Jonathan Brown: how good was he?

Jonathan Brown - no player in recent memory gave greater service to ockerism. Or had a hairline that started closer to his eyebrows.
Jonathan Brown - no player in recent memory gave greater service to ockerism. Or had a hairline that started closer to his eyebrows.

There's a funny thing about meeting AFL footballers.

They tend to be either much smaller than you expected or a whole lot bigger.

Michael Voss and Jason Akermanis (both shorter than you'd think) belong in the first category.

Jonathan Brown, who retired yesterday after 256 AFL games, is firmly in the latter. His neck is about as wide as my torso.

When I first moved to Brisbane from WA in 2005 to work for the Brisbane Lions, people from back home wanted to ask me three questions.

What's Leigh Matthews like (answer - pretty intimidating)? What about Aker (the answer, like the person, is complicated)? And how about Jonathan Brown (answer - terrific fella, but more on that later)?

The Brown who announced his retirement this week was almost universally lauded, loved and respected.

Which is kind of interesting because the Brown who entered 2005 was still just about Public Enemy No. 1 in some quarters. Seemingly in and out of the AFL tribunal every second week, he somehow escaped penalty for applying a choker-hold to Jason Blake in a 2004 semi-final, then found himself suspended for the first five games of the next season after thumping Josh Carr in the grand final.

Clearly, a lot can happen in nine years. And not only from a character redemption perspective.

In 2005, if anyone had told you that Jonathan Brown would play the rest of his career virtually suspension-free (basically what happened once he realised he was far more value to the Lions on the field than sitting in the stands), you could reasonably have wondered whether he might have a career to rival Wayne Carey's.

At that stage he was 23 years old, had played 93 games and already held down centre half-forward in three premiership teams before he had even turned 22. When he finally returned from the Carr suspension in round six of 2005, he casually strolled out onto the Docklands against Essendon and helped himself to a first-up haul of 20 disposals, 14 marks and eight goals.

But over the next nine-and-three-quarter years, an injury-prone and too-brave-for-his-own-good Brown would "only" play another 162 games. After the 2004 grand final he'd play just two more finals, both in 2009 before the ill-fated Brendan Fevola trade de-railed what really looked to be a progressive Lions side.

Those statistics disqualify Brown from any comparision with Carey, whose name is an automatic inclusion in any "best-ever" conversation and who captained North Melbourne to seven straight preliminary finals (just an extraordinary stat, when you think about it).

Still, Brown goes into retirement with a resume that clearly puts him in elite company. The natural recent(ish) comparisons - because it's inevitable that we make them - might be Dermott Brereton (less games, similar match-winning ability) and Chris Grant (far more games, not so spectacular).

Brown's true peak lasted only three years - 2007 to 2009 - but in that time he kicked 232 goals, while playing alongside a teammate, Daniel Bradshaw, who booted 197 of his own (sure bet - the Brown-Bradshaw combination gets underrated historically, partly because it happened in Brisbane, partly because of the Lions' lack of team success in that era).

In 106 games from 2005 to 2010, Brown would kick five or more goals on 29 occasions, while topping 20 possessions 26 times. In 2005, before it became trendy to have tall, big-bodied midfielders - and long before it was seen as a necessity - Leigh Matthews threw Brown into the centre square for bouncedowns, where he completely frightened the life out of smaller opponents for a few games until osteitis pubis got the better of him.

Three times he was voted the competition's most courageous player by his peers and he won mark of the year in 2002 with an effort that wasn't a shoulder-stradding screamer but was certifiably insane.

And those are only the tangible measurements of Brown's career.

No player in recent memory has a) had a hairline that started closer to his his eyebrows (weird observation, I know, but impossible not to make),  b) induced the same strange, half-swooning, half-motherly love reaction out of women with no ostensible interest in footy (again weird but you should have seen one of my journo colleagues when I gave her a birthday card signed by Brown), c) made his teammates so obviously walk a little taller and d) given greater service to ockerism.

In his excellent book Origin of the Speccies, Nathan Jarvis wrote that Brown was so strine that "if ever a film was made of his life, Bryan Brown would struggle to get the role of his mum."

There's a certain irony to that given Brown's father, former Fitzroy player Brian, was a teacher at a private school. But it's not far wrong either: certainly Brown was the only player I can recall who happily gave interviews but didn't have the word "my" in his vocabulary.

It was always "me family", "me teammates", "me missus" and sadly in more recent times "me [broken] face."

Highly endearing, it all was. Much the same as Brown's love for the dishlickers at the Warrnambool greyhound track, his penchant for terrorising Brisbane neighbours with free-swinging backyard cricket games, his reputation for well-timed and comedic on-field sledging  and the fact that he was one of the few modern day players who would chat candidly to journos in a casual setting, under the unspoken assumption that it was all off the record (I mean, seriously, who was going to betray Jonathan Brown's trust?).

In short, Brownie often seemed like a player from a different era. His retirement is as good a time as any to relish the fact he was part of this one.

We probably won't see anything quite like him again for some time to come. *

* The only player I can see with any remote chance of replicating Brown's all-round appeal is Adelaide's Tex Walker. And as good as Tex is, I reckon he'd do well to be even two thirds of the player Brownie was.

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