On Jonathan Brown

I’ve been head-butted a couple of times in my life.  I try to forget the first; never will forget the second.  The footy-nut in me wanted the bump that rose up to last forever, my own little perpetual trophy of a deliriously happy day, the ultimate that any footy fan can have.  Alas, a few days into the only type of premiership hang-over worth having, it was gone.

It happened in 2001, on the day the Brisbane Lions won their first flag.  The game and ceremonies were over and the team was making its way around the ground, premiership cup in their hands.  I’d day-dreamed about this moment often enough, now I wanted the reality.  I made my way down to the boundary: nothing was going to stop me from having that big silver cup – Our Big Silver Cup – up close and in my team’s hands.

The mass of players, team officials and assorted media closed in towards me just as Beau McDonald hoisted the cup above his head.  Alastair Lynch, Craig McRae and Leppa were next to him, all beaming smiles, slapping and hugging each other and us fans, sharing the unbridled joy around.  And then came Jonathan Brown: Brownie, JB, Hi-Fi, or, as Martin Pike liked to call him with that throaty-voiced, wicked, twinkle-eyed grin of his, the Brown Dog.

Brownie pulled up right in front of me.  I caught his eye, grinned and leant out to him, arms outstretched.  He cast a quick glance at the Fitzroy jersey I wore, acknowledged it with a big smile and leaned in to embrace me.  As we wrapped our arms around each other, whack, our heads collided.  We both pulled back with a pained laugh.  He moved off to the next press – or clash – of flesh.  Me?  I was in heaven: I’d just been head-butted by Brownie!

Three years later I caught up with Jonathan Brown for an interview for a book I was writing on Fitzroy.  As an ice-breaker I recounted the story to him, knowing he wouldn’t remember the incident.

“Shit, sorry!” he says when I finished.

“No, no, you don’t have to apologise, that’s not what this is about.  I loved it.”

He looked at me quizzically for a few seconds, weighing up what sort of nutty, obsessive fan I was.  Then he relaxed.  We got on with the interview.

That apology illuminates something fundamental about Brownie – he genuinely cares about us supporters and fans.  It explains why he isn’t simply an admired or respected member of the Lions team but our hero, the one player we know every other team wishes they could have in their side.  He’s approachable, likeable and straightforward, fitting that great Australian tradition of the hero who appears to be an ordinary bloke, one of us.  Or that’s where he’s come from, and his extraordinary feats haven’t changed him really. Or haven’t changed the essential him. You don’t get airs and graces from someone who loves watching the gee-gees, trains dishlickers (he even called one `hound he owned, Slabavic) and whose favourite moments include spending time back in his home town of Warrnambool surrounded by family and mates.

Warrnambool and surrounds are a vital part of the Jonathan Brown story.  Back in the sixties, seventies and eighties the area was zoned to Fitzroy, which is how Brian Brown, his dad, came to play with the Roys in ’76.  While he never starred, he did enough at the Roys – he played 52 games and fell in love with team mate Noel Mugavin’s sister- to ensure he had a big strapping son who could eventually be recruited to Brisbane under the father-son rule.  So, Fitzroy can take some of the credit for Brownie’s existence on the planet.  And it might explain why he’s always been so passionate about the Roys side of the Brisbane Lions story.

He loves talking about his Roys heritage, of how proud he feels of playing in the colours and jersey (at least when the Heritage Round was around) that his old man (his term) wore.  That passion explains why every ex-Fitzroy supporter of the Lions feels a deep connection with, even love for, Brownie.  There have been, and are, several on-field links of one sort or another between Fitzroy and Brisbane (Luke Power, Travis Johnstone and Troy Selwood from the 2010 list alone) but he’s become the big one, our living, breathing Roys relic and icon.  Hallelujah, praise the Roy!

To me there’s always been an air of yesterday hangingabout Brownie. The best of yesterday. There’s a sense that Brownie comes from where we come from. Forged in a warm past. It’s partly about his haircut – other than the occasional summer Number One, the style hasn’t altered since he debuted in 2000.  That same, short-back-and-sides, don’-worry-’bout-the-gel-mate, cut.  It says something, of a bloke who knows what he likes, and he likes it straightforward, uncluttered, who couldn’t care less about what’s groovy or fashionable.

There’s another element to that old-fashioned look.  Not having experienced fifties and sixties footy, I can only draw on images, written, moving or otherwise, for my impressions of the football and footballers of that era.  Brownie not only looks but seems like a footballer from back then, exuding certainty, presence and sheer physicality.  There’s little – on the surface at least – to suggest embodiment of the modern day athlete-footballer.  I’m convinced he would have had a ball playing back then, revelling in the aggressive – not to be mistaken for thuggish – play of the time and loving the freedom that would have come with just the one umpire and a lack of camera angles or administrators paranoid about the slightest whiff of (supposed) violence out on the ground.

Of course there’s never been anything ordinary about Brownie’s efforts on the football field.  Visit Youtube and watch the video for the 2002 Mark of the Year; make sure you watch it to the end.  Pure, fearless, courage – one of the sweetest examples of football bravery you’ll ever see.

But there’s another dimension to this pack-busting bravado of his: often enough after he crashes back to earth he simply gets up, dusts himself off and gets on with the game.  Nick Riewoldt is just as courageous but when he lands with a similar thump, you see every bit of his pain, see those stars circling his wobbly head.  Brownie may be in pain but there’s no way he’s going to let the opposition know that.

Brownie is a bloke whose courage and toughness have lifted him from the ranks. He is a leader; a democratic leader whose authority is unchallenged. He’s like the best of the ANZACs. Which is why Geoff Dyer has painted him the way he has.

Yep, tough bugger, that Brownie. Wouldn’t want to butt heads with him now, would you?

 

Adam Muyt’s essay from the foreword of The Footy Almanac 2010. Buy a copy.

The original portrait of Jonathan Brown is by celebrated artist Geoff Dyer who won the Archibald Prize in 2003. It is available for purchase. Enquiries [email protected]

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About Adam Muyt

Born into rugby league, found aussie rules, fell for soccer, flirts a little with union. Author of 'Maroon & Blue - recollections and tales of the Fitzroy Football Club' (Vulgar Press, 2006). Presently working on a history of postwar Dutch migrants and soccer in Australia.

Comments

  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Adam loved it a great personal write up of one of if not the most respected player in the game not only for his courage but his personality which exudes no bullshit

  2. Luke Reynolds says

    What a player. Would have loved to have had him at the Pies when an offer was made a few years back, but part of me was very happy he stayed at the Lions. Respect him even more for his loyalty, great to see him bow out a one-club, legend of the game.

  3. Adam Muyt says

    How quickly things can change: within a season of writing this piece, Jonathan Brown suffered two horrendous head injuries. There was no “…simply getting up, dusting himself off and getting on with the game….” Poor bloke – and there was no hiding how much either of these hurt him.

  4. Peter Fuller says

    Adam,
    Your great tribute stands the test of time. As for your comment about how much the injuries hurt Browny, it’s pretty evident that the emotional impact compounded the physical, for this great warrior knew how much the contemporary Lions needed him.

  5. Laurie Laffan says

    I am a Fitzroy supporter , born in Coburg in 1944, the year the Roys/Gorillas won the premiership.I moved to Canberra in 1956 aged 12 and proceeded to play for Ainslie for the next 26 years. I had to wait until 2001 to see The Lions bring home their next premiership. I was there at the MCG, with my wife Karen, sporting my Fitzroy beanie and scarf which I had bought at Fitzroy’s last game in Melbourne. I was greatly impressed with all the Fitzroy players who had made the trip to Brisbane after the merger. What a day and weekend we had in Melbourne, particularly in Lygon St. All the Carlton supporters were in raptures as Essendon were the vanquished.[I must admit they are my second team, having lived in Moonee Ponds]We met Maurie Hearn, Captain of the 1944 side in Lygon St. Had a good chat which I have on video. Maurie and his brother purchased my Great Grandfather’s Tennyson Hotel in Port Fairy, soon after the premiership and coached and played at Port Fairy. The point of this dissertation is to show I am a dyed in the wool supporter of this great club. One of it’s greatest players is undoubtably Johnathan Brown!! And we have had some beauties over the many years I have been a supporter.Have a great future life Johnno. Love to meet you sometime. ps. I played against your father-in law Billy in the late 60’s in Canberra.

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