Cal Porter: Milestone Man

On Saturday afternoon at Box Hill City Oval Cal Porter plays his 50th VFL game. Regarded by many as the second-best standard of footy in the land, it’s a wonderful personal achievement.

The former Western Bulldog spent three years at the kennel, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Marcus Bontempelli, Tom Liberatore, Bailey Smith and more, while learning under Luke Beveridge and Daniel Giansiracusa.

He tallied 33 VFL games in the red, white and blue, donning that guernsey on one occasion at AFL level. 

He crossed to City Oval at the end of 2020 and in little over 18-months has cast himself as the heartbeat of the Box Hill Hawks on and off field. 

What has come before, the lessons learned and then imparted is why this marker means something and bears celebrating.

It’s why 50 might not be the last milestone for ‘Ports.’ That’s a good thing for player and Club.

“The goal is to be here as long as I can be – both in the VFL and particularly at Box Hill,” Porter said ahead of the game.

“Moving forward I hope this can be my place, that I can make it my place… being able to share that with those who come and go, it’d be really special to be here for a long time.

“I really see myself playing as many games as possible until I get the tap on the shoulder to say, ‘it might’ve moved past you…’”

If his 2022 is any guide, he need not worry about that for a while to come.

‘Ports’ has played all nine of the Hawks’ VFL games so far and sits second among all Box Hill players in six statistical categories: total disposals, contested possessions, clearances, hard ball gets, inside 50s and tackles.

Though, that only tells part of the story. He is a player who’s impact is felt beyond a stats sheet. You know when ‘Ports’ is playing well because he’s in everything.

He’s at every contest throwing his body in laying a tackle, winning a big clearance, surging his side forward, talking louder than anyone else, putting on a block or fighting away at the bottom of the pack. He’s the first man in and the last one up.

You could make a strong case that the current campaign represents the best football Porter has played.

That question draws the player himself to his early days at the Dogs, where he reflects on his lived experiences and how the form of today wouldn’t have been possible without his early forays into VFL football. Simply, the lesson is that achieving any level of consistency takes time.

“I played some good footy in my second year at Footscray,” he said.

“It’s funny, sometimes when you’re on an AFL list it can feel like you’re toiling away in the VFL. I didn’t really look at it like I was playing twos because I loved playing there. 

“In some ways I was probably lucky I was on the AFL list, which meant I got to play every week.

“Looking back, I was one of those 18-year-olds who wasn’t ready to impact at a high level straight away, so being on the list got me continuity at the level, which allowed me to play some good footy in the second year as a 19-20 year old.

“We played finals in that season, I finished fifth in the best and fairest and for the first time I really felt like I’d found my feet at the level.”

Covid interrupted any momentum he’d been building towards in his third year, with VFL footy replaced by scratch matches in hubs. Come the end of 2020 his time in the west was over and ‘Ports’ was on the hunt for new colours and a fresh start.

“That was hard. [Covid] made it difficult to find my best form and, come the end of the year I was de-listed.

“I needed a new home and as a mad Hawks fan growing up it was pretty exciting to team up with Sam Mitchell – both as a Hawthorn man and a midfielder keen to learn off him.

“But in terms of the Club, Box Hill were always such a tough team to play against. They play finals pretty much every year and are so well resourced, so I wanted to inject myself into that culture, contribute to it and find where I fit.”

His first year at Box Hill presented its share of challenges. By his own admission he took a little time to adjust. But once he had both the individual and collective reaped the rewards.

“Last year I found adjusting out of the [AFL system] a challenge, but this year I think I’ve found where I sit in the club,” Porter said.

“‘Proc’ has been a big part of that, he’s made me feel so comfortable just being myself and expressing myself, which means I can play my best footy.

“I’ve been really fortunate in terms of the coaches I’ve played under. Sam was amazing and Daniel Giansiracusa was awesome as well, but I’ve really enjoyed playing under ‘Proc.’

“He knows what levers to pull to get me going, but also gives me license to be myself and fun.

“It’s funny to say that I take being silly seriously, but it’s good to bring energy to the Club and create a culture where players smile walking in and out of the place.

“We don’t really know what’s going on in everyone’s lives away from the Club, so I think it’s important to create an environment where people can enjoy themselves.

“I feel like I’ve a role in that, which is something I probably didn’t do in my first year here because I took myself a bit too seriously.

“So to let go, have fun and be myself, that’s infectious and the more of that I can bring, the bigger effect I can have on the group.”

A key part of that is his role as the Club’s match day DJ. A necessary but thankless task, the only feedback you’re likely to receive is negativity. But, like everything else, he relishes the opportunity to do his part.

“I think the feedback has been good… I suppose it’s like saying the umpires have had a good day when you don’t notice them,” he says with a laugh.

“There is an art to it. Firstly, don’t play all your bangers early when blokes are getting their ankles strapped or walking in the door.

“And if you’re going out for a warm-up, coming back in, then going back out, don’t waste your best stuff while all the boys are outside. Sure, the trainers or those who stay inside will enjoy them, but your role is to rev the boys up.

“Lastly, you want to have a queue of four or five really strong tracks in the back 15 minutes. That’s the most important part.”

Sound advice.

Porter’s 2022 season has been as much defined by his consistency as his versatility. One of the longest running and best value internal jokes is his hammed-up confusion as to which line meeting to sit in on.

Facts are he has become one of the coaches’ most valuable Mr. Fix Its, with his magnet capable of sliding into any line on the field and making an impact.

Against Coburg his work inside the contest turned the game his side’s way.

In a storming last quarter against the Tigers he kicked two booming goals, including one from the first centre bounce of the term, to set the Hawks on a course for victory.

On the Gold Coast he went to Alex Sexton, who had kicked three first quarter goals, and clamped him.

For ‘Ports’ there isn’t a job too big or a role he isn’t prepared to give a go. Far from being put out by the chopping and changing, he embraces it – and that is a lesson he’s keen to share with Box Hill’s younger cohort.

In fact, it’s something that exemplifies both his experience and perspective.

“We spoke about the challenges of the VFL environment, one of them is opportunity for a young player in an alignment.

“At times we’ve got 15 Hawthorn-listed players coming down and it’s understandable they’ll get priority in their positions. So it’s important you can be versatile.

“If I’m a midfielder in good form and three mids from the Hawks come down I could be squeezed out. That’s just the nature of it.

“So you need to back yourself in to play a number of roles, whether that’s off half back or up forward, give yourself the best chance of staying in the team.

“It also means that the coaches can throw you somewhere in game if things aren’t going well. So, again, your ability to be a problem solver helps the coaches push your barrow at selection, too, which is why it’s so important to be versatile.”

Playing at the state league level has never demanded so much of it’s participants, with programs and performances leaning closer to the professional end of semi-professional each and every season.

This particular milestone isn’t uncommon right now – for reference, James Parsons reached the mark in round one, Ed Phillips sits on 48 at the time of print and Fergus Greene could reach his half century before the year is out – but in future it might be. 

Honour boards and record books should be updated and challenged as years pass, with games played and goals kicked etched into them as if they’re a high watermark for the new wave or next generation to chase.

There are exceptions to the rule. At Box Hill alone the names Mascitti and Cavarra carry a cache recognised league wide, their longevity celebrated and respected in equal measure in VFL circles. Before them it was David Mirra.

That trio share a number of similarities with this week’s milestone man.

A want to compete at the best standard possible; a desire to lead and teach younger teammates; an ability to galvanise large groups; and a set of standards that keep them and those around them sharp.

Already great mates with Cavarra, it’s unsurprising that he pays tribute to Mascitti, a player he’d admired from afar when at Footscray and learned a mountain from in 2021.

“I’ve been really fortunate in terms of the coaches and leaders I’ve played under,” he says.

“But ‘Damo’ is the first one I think about. He’s such a legend of the VFL and someone I look up to and try to model myself on.

“He can play every position, he’s another coach out there and that’s something I aspire to be… but better than that he’s such a great guy as well.

“Y’know, I haven’t spoken to him about it, but yeah, I do try to model a lot of things I do around him.”

If it isn’t happening already, the next wave of Box Hill player will no doubt be looking to Porter for inspiration just as he looks to Mascitti. 

Still only 23, the former Gippsland Power product possess a maturity in the game beyond his years and regards this first fifty as just that: the first fifty.

“50 games is a great achievement.

“Its been a really positive start with so many learnings, especially from the times I wasn’t playing great footy, but I feel like my best form is ahead of me.

“And maybe there’s a leadership piece in that, which I’ll embrace. It’s just another reason my impact will be bigger, because it’s not about me playing well, but being able to impact others and use my experience to bring them along.”

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