‘Johnny Brunner’s Thirst For Sporting Challenges……………’ – KB Hill

Johnny Brunner has the physique and appearance of a lightweight boxer.

 

Chunky, and with chiselled features that could easily have been carved out of granite; his body’s like a coiled spring, seemingly ready to explode into action at any given moment.

 

Which is saying something, considering he’s going on 54.

 

His life’s been devoted to continually challenging himself, and keeping super-fit. He hates to think what might have become of him, he says, had he not gone down this path.

 

I catch up with him between sets at Wangaratta’s Merriwa Park lawn tennis courts and discover that, as imposing a figure as he cuts, he’s humble and softly-spoken.

 

We get yapping about his sporting journey…………..

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Johnny’s parents Anton and Anna were seeking a new life, far removed from the ravages of post-war Germany when they emigrated to Australia in the mid-fifties.

 

Their first ‘port of call’ was Bonegilla. From there they moved to a migrant camp in Benalla, where they found work; eventually settling in the town and raising their children.

 

John admits that, as a teenager he was shy, quiet, socially inept. “ I’d start to have a few beers and see how drunk I could get. I didn’t handle it all that well, to tell you the truth….and got into a bit of strife.”

 

But his salvation turned out to be football or, more to the point, a gentleman called John Rush, who was coaching Benalla All Blacks at the time.

 

“Rushy was a wonderful fellah, and was the biggest influence on my career. I had great respect for him. I’d only gone to ‘Blacks’ because a few mates were there, and at 17, played in a flag under him in 1981.”

 

“About ‘84 I was lucky enough to win the Benalla-Tungamah League’s Lawless Medal. Rushy took me aside and said to me: ‘Look, you’ve got plenty of ability…Why don’t you have a real crack…or give it up.’ ”

 

“I stopped getting on the grog overnight……..That advice drove me to be the best footballer and person I could be.”

 

The following year he picked up another Lawless Medal, but more importantly, played brilliantly in a Vic Country rep team. He found out later that John Rush had pushed strongly for his selection.

 

“It’s funny how things stick in your mind,” he says. “Pat Hickey, who was a highly respected figure in Benalla, sought me out, congratulated me, and said: ‘That’s very exciting, what you’ve done.’ ”

 

“No one had ever shaken my hand before, and I was rapt that I’d made an impression on him. Again, it steeled my determination to succeed.”

 

Melbourne, through coach Ron Barassi, invited the 165cm Brunner to do a pre-season. In the interim, though, ‘Barass’ had handed over the reins to John ‘Swooper’ Northey.

 

“I don’t think Northey rated me,” Johnny says. “He gave me the flick after a couple of practice games. Said I was too small…..”

 

So he returned home, and was snapped up by Yarrawonga.

 

I vividly remember him bouncing around in his debut game. It was Round 1, 1986 and the Pigeons belted the Rovers to the tune of 102 points, kicking 28.24, to almost bury the Hawks’ season after just one match.

 

A new O & M star was born that day. The papers extolled his virtues: “……..John Brunner is a magical player if ever there was one…..The diminutive Brunner had a feast, and his class will be a telling factor in the Pigeons’ rise to power……”

 

And so it proved. He won successive Morris Medals (‘88 and ‘89), and was one of the architects of their first flag in 30 years – in 1989.

 

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He’d contemplated leaving Yarra earlier that year, but decided to hang around when several players departed after the resignation of coach ‘Salty’ Parish on the eve of the season.

 

Miraculously, the Pigeons regrouped, lost just six games, and ran away in the final term of the Grand Final, to defeat hot favourites Wodonga by 16 points, providing John with one of his greatest sporting thrills.

 

His performances prompted Footscray to select him – with pick number 62 – and at the age of 25, in the National Draft of November 1989.

 

He recalls being selected in front of Tony Liberatore, and as second rover to Tony McGuinness, in two night games. “There was talk at the time that ‘Libba’ was going to be named as captain of the Reserves,” Johnny says.

 

Instead, the pint-sized Liberatore went on the win the Brownlow Medal that season, whilst Brunner – 2cm taller – returned to the bush after a couple of months, to further etch his name into country football folklore.

 

He enjoyed the experience, but admits that he had no real burning ambition to play League footy. Besides, he was now working as a mechanic at the Yarrawonga & Border Golf Club; loved the job, and thrived on being back home.

After playing in Yarra’s losing Grand Final against the Rovers in 1991, he was lured over to Barooga, where he played in a hat-trick of flags. Two seasons at Benalla followed, thus fulfilling his ambition of playing alongside a good mate, ‘Shorty’ Martienello. Then it was back to Barooga, where he picked up another flag and a second Murray League O’Dwyer Medal.

 

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One of his old team-mates tells of the almost obsessive work-rate that drove Brunner. “You’d be out in the country somewhere, and here’d be Johnny pounding the bitumen – miles from Yarra.”

 

“I never really stopped,” he says. “In the late 80’s I started doing triathlons. To prepare, I’d ride the bike to Barooga, train for footy…and ride home again. The next morning I’d go for a swim.”

 

“On summer weekends I’d call in to see Mum at Benalla…then continue on to Mansfield, where I’d run up and down the steepest hills I could find.”

 

“My aim was to be the fittest player in the side. I’d break the season into three sections….Hit the ground running for the early games; it’d enable you to get through the mid-season when it was wet and everyone was getting tired; then fire up when you got a sniff of finals in your nostrils…..”

 

No wonder he was still matching it with the best, well into his thirties. When he returned to Yarrawonga, seemingly to round off his career, he picked up his third Morris Medal – aged 36 – twelve years after winning his first…………..

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John became involved in Drag Racing and threw himself right into it, competing in all of the  meets, including the big ones at Calder Park and Sydney.

 

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He built one of the best engines in the country and with it, made a couple of National Finals, “But it’s an expensive sport, Drag Racing. I thought it best to give it away,” he says.

 

Still fighting fit, he was coaxed into a making a comeback with BDFL club Devenish, and snared another League Medal. After his second season there -and another premiership – he thought it was as good a time as any to hang up his boots.

 

Alas, a good friend Mark Almond, who was coaching Howlong, got in touch and asked if he’d mind making a few appearances for the Hume League Spiders. He ended up playing the whole season and, even at 45, could produce that touch of class which was capable of swinging a game.

 

Howlong bowed out in the Elimination Final and Johnny’s legacy from his final game was a damaged medial ligament, which still causes him a bit of grief……….

 

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The next phase of the Brunner sporting career began about fifteen years ago. He relished the challenge of mastering tennis and threw himself into it with typical energy. With his natural fitness, agility and determination, he became a more than handy player.

 

After picking up four Yarrawonga Club Championships, he elected to have a change of scenery, which saw him head over to play at Wangaratta each week-end.

 

John thinks nothing of the 60km trek to and from the Border, and enjoys the atmosphere at Merriwa Park. “They’re a great group of people,” he says.

 

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He brought the Golf Club Scarifier over recently and de-thatched the courts. “They were only too happy to provide the machine for us, and I regarded it as a privilege to help.”

He plays tennis year-round, is a regular at veteran’s events and has represented Wangaratta at five Country Week Carnivals.

 

Matt Allen, a fellow O & M Hall of Famer, was his opponent in two of the four consecutive Club Singles finals that Brunner won ( 2013-2016).

 

Matt says his greatest asset is that he’ll chase anything down. “He’s a bit restricted now, with his ‘dickey’ knee, and has developed a skip in his running action to try and overcome that. But he’s so determined…….he’s never
beaten…….”

 

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JOHN  BRUNNER’S  FOOTBALL  CAREER  STATISTICS

PREMIERSHIPS                        LEAGUE  MEDALS

1981  All Blacks                      1984  Lawless Medal  (BTFL)

1989  Yarrawonga                  1985  Lawless Medal  (BTFL)

1992  Barooga                         1988  Morris  Medal  (O & M)

1993  Barooga                         1989  Morris  Medal  (O & M)

1994  Barooga                        1993  O’Dwyer Medal (M.F.L)

1997  Barooga                         1997  O’Dwyer Medal  (M.F.L)

2005  Devenish                       2000  Morris Medal   (O & M)

2004  B & D.F.L Medal

REP GAMES                             CLUB  GAMES

0 & M                  14                  All Blacks         87

Tungamah F.L     3                 Yarrawonga  162

Murray F.L       13                   Barooga          110

V.C.F.L                  3                  Benalla              32

Devenish           37

Howlong           17

 

You can read more of KB Hill’s insightful profiles of local sportspersons HERE.

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