One moment I’m getting reported playing footy in Tassie. Next I have about 700kms of driving to go before I reach inaugural Crow, Rodney ‘Rocket’ Maynard, in the South Australian desert.
I’ve done some work in the Otways to pay for fuel and swum it off in the ice-cold Wait-A-While river crossing, deep in the rainforest. It’s getting dark. I should either chew into the road some, or get some takeaway and find a bed through ex-teammates down on the coast in Warrnambool. But Brian Brown, the 50 game ex Roy Boy and dad of Jonathan, tells me he has some time, and that’s all that matters.
He’s from where I’m from. A different generation, but the same ranges, the same cold, foggy ridge. The same track. He played for the same club! I’ve got to get him in the book.
Next thing I know it’s night and I’m pulling into a beaut farmhouse just outside of Koroit. The place is perfect. Long, manicured drive, neat and spacious on the inside. Both grand and simple.
Brian comes out to greet me. He has the best grin ever, like all the Browns do. His sister, his nephews, his brother. Like his father, bush legend, Corker Brown did. Every one of them solid, ripper people!
We talk about the Ridge, the folks we know. We talk about football.
“I played for Wyelangta, nothing’s there now,” he says. “Just a sign post. The oval’s a paddock. Our games were at Beech Forrest.” A town at the other end of the Ridge, that had its hard glory in the logging days, and has now shrunk to pretty much nothing.
“I remember the mud, mostly,” Browny smiles. “Being ten years old, playing ankle-deep every week. The endless games in the paddocks with my brothers and cousins, cows in the forward pocket.”
“Tackles into shit pads?” I ask.
He just grins at me.
It’s funny talking to someone for the book who’s from where I’m from. I can picture it so much better, I know the characters. When it snowed, big, booming, barrel-chested Dicky Dawes would hand out the Schnapps in the rooms at half time to get the feeling back into players limbs. Geoff Brauer would cut holes in spud sacks for players to wear under the jumpers.
“I remember the fog more,” Browny tells me. “It would roll up the valleys so thick there’d be games you couldn’t see your opponent. Any score would have to be relayed to the umpire.” And “There were a few loggers left up in the mountains, but mostly it was dairy.”
We talk about his family, and my adopted one, and his journey through school footy to Fitzroy. There was no doom and gloom for him. He loved the Lions.
Some were a bit cliquish, but back then, because of zoning, there were always one or two at the club from your part of the country to knock about with.
“When I had my 21st up on the Ridge, a lot of the team came. Geez it was a wild night! We finished, what, at 4am, 5? Some of the boys ended up in the dairy, milking cows with Dad!”
Browny tells me about the ripper teammates who would travel up after that to hang out with his father. Blokes like Ron Alexander. The things that made the Roys the Roys.
I ask him if, playing at the Junction Oval, the club was just a footy club, or if there was still some of Fitzroy in it? The spirit of the suburb?
“No, it was definitely Fitzroy!” he insists.
“We had few supporters, but those that were there were so fiercely loyal! After the game the team would have a drink with the opposition players and all that,” he says, almost brushing off what most other players have called their playing career’s unofficial highlight. “But then a handful of us would go down to the trainer’s functions. The boot studders, trainers, waterboys and stuff. That’s where the supporters were. Good, hard-working people mostly, some real old, some not. They were great times. They were just brilliant!”
Later, he mentions he met his wife at one of the trainer’s functions. I don’t doubt it.
We talk about highs and lows and playing on Jezza and Bartlett and playing lots on Matthews. About bravery.
“Were you ever scared on an oval?” I ask.
Browny gives me a baffled look, but thinks, just to be sure. There are no false words with him, just honesty and a grin. It’s golden.
“No… Sometimes you’d back into a pack and think ‘Here we go’, though.”
And he smiles more. And looks right at you.
“Work hard, play your footy hard, play hard.”
He tells me of good coaches and bad, and how sometimes the best of blokes aren’t up to it, and of still admiring people who gave him the chop, and the best bloke he met through football. Of how ahead of his time Robert Walls was, with set ruck plays and kick outs and other things. Of how knowledgeable Sheedy was when Brian finished his VFL career with a year at Essendon.
“He showed me a big cupboard and said: ‘This has a video of every player in Australia in it.’ He was just so thorough… Yet his training was more traditional. Longer, repetitive. Walls’ was shorter, more precise, much more scientific.”
Then we talk about luck.
After two solid years serving his back pocket apprenticeship, including a 4th in the B&F, in his prime, just when he was keen to progress into the middle, Browny broke his leg twice, missing 1 ½ years, only to come back and see other blokes now ahead of him.
“As good as Walls was, he didn’t see a future for me.”
Browny says fair enough, but does regret missing the next few years, when they became a fighting unit, winning finals, shaking the big boys while he went to Essendon.
“They had Terry Daniher, Ronny Andrews, I was good friends with Timmy Watson, all these great, great blokes coming up to greet me! Rodger Merritt was a brilliant fella. Didn’t Paul Vander Haar lived life to the fullest!?” he laughs.
But then we go back to talking about Fitzroy, somehow. The joy of being on the ground watching Bernie Quinlan swoop on a ball from the center bounce, arch towards goal and kick a torp, three-quarters up, from 70.
“He was the best,” Browny says, grinning. “Great bloke, best footballer.”
He tells a great story of Micky Conlan, a massive ‘self-made man.’
“He’s huffing and puffing, doing these super big weights one day. Has everybody bluffed. Bernie, not the best trainer, walked up, looked and said: ‘Hey, can I have a go?’ And, bang, pressed them, and walked off again. He was just that sort of bloke. Natural.”
Then we go back to talking about the real stuff, for me, anyway. Bush footy. The biff, the adventures, the great games, seeing a 16 year old Wayne Shwass take hangers, playing alongside St.Kilda’s Steven Theodore, the Premierships, the legends no-one outside South West Victoria would ever have heard of.
The night’s getting further away. The road longer. All the food shops will be shut, but this, here and now, is what it’s about. All other details can stay pending.
We talk a lot about kids footy. In his roll as a DP he’s organised carnivals, coached, done it all. He loves giving back. Installing things beyond footy, like life values.
Then I bring the topic of one of his sons up. Jonathan. I mean, I’ve got to!
“Yeah, he was never shy,” Browny says. “Wherever I coached or played he’d be there, nine, ten years old, trying to train with the seniors. They’d tape him up and hang him upside down in lockers, put his head in the bin, stuff like that. Fun stuff. Everybody loved him.”
Browny tells me of how, when Johnno was playing senior footy at 15 he stood up to a couple of big blokes who were trying to muscle him.
“Here we go,” we thought. “Jonathan’s got something.”
Then, he talks about the key moment in his son’s career.
“He was playing in junior carnivals and despite doing really well, twice, as a young draftee, didn’t make the squad. He was filthy! All the way home he was saying: ‘I’ll show ‘em!’”
I can picture it, with far more swear words, I reckon.
“Johnno was quietly determined in his own way. After that, as well as training for football, he’d ride 6kms to town on his bike, on his own, and train at the gym with some older mates and mentors. Weights, boxing, aerobic fitness, bits and pieces, anything.”
We talk more about Jonathan’s career, but everything always stems back to the Lions, and family. Now that the son was playing at the top level, Browny had his father’s roll. He would talk to and be friends with Lynch and Black and all of them. “Even Aker, depending on which one showed up,” he smiles at me.
But beyond that, this damn glow comes across him when we talk about the father/son rule! About how they changed it after Johnno went to Brisbane, bumping the amount of games up. But their horse had bolted.
“How many games did I play for the Fitzroy? 54? 51?” he laughs.
“No it wouldn’t have been the same if he’d played somewhere else. It was brilliant to see him drafted to the Lions. Brilliant!”
He says it with such pride. For his son, of the club.
We talk more, about Pikey, Matthews, today’s game, tomorrow’s. About mud and grit. It’s funny, he’s shorter than his son, probably slower, a back pocket, but so the same in all the ways that matter. Neither are thugs, both are hard, friendly, determined. I ask if, through Jonathan, he’s had two careers?
“Geez,” Browny smiles. “I guess so.”
I’m tempted to ask for his son’s phone number, not to pester a Champion, but to ask Jonathan about his father from another angle. To turn it around and give a great, honest battler his due and full story.
But I don’t. Brian’s too busy painting bigger pictures.
“One of the greatest moments in footy, for me, was to see Kevin Murray in 2001, when Brisbane won their first flag, at the top of the Northern Stand, or whichever one it was, waving his Fitzroy scarf in victory! It was real moving. I mean, he is Fitzroy! All the doubters should take note. If he can embrace it…”
“Any other stand-out moments?” I ask.
“That year we won the night flag when I was playing. I mean, it was only a night flag, but the look on the supporters faces… Their smiles… It was magnificent!”
Browny’s two highlights have to do with the club, pride and people other than himself.
Battlers don’t get much, but nobody misses out if they play footy long enough. Everybody has highs, good stories. Brian Brown kept going until his knees gave out at 34. A good innings. Yet, to talk to him, he’s still the kid who cut his teeth knee-deep in mountain mud and dairy duties, and always will be.
The road’s getting further away, yet, really, not going anywhere. I’ll eat something from a truck stop, get a few towns closer to S.A., then sleep in the ute’s cabin. We keep talking.
It’s a pleasure to be in this Roy Boy’s company.