MR MODEST - THE STORY BEHIND JOHN FORBES

By Tanya Paolucci
Updated November 6 2012 - 5:25pm, first published January 31 2011 - 11:40pm
RESPECT: John Forbes with long-time friend Merv Hughes in the lead-up to tomorrow’s Twenty20 charity game.

The hardest thing when you’re writing about the life of John Forbes is where to begin.His life, his history and his wonderful story is more than anyone can summarise in a newspaper article, so what you’re reading today could only be considered highlights.Best known for his work as national promotions manager at Puma and one of the founders of the Blue Ribbon Foundation, the man from Mitiamo’s greatest achievement can really be measured through the company he keeps.While most people attending tomorrow night’s John Forbes Tribute Twenty20 charity match want to see some of the nation’s best athletes in action, Forbes will attend the match for the simple reason to say “thanks” to his lifelong friends.Relationships have always been paramount for Forbes, who said in his time with Puma the offer of friendship always outweighed the dollar signs.“We weren’t the biggest company in the world so we couldn’t offer them big money,’’ he said.“We could be a friend and help them every practical way we knew. We helped their families, the whole thing,” Forbes said.“Relationships in your life are the most important thing because money is only part of it and your relationships go forever.“A bloke said to me once ‘you can judge a man by the way he treats his waiter’ and it’s very true.”Forbes’ philosophy worked, with the likes of Merv Hughes, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Mark Taylor among the many who not only stuck by the Puma brand, but stuck by their mate, too.“Merv Hughes was a good example,” Forbes said.“When he was 18 he didn’t have any boots, so I gave him some boots and as he got bigger in stature Nike came with a big offer, which was worth a lot more – he got offered an absolute fortune.“He was not a wealthy man and he said to them ‘where were you when I was 18 and had no boots?’ and he stayed with us, it was that simple.”Forbes did a lot more for his athletes than just decking them out in Puma gear. He forged relationships between sporting codes, provided guidance and educated his clients on how fortunate they were to be blessed with sporting ability.“We used to go to things like jails. I’d take them all out to Pentridge prison for a sports day with all the murderers and convicts,” he said.“It mixed all the sports in, so the footballers mixed with the cricketers and they all had a mutual admiration society because no one’s reached the top on their own and they all knew the sacrifices they had to make.“I also used to have a program going down at the Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda, and if any of these athletes’ head looked like a pumpkin I’d send them down there for two days because they need to know that is the worst, this rock bottom.“We got the sporties down there and started a football competition with them all and there were some amazing scenes.”Forbes considers himself very fortunate after a lucky break transformed his life from a Mitiamo farmer to a successful manager in Melbourne.While working for the Loddon Campaspe Sports Assembly, a chance meeting with champion athlete Herb Elliot resulted in a life-changing experience.“Herb Elliot gave me the break in life,” he said.“Herb came to town as a guest speaker and he told me that if I ever wanted to go to Melbourne he’d give me a job.“He is probably the greatest man I’ve ever met in my life. He just did everything right – family, church, fitness, he could even speed read.”Forbes’ lucky breaks have so often benefitted others.Forbes played a foundation role in establishing the Victorian Blue Ribbon Foundation.Tomorrow’s Twenty20 match will not be the first time Forbes has rallied his sporting contacts for a good cause; he did the same thing when the foundation was first established.Driven by his affection for local police who were kind to his disabled father, Forbes said he thought it was injust that the families of officers killed in the line of duty were not compensated for their loss.“I started the Blue Ribbon Foundation because the government refused to pay out two boys superannuation because they were single,’’ he said.“It was the lousiest argument of all time and we thought it was un-Australian and that they had to do better than that.“We waited for the big boys to move and no one would move, so we got the sporties together and away we went.“The first thing we ran was a basketball game. We looked after the Australian basketball team at the time and they all came down for nothing and we made $80,000.”Tomorrow’s Twenty20 charity match holds a different importance to Forbes, because this match may be his last.Forbes was diagnosed with bowel cancer in May last year and the illness has caused him nausea, dehydration and severe weight loss.While many men could be forgiven for giving in, Forbes’ ongoing battle has not weakened his spirit nor his drive to raise funds for those in need.“Merv Hughes suggested this game when he heard I was crook, and he came into Mitiamo and tapped on the door and told me he wanted to run a benefit match for me,” he said.“I said ‘Merv, I can’t take the money because I don’t think it’s right’. I’ve always been a charity bloke and you give you don’t take.“I said to bring Blue Ribbon in because we needed an organisation to oversee it all and they are very close to my heart. That’s the way it worked.”But unlike other matches Forbes has organised, he took the time to personally select every player in the match, all of whom have earned the right to play in Forbes’ honour.“Merv said that he and I were the selectors and we could have anyone we wanted to pick, so I said apart from Ian Healy and Mark Taylor and others, I threw in two blokes who looked after me since I had bowel cancer.“One kept me alive – a little bloke called Beeran, an Indian fellow. We abused the hell out of each other in the hospital, because I spent 13 weeks in Box Hill and thought I’d never walk again and this bloke taught me to walk – and he’s playing,’’ Forbes said.“The other is Justin Hargreaves, from Strathfieldsaye. He’s in the cancer unit up at Bendigo (Hospital) and he’s playing as well. Both of them couldn’t believe it, but they are playing because I want them there.”So tomorrow night, while some of Australia’s greatest sportsmen are battling it out at Dower Park, Forbes will be continuing his own battle with just as much determination and tenacity.“You’ve got a choice in life. You either stand and fight or you quit,” he said.“Quitting is not on the agenda and it never has been. It’s your life – you battle on and you could win.”


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