HE was regarded as one of the greatest players to pull on a jumper for the Melbourne Demons, a three-time Victorian Football League premiership winner, club life member, 12-time Victorian representative and a member of the historic “Galah” squad’s 1968 International Rules football world tour.
Robert “Tassie” Johnson, was a hard-at-the-ball defender with a prodigious drop kick that would travel 80m on the fly on a good day, who played more than 200 games for the Demons between 1959 and 1969.
But when he died on October 29 at 10.08am his body had had enough, broken by a series of illnesses and injuries that wreaked havoc on the last eight years of his life.
He was 77.
“That was his footy number, number eight,” wife of 19 years Lyn said of the time past the hour that he died.
He was nicknamed Tassie when he left the Apple Isle to play for Melbourne, to separate him from the Demons’ other Johnsons, and he retired moved to the Sunshine Coast to retire 20 years ago.
Here he found a place to stoke his competitive spirit, and also love at the Coolum Beach Bowls Club.
That’s where he also found Lyn.
“He’d only played socially with past players in Victoria but he got a lot better at it and became a pennant player,” Lyn said.
“It’s the type of person he was. Very competitive but the perfect gentleman with it.
“His attitude was ‘do your best and if that’s not good enough, better luck next time’.
“We’ve been together 19 years. We met there at the bowls club, it’s where we were married.”
Things started to unravel eight years ago for Tassie, who’d settled in to his new environment so well at Coolum that he became the bowls club president.
At 69 he required a triple-bypass heart surgery and an aorta replacement.
“Three weeks later he went fishing off the rocks up at Double Island and came to grief badly,” Lyn recalls.
With an incoming tide and dark encroaching, Tassie took a wrong turn getting back to the beach and fell head first into a crevice in the rocks.
With his fishing mate Don Williams unable to do nothing to rescue him, Johnson had to get himself out with a backward crab crawl. Lyn said: “When I saw him in hospital I could not have recognised him if I didn’t know (it was him).
“He was a mess. He needed a facial reconstruction of his eye socket, nose and cheekbone.
“He’d had a few broken noses playing footy but nothing as bad as that. It was horrific.
“Tassie was then diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and everything went pear-shaped from there.”
Two years ago, on December 2, 2013, his left leg was first amputated below the knee after Johnson had gone to hospital screaming in pain.
Doctors had discovered dry gangrene in his left leg, the result of a diabetic ulcer.
“They came back to him the next day and had to take more to above the knee,” Lyn said.
“He’s had surgery since for a stent to get circulation going in his right leg.
“He just got sicker and sicker.
“It was absolutely shocking to see him go downhill as much as he did.”
In August a fall from his wheelchair led to Tassie’s hospitalisation in Nambour for six weeks before he was transferred to Caloundra.
“I could see he was getting worse,” Lyn said.
“I called a meeting with the hospital and said he needed to go back to Nambour where the specialists were who could help him.
“They agreed to shift him back but he didn’t get any better.
“The doctors told me he was very unwell and there was nothing more they could do other than stop medication and to keep him pain-free.
“His body had had enough.
“Tassie died peacefully and I had hold of his hand.
“I need to get my head around that he’s never coming home.
“We were joined at the hip and did everything together.
“We did our shopping holding hands and people would laugh at us.
“He was an absolute gentleman and the best mate anyone could have.
“All of them knew he would watch their backs.”
Robert “Tassie” Johnson’s funeral will be held on Monday at 11am at Gregson and Weight, Nambour.
The funeral will be videoed live to the Melbourne Football Club’s Social Club so old past players who can’t make the trip can pay their respects.
Representatives from the Melbourne Football Club will be present and past Demon player Barry Bourke will speak.
The club is sending up a Number Eight jersey for the coffin.