Portrait

The full life, troubled mind and untimely death of AFL icon Danny Frawley. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

AFL player and coach Danny Frawley

In the days when the Saints were sponsored by the devil – Philip Morris, specifically – and a man could become captain not through unusual skill but a willingness to crawl over razors to spoil a mark, Danny “Spud” Frawley flourished. Perhaps nothing irritates a coach more than a gifted player of fickle effort; and nothing is more pleasing than a modest talent willing to tackle rhinos on a bad ankle.

Frawley himself said he “didn’t have a lot of talent” but compared himself to Monty Python’s knight, the one who dismisses the loss of limbs as “mere flesh wounds”. If Frawley’s only distinction was ferocity, it was still enough for “God” – aka Gary Ablett snr – to describe him as the best fullback he ever played against. But it wasn’t his only distinction. While hardly silky, Frawley could anticipate the ball better than most and run a marathon.

Born in 1963, Frawley grew up on a potato farm in Bungaree, a tiny town in Victoria’s goldfields. He made his debut for St Kilda in 1984 and made captain just a few seasons later. As the side’s key fullback, he was tasked with containing the legendary talents of Ablett, Jason Dunstall, Peter Daicos and Tony Modra. When Frawley retired in 1995, he had played 240 games for the Saints – 177 of them as captain, a club record.

Frawley thought his playing days represented a “sweet spot” – an equilibrium between the sport’s professionalism and its players’ freedom. Salaries weren’t as high as they are today, but nor were expectations. The game had been sufficiently professionalised that there was good money and adulation without infantilising curfews and microscopic attention. Maybe they lived in a bubble, but if they did it was a bubble that offered vastly more leg room.

Frawley never won a premiership as a player, but he dreamt of winning one as a coach. In 2000, then Richmond president Leon Daphne thought Frawley’s on-field aggression commended him for the role of senior coach. Frawley was thrilled with the appointment. But the five years that followed were mostly brutal.

Frawley led Richmond to a surprise preliminary final in 2001, but arguably this achievement exaggerated his faith in the strength of his squad. Despite calls to dismantle the team and rebuild, Frawley gambled that he had the seeds of a premiership team. He gambled wrong. In subsequent years, Richmond languished. Publicly derided, he was spat upon by a Tigers fan in his final year as coach. He never forgot it. Perhaps more corrosive was the fact he felt undermined by his own club. The suits were conspiring with an axe but weren’t brave enough to declare it. Eventually, in 2004, he was sacked.

For many years as a player, Frawley was celebrated. Then everything abruptly turned. There were three harsh lessons in his dismissal: that fan passion isn’t terribly rational or fair; that board decisions aren’t often made delicately; and that past glory is no inoculation against either. Footy giveth, and footy taketh away, and his bitterness would last a long time.

For the past decade or so, Frawley was known as a commentator and identity of TV and radio, known for his quips and guileless butchering of clichés – something his self-effacement could transform into light comedy. Just weeks ago his Fox Footy show, Bounce, co-hosted with his old mate Dunstall, marked its 350th episode.

Bounce was pantomime, and its silliness punctuated the weekend’s footy. It also offered a contrast to the endless faux-solemn analysis, as Frawley played the farting jester to Dunstall’s straight man. In the segment “Yesterday’s Heroes”, the two suited up in their old guernseys and subjected themselves to childish indignities. But in the clowning, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley saw something else. “He just wanted to be loved, and needed, and sometimes for some people you can give all the love you want but it’s not enough, mate,” he told SEN radio this week. “I think that was the thing for Spud.”

It was on Bounce that Frawley bestowed the weekly Golden Fist – his piss-take trophy given to the defender who had performed the round’s best spoil. Singling out this micro-feature of the game, and awarding it with a plastic fist, was jest. But it wasn’t entirely a joke: it was exactly the kind of vital but unglamorous effort that Frawley excelled at. One can easily picture his hulking frame sprinting towards a contested mark, leaping and then punching the ball out of bounds. Danny Frawley was never a contender for mark of the year.

The public is now petitioning the AFL to offer, alongside the Brownlow, a Golden Fist award for the season’s best defender – always unlikely recipients of the game’s highest individual award. Regardless of the petition’s success, one can assume the Golden Fist will live on, somehow, in perpetuity.

 

On Monday, a day after his 56th birthday, Danny Frawley drove his Toyota HiLux into a tree. He died just a few kilometres from his home town. It is a sad and confronting fact, and publicly there is a confused coyness about it.

There shouldn’t be. Frawley made the decision to speak publicly about his mental health. About his anxiety, depression, the weeks of sleepless despair. In life, he was praised for it. It is strange that we might undermine that legacy by speaking so indirectly about his death. There are professional apprehensions about reporting details of a celebrity’s suicide, but here we have the bizarre dislocation of three already public facts: that Frawley died in a car crash, that police aren’t considering it an accident, and that he suffered mental anguish. The failure to join them only thickens the fog that obscures the issue of suicide.

In his final years, Frawley began rethinking some things. “Back in the day, I was a stoic farm boy, seven generations from Ireland, potato farmers,” he told the Herald Sun’s podcast Sacked, just a few months ago. “Manning up in the past was suffering in silence. Manning up now is to put your hand up.”

And he did, but tragically it wasn’t enough. Frawley would come to realise that his most serious injuries were no mere flesh wounds. “I just thought [depression] was like a broken arm,” he told the podcast’s hosts. “I would be the first to admit I had taken my eyes off the ball.”

Danny Frawley is survived by his wife, Anita, and their three daughters.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Vale Danny Frawley". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.