It seems hard to believe now, but our very first head trainer held the position for a staggering 50 seasons.

That man was Wal Lee, father of the legendary player Dick Lee, who carried the towel from the club’s first game in 1892 until he retired in 1941. His extraordinary service helped set the tone for those who would follow, famous names who served long terms like Ern Reay, Harry and Alf King, John MacGibbon and Johnny Wassell.

But the man who sits at #2 in terms of time spent as head trainer is Rohan Bownds, who finished up at the club last year having clocked 21 years in the role, with a further 14 spent in other parts of the training staff.

It’s been a remarkable journey, which started when Rohan’s Magpie-supporting grandfather took him to the footy as a youngster. He says he wasn’t much of a footballer – “I was a big tall kid but no ability, just all arms and legs, the kind of kid where you’d be thinking ‘where can we hide this bloke?” – but he still got to live out the dream of playing on real VFL grounds when he was part of Collingwood’s Little League team one year in the 1970s.

And even that took some subterfuge, with him including the Clifton Hill address of his aunt and uncle rather than the Glen Waverley one of his family home. Smart move.

Rohan grew up in a family that was, unusually for the time, more interested in baseball than football. His father Percy played and would later coach, and his brother Anthony turned out to be an excellent player. The whole family became involved with the Waverley Reds baseball club, and at one stage Rohan was asked to help out with the training staff.

Around the same time, he was working with the RACV at Warrnambool when Collingwood paid a visit. He approached marketing manager John Birt and asked if there were any areas in which he could help out at the club. He followed up with Birt again when he returned to Melbourne, and started helping John with odd jobs here and there. This morphed into starting on the training staff with the under-19s around 1987.

From there he followed the same path as so many hopeful young footballers, working his way through the thirds and seconds until, eventually, he joined the senior staff under Tony Shaw in 1996. He was named joint head trainer in 2000, then solely held the role from the following year.

Over time he became the go-to man at Collingwood for strapped ankles and massages, soft-tissue rub-downs on the boundary line or at breaks during games, as well as general responsibility for the day-to-day oversight of the changeroom and the rest of his training staff. But on top of all this, Rohan gradually became a mentor to generations of players who sought out his counsel and personal support.

He admits that the role developed a long way from the days of the trainer carrying a bucket and a towel, but says there are so many other medical experts around clubs these days that he could afford to focus more on building relationships.

“I really saw that as a big part of my role,” he says. “I’d often be in at 6am, so you’re often the first person they see in the morning. You just get to know people for who they are, not what they do.

“I really became like a sounding board or confidante for them. I like to be that person. They’ve got 20 coaches telling them what to do, they don’t need every person doing that for them. Sometimes they just need someone to support them.”

The thing Rohan is proudest about is not the premierships or the famous wins, but the relationships he’s forged, and been able to maintain even after players have retired or gone to other clubs. Many players and former players have been frequent visitors to the Bownds family home over the years.

“It takes a while, but you end up building trust and relationships. That happens when they call you at 2 o’clock in the morning and they’re struggling, things like that. You’re just there for them. I’ve tried to treat everyone fairly and respectfully. I’m very proud of having built those bonds.”

Collingwood has always held a special place in his heart: he met his wife Adriana through the club, and their daughter Tahlia works at HQ. So while he was disappointed when his time in the role ended, it still meant the world to him when he was awarded Life Membership at the AGM last December – even if he’s the classic ‘quiet achiever’ who doesn’t really like the limelight.

“It was humbling,” he says. “To see the names of those that have achieved that … and for me to be on that roll now, it’s amazing. I’ll look back with pride that maybe I did help people and hopefully I dutifully warmed the seat for the next person. I hope I left a legacy of leaving the club in a good place.”

Rohan also felt that the award was a kind of recognition for the trainers he worked alongside for many years, names such as Colin Arnell, Steve Favrin, Tony Ferraro, Larissa Cordiano and Robert Bruzzese, along with Lachy Nolte, Michelle Andrews and the rest of the AFL training staff, as well as the VFL trainers led by John Corkill. He feels a collegiate connection to all of them.

Rohan has dipped his toe back into training activities again, helping out part-time with the Preston Bullants. And there’s already things he’s loving about it.

“Everyone is in there helping out, doing whatever is needed and they’re just there for the people and the club. In some ways it feels like it’s Collingwood 30 years ago,” he says a little wistfully.

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