The enduring magnetism of Scott Pendlebury

Scott Pendlebury found himself on his hands and knees in the middle of then-Telstra Stadium halfway through the final term of Collingwood's Round 12 clash with reigning Premier Sydney in 2006.

The Pies were up, but Swans weren't out of the contest. Sydney livewire Adam Schneider was storming away from halfback when he tried to evade Pendlebury. Schneider slipped and fell to the ground. Pendlebury closed in on top of him on the ground but Schneider was able to get a handball off to former magpie Paul Williams who looked to be in space.

If you were watching that game you would have seen Williams look down the ground about to launch a kick inside 50. But Pendlebury, barely visible on TV screens, threw his arm at the ball. He stripped Williams. He gathered the ball while lying on his stomach. He handballed it to Rhyce Shaw, who moved it along to Travis Cloke, who sent the ball long to Leon Davis deep inside 50. He marked and kicked what was a sealing goal.

Fans called this Pendlebury act the 'Hand of God'. It was his third game. And it was a sign of things to come.

Thinking about what Pendlebury has given the game of football as he enters his 18th season, requires more than just watching a highlight reel; he's more sophisticated than a viral clip. When he started, Google and Facebook were in their infancy. And his legacy, almost two decades on, now lies deep in the numbers. When you sift through them you'll see how he sits in rare company and how he will be treasured as one of the greats once he retires.

Consider this:

Pendlebury is No. 1 for handballs -- 4683 -- in the VFL/AFL history, averaging 13.1, ahead of Joel Selwood, Gary Ablett Jr, Josh P. Kennedy, and Tom Mitchell. He's ranked second for disposals all-time -- 9315 -- with only Robert Harvey ahead of him by 341. His average of 26.1 disposals per game is the greatest of all-time.

The list of accomplishments roll on.

He's second for all-time tackles behind Selwood. He's fifth for contested touches (3807) and second for uncontested behind Brent Harvey.

He's third for goal assists with 278; the first midfielder in line after two of the games most damaging forwards in Eddie Betts and Tom Hawkins.

Pendlebury's 358 games is 14th best in VFL/AFL history; only five players have climbed higher than 400. He's 42 games away from that.

He's the games record holder at Collingwood with five Copeland medals and in 15 years he's been in the top three for votes for 11 years.

There's his six All-Australian nods. The 2010 premiership and captaincy he held for 207 games.

He's fifth for career Brownlow votes with 215 and only him, Selwood and Leigh Matthews haven't won a Brownlow yet sit inside the Top 10 for all-time votes.

When you look at those staggering numbers you gasp: Pendlebury has been able to stay good for a seriously long time. All of it points to an incredible body of work that has required an insatiable appetite for the game, layered with impeccable consistency and precision.

Last year we were reminded yet again about the genius of Pendlebury when scores were level against Essendon after Harry Jones hit the post.

While Jones was having a shot Pendlebury already created a plan with Darcy Moore, that if he missed, he should run hard to the left if he saw a gap - rather than choosing the most obvious path down the middle. Jones missed. The plan paid off. The ball landed in the hands of Moore and with a quick transition Jamie Elliott delivered the body blow with a miraculous goal from the boundary to win the game.

These are things quarterbacks do in the NFL. It's almost like playing with a coach. To have someone like that who can orchestrate plays in the way Pendlebury does it's almost unheard of. It's part of how he's evolved. While others add bulk and shave off seconds on their time trials, Pendlebury does that too but has made his football IQ a real weapon.

Collingwood recruiting manager Derek Hine once said Pendlebury has always had spatial awareness who is a "real student of excellence" and referred to him as "the gift that keeps on giving."

In the last 10 years Pendlebury's has demonstrated his version of being a model for the AFL standard of consistency. He averaged 74.6% for disposal efficiency, averaging 21 games per year and 26.3 touches. It illustrates his consistency precisely. Every year he's hitting roughly the same accuracy, same number of games and durability, and same output on the ground.

Terry Wallace brought up another set of numbers last year that put Pendlebury on top of everyone in the game of football.

"There's only been one player ever in history that has had eight seasons of over 600 possessions and he's one of the best ball users in the game - that's Scott Pendlebury," he *once told the media. "He is just a star of the game. He is the best Collingwood player that I've ever seen."

Pendlebury's penchant for basketball in his junior days has long been a topic raised by broadcasters and long been a media topic at which fans raise their eyebrows, but all joking aside, at times he looks like he could be playing point guard on the MCG. How he turns on a dime, assessing the options flowing past him, how he drifts along with the ball up the ground, and how he's athletically fluid in his stride where he looks like he's gliding not running.

He brings his team mates into the game with his deft passing. And there's his relationship with and understanding of space and geometry on the field that no other player seems to have. Had basketball not been part of his journey, who knows if he'd turn out to be the same player he is today.

It's hard to know how to best describe Pendlebury - how he plays the game, and where he fits in football. Partly because it's much easier to rate a viral athletic sensation and things like Brownlow medallists. Pendlebury is neither of those but what he does on the field influences the game and affects how Collingwood performs.

Matthew Richardson described Pendlebury as the kind of player who has ice in his veins. "He'd have to be the most consistent player I've seen in the last 10 years," he told media. "Even his average games are pretty good. It says something about his mental toughness, I think."

In 2020 Nick Dal Santo called Pendlebury the greatest Magpie of all time. "Has there ever been a better ambassador not only of the Pies but the game of AFL in Australia?" he said. And Jo Crawford-Wynd, his former Country Victoria basketball coach, paid tribute to how he could anticipate other people's moves. "If you ever play rock, paper, scissors with him, good luck," he said.

What football fans love about Pendlebury is the beauty in which he plays the game. The effortless stride, how he can absurdly squeeze a handball through heavy traffic filled with flailing arms and legs and make it look easy. Although he's not a prolific goal kicker, he does stand up when the game calls for a sneaky sealer, a steadier - the crucial majors. Most of the time though he's creating goals and making his team mates look better.

As the AFL has moved into a new era of player development where everyone is looking for a midfield bull with size, and teams are trying to win match-ups with tall wings and speed off half back, Pendlebury continues to be who he's always been. Doing what's worked for him and operating rather unbothered by the tidal wave of a new football class. The humility in which he played his football has made him adored by his peers mostly because he's never really sipped the kool-aid of his own talent.

At the end of this season his latest two-year contract expires. Coming into 2023, he's played 358 games, just less than two full seasons short of of the colossal milestone of 400 games played. We don't know if Pendlebury will go another year -- or two -- or not.

But we will get to watch him across half back taking calculated risks, instilling a sense of calm, instructing, reading the play as he does. He'll dupe his opposition with dancing feet and A-grade footy IQ. He'll still be able to suspend time and make good decisions. He might not be in the thick of it as a midfielder anymore but he's still going to do things at which we will continue to marvel.