind. Then the combined weight of the defensive men tells and he is bent backwards, falling perhaps with a knee in his groin, an elbow in his eye, 300-odd kilograms of opposition forward bulk hammering him onto his back. He waits a beat, turtle-turns to gain his feet, and gently heels the ball backwards to the dummy half. One play later, he calls for a hit-up again. Repeat until ridiculous.
They called him 'The head on a stick'. 'Mad Marty'. 'The Grateful Head'. I called him a marvel.
Martin Lang was not the best rugby league player of his era, but he was the most compelling. In an NRL career spanning nine season from 1996-2004, he consistently did things that were beyond rational comprehension. People talk about 'putting your body on the line' as if it is an added extra. That was all Lang did. He parlayed a superhuman willingness to sacrifice himself physically into a career that realised 176 first-grade games and eight Origins for Queensland.
As fascinating as he was, his deeds never seemed to be written up in the newspapers. This invisibility probably cost him further rep appearances. Certainly, worse footballers have represented Australia.
Lang embodied the business adage 'do one thing well'. He didn't step, he didn't dance, he didn't offload, he didn't pass. He just took the ball up as fast and straight as he could, with the last hit-up of the match as furious as the first. His heedless charges into the teeth of the opposition turned his opponents from a defensive line to an offensive outfit, and they celebrated by taking free hits at him.
Of course, if the game had been policed properly he would have been stopped legally. Instead, opponents used the honesty of his approach – the knowledge that he would run straight – against him, swinging crude arms and sly punches into his unprotected head. The paradox was intriguing: on the one hand he was this vibrant, virile figure; on the other hand there was something passive about his acceptance of all that came his way.
When Lang was playing, I watched him first and the game second. Journalist Sam Toperoff wrote about following the fortunes of boxer Dick Tiger, who he called 'my fighter'. Tiger's wins felt like Toperoff's wins, and the losses were shared too. Martin Lang was my footballer, more so because he was a private enthusiasm. Every 1990s league fan knew that Langer and Johns and Lazarus and Clyde were superstars, and their devotees were ten-for-a-dollar. No-one seemed to revere Big Marty the way I did.
People said he was stupid. That's the appreciation you get from the mugs on the hill who have never felt another man's forearm smack across their mandible. Lang was as stupid as the Australian soldiers at Gallipoli. As stupid as Bert Hinkler when he decided to fly further than they said he could. 'Stupid' was the explanation the mugs found for Lang doing something they could not and would not do, and did not have the imagination to understand.
Lang understood implicitly that the sporting life he chose was short and brutish. He knew that pain would be his companion. More than that, he knew pain would be his tool. If he could soak up enough of it, while administering some on the defensive side of the ball, he could have a career at the top level.
He wrapped black electrical tape around his head, but it didn't stop his hair bouncing whenever his head whiplashed backward in a stiff tackle. He was reported to have suffered at least 10 concussions in his career (a figure he disputed). Wayne Bennett noted at one point, "Every time I see a game Martin is getting knocked out and that's not good for his health." When Lang was smashed into la-la land by a Petero Civoniceva high shot in 2002, the Penrith doctor called it the worst concussion he had ever seen.
He was a warrior for Cronulla and a titan for Penrith, where he won a premiership. There was never any question about his desire for the contest, his tireless appetite for defence, or his commitment to the team – exemplified by his chase on flying winger Rod Wishart in Origin 1998.
Ironically, his career was ended by a chronic ankle injury. For all the damage inflicted on his head, that never stopped him. Even when he left the game the knockers didn't give him his due, and because he was my favourite player I felt personally affronted. He was sneered at for his lack of guile. Criticised for not cheating with the occasional short step or sideways deviation. Those morons were given the chance of watching a phenomenon, but had no idea what they were seeing.
The real experts knew, though. When Lang retired, Wally Lewis said, "He was just one of those players, wasn't he. He never got too many wraps in the papers but he just had a different style of a game that not too many players in the competition ever had or ever will have." And Penrith teammate Trent Waterhouse called him the Phar Lap of league. He said, "He has the biggest heart in football." He was right.
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