Ninety-nine per cent of the time as an AFL player out on the field, things are moving too fast to sit back and appreciate the raw talent of the stars or the beauty of the game. There’s too much at stake and the chaos around you demands your full attention.
Well, almost full. I found in my time out there that there were little moments that took you out of the game. You felt a sense of awe and wonder you’d known as a little kid.
I remember chasing Andrew McLeod through the middle of the ground one day in the early 2000s and he turned to me and grinned. He was bouncing the ball and widening the gap between the two of us as he went. That’s not how its meant to go, usually. The very best players can do things on a field that can turn their opponents into little children, gawping at their brilliance.
Andrew McLeod: grinners are winners.
Allan Jeans famously said: “Footballers are like sausages. You can fry them , grill them, bake them, but they’re still footballers.” I’m not here to disparage Allan, or sausages for that matter; they’re both wonderful in every way. But some footballers are gourmet.
Four different times in the twilight of my own footy career, amid the chaos of play, I was left thinking to myself: “This bloke is from another galaxy”.
In his Brownlow medal year of 2015, Nat Fyfe was on the bottom of the pack with Liam Picken clamped onto his back like a koala. I was standing a few yards away watching on like a sheep dog: signature moves for all three of us. In a moment of brute force and will, Nat exploded up out of the ground with a jump squat movement and ran away with the ball, leaving a few of us in his wake.
I remember thinking as it was happening: “We can play at this level – and you are capable of that level."
Paddy Dangerfield is capable of the same kind of thing. I watched on the weekend as Paddy took himself to full-forward down against the Kangaroos at Kardinia Park. From a few hundred metres away, I could sense the nerves of the Kangaroos defenders. I mean, what do you do? He’s bigger than his opponent, faster, stronger. And he’s got a confidence on the football field that straightens up his posture.
The word "fun" isn’t one I’d reach for when I reminisce about playing footy at AFL level. There were moments, but it was not the norm. Paddy looks like he enjoys himself out there because he knows he’s better than the bloke standing next to him.
Back when he was simply Dustin Martin and not yet the full "Dusty, don’t argue, superstar", we played the Tigers at the MCG. At the centre bounce, Martin plonked himself in the goal square. It was my job to play him at full back and try and run him up the ground. I don’t think I’d played on Dusty up until that point, but I was aware that he was a potential superstar.
As I trotted down to the Ponsford stand, I looked up to see him pacing the goal square like a hungry lion or tiger, as it were. It’s funny, but television doesn’t do some players justice. For reasons I can’t quite explain, some league players in the flesh are just much bigger than your preconceived idea of them. As I got closer to the goal square, Dusty got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. He was rising up out of the turf on the MCG and ascending to the top of the bloody Ponsford stand!
When I stood next to him, he looked more like a rhinoceros. Every time I put my forearm against him in the traditional pose for the full-back waltz, he would hammer fist my arm and snarl at me. If we were going to dance, it was pretty clear that Dusty would lead. He was still a few years away from the superstar that he is today, but he had presence right from the start.
Buddy Franklin: for my next act …
I don’t know Buddy Franklin, I’ve not spent much time with him, but I did meet him once and I was struck by how shy he was. He’s a tall man with broad shoulders but he seemed smaller than I thought. He was in the Fox Footy studios filming an interview, and I wondered afterwards if he was self-conscious.
On the field, he becomes ‘Buddy’. He’s a veteran now, of course, but watching him from any vantage point still feels like you’re watching the future.
In a game under the roof early last year against my Dogs, Buddy had been pretty well held. Then, for about three minutes, all hell broke loose. He marks, outside 50, and everyone knows that he’ll kick it. So he does. Thirty seconds later, he has the ball in the same spot, but maybe a few yards further out. He struts back, arcs around and savours it this time as he slots it again.
My teammates and I all gave each other a sneaky grin and a shrug of our shoulders. That shrug said: “What can you do? Buddy’s just in a mood.”
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