Up in the air
Tony Modra was a full-back’s nightmare.
His high-flying aerial ability combined with the rarest of goal sense drew adoring crowds countrywide.
Yet on reflection, Modra doesn’t hesitate to rate the atmosphere of country football as better than that of a packed MCG.
He began his career on ovals surrounded by honking cars and passionate locals, and that’s where he ended it.
“It’s the people that you’re playing with – they’ve all got respect for you – and it doesn’t end after the game,” Modra said of his love for country football.
“Back in the change rooms having a quiet beer and then venturing into the opposition rooms and talking about the game is something I think we tend to miss a lot now with AFL.
“You can’t beat that.”
As a supremely talented 19-year-old, Modra moved to Adelaide from Loxton in South Australia’s Riverland to join West Adelaide.
Unable to get a regular senior game for the Bloods he returned home, only to be lured back a short time later.
“I was about 20 or 21 and that was when I had Adelaide approach me and put me on their list to train with them, and it all really started from there,” he said.
Within two years Modra would become one of the most recognisable figures in Australian sport and reach legendary status within his home state.
“At the start it was pretty much all new to me,” he said of his rise to fame.
“I was focused on playing football and everything else didn’t really come into it.
“But as time wears on the pressure builds, so it did sort of become more about the off field stuff than the on field I think, for me.”
About this time he bought a small coastal property south of Adelaide, just out of Victor Harbor, and it became his hideaway from the spotlight.
Now it is home to Modra, his wife Erica, and their two young children, Hailey and Luke.
“I’d had that property since 1995 when I was playing for the Adelaide footy club; there’s a surf beach nearby,” he said.
“I bought it as a holiday place and that was my getaway from football at the time.
“Mum and Dad moved down there when I moved to Western Australia and then I eventually bought up around the property and added on.
“Now we run 100 head of Angus on 500 acres.”
Modra also runs his own livestock business, carting local sheep and cattle to nearby markets.
“I’m not doing as much surfing as I’d like or playing as much golf – I’ve also got a couple of kids, so I’m run off my feet really,” he said.
While Modra is now well and truly settled on South Australia’s south coast, he told AFL.com.au the decision to move back after retiring from the AFL in 2001 following 165 matches and 588 goals was a long time in the making.
After finishing with Fremantle he stayed in Western Australia for a few years, then spent another travelling around the country with Erica.
His eventual return ‘home’ was greeted with enthusiasm by the local football club, Encounter Bay, but it was through playing local cricket that his desire to once again roam the forward line returned.
“I got to know a lot of the locals in the area and just decided I’d like to help them out and it went from there,” he said.
“I really enjoyed country football and I guess you realise how much pressure you didn’t need to put on yourself in AFL.
“I think I forgot for a while what football was all about, and that’s enjoying it, rather than dealing with the pressures that I didn’t really need to deal with.”
Port Adelaide takes on Fremantle at Encounter Bay Oval next Saturday in round three of the NAB Cup, and while SA is home, he made it clear which team would receive inside information about how to play the ground.
“I was never a Port fan,” he laughed.
“I’ll go down and say ‘G’day’, although I think there are only a couple of lads still playing who were very young when I was playing over at Fremantle.”
He said such games were a highlight of the local calendar and the opportunity for the community to come together and see some of their favourite players.
“I know a lot of the locals who are working on the oval at the moment, and they’re working day and night to try and present it as well as they can,” Modra said.
“It’s in great shape for a game of AFL football.”
Modra said he would like to take some of Fremantle’s players on a tour of the south coast region, but thought their schedule would probably be too tight.
“It would have been nice to show them the surf beaches in the area – and the Cray fishing out here is pretty good at the moment too.”
On returning to country football after an AFL career that saw him boot 588 goals from 165 games, Tony Modra had come full circle.
Having lost the passion for a game he once loved so dearly, the atmosphere of country footy helped reignite it.