AFL

While most sporting memoirs paint a glossy picture of on-field moments, former Sydney Swans player Brandon Jack is not afraid to unmask the ugly side of his fleeting success. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

All guts, no glory: Brandon Jack exposes the ugly side of football

​​Brandon Jack during a Sydney Swans training session in 2013.
Credit: Matt King / Getty Images

Brandon Jack’s childhood home was something of a shrine to his famous father’s league career. When you entered the house, the first thing you saw was Garry Jack’s 1986 Kangaroos’ guernsey – on other walls were other jumpers: New South Wales or Balmain Tigers. In his new memoir, 28, Brandon describes the distinguished trophies that occupied the home, and clusters of action photos from his dad’s playing days. Occasionally, there’s a clue to the author’s future estrangement with his parents: “There would’ve been near fifty photos of him that I’d pass by dozens of times a day from the time I could walk until the day I moved out… Of the lot, there was just a single photo of me.”

It’s become rote to remark upon the cynical vacancy of most athletic memoirs, and perhaps it’s sufficient here to say that most of the criticism is deserved. Not only are they too often defined by leaden prose and the laundering of reputation, they are usually committed to upholding the public’s interest in success. Failed or fringe players rarely pen memoirs, and might expect public derision if they tried, even though “failure” is every bit as interesting as success. Brandon Jack knows this too, and the title of his exceptional memoir is testament to his fringe status as a Sydney Swan – 28 is the number of games he played in the AFL. “I saw firsthand that within the makeup of a footy club there is definitely different cliques,” Jack tells me. “There’s a chemistry there between the players who are getting picked each week, then there’s the up-and-comers who are kind of not scarred yet because there’s still potential, and then there’s this middle group that’s floating there that don’t know where [they] belong – [they’re] in and out of the team and 28 is what it is because we don’t really have a book for those people – we don’t have stories for [them] because no one finds it really interesting, but it is. ”

Jack was born in Manchester, England “in the few months between the death of Kurt Cobain and the ascension of Oasis”, which initially strikes the reader as a strange non sequitur, until the importance of music – and the effects of neglecting his own creative interests – is made apparent later. The Cobain–Oasis nexus is like a secular horoscope for Jack.

The family move to England when Garry takes a job coaching a local rugby league team, but they return to Sydney a couple of years later. With his two older brothers, Brandon shoots hoops, kicks footies and chips golf balls. Their mum drives the trio to rugby practice, and washes the grass stains from their shorts. Strangers approach Garry on the street, to ask for autographs or to reminisce about old games. On Friday nights, the family gather round the telly for the televised NRL match and share a block of Cadbury’s chocolate. Sport defines them but, Jack writes, “it became hard to tell where external pressure stopped and internal pressure started”.

Jack’s older brother is Kieren, who was the first to risk their father’s disappointment by switching codes to Aussie rules. Kieren, seven years older than Brandon, debuted for the Sydney Swans in 2007 and enjoyed a brilliant career before his retirement in 2019: one flag, 256 games, an All-Australian and, for four seasons, the club’s co-captain.

Jack admired his older brother greatly and the two remain close. It would be Kieren – alongside the Swans’ senior coach John Longmire – who would tell Jack, in the club’s boardroom, that he had earned his first seniors match. That evening, June 6, 2013, Jack wrote in his journal: “At the age of 19 and 5 days I will make my debut for the Sydney Swans. Trained the house down … Nothing changes – just play my normal game.”

Jack’s memoir is studded with journal excerpts, which are striking for the frequency and intensity of their personal affirmations: “I am hard. I am fast. I am clean”, “I am a fierce competitor. I am an aggressive tackler. I cannot be defended with my speed and agility”, “Be the hungriest, hardest cunt on the field.”

The excerpts aren’t terribly flattering – variously petulant, monomaniacal, paranoid – and very few players would have included them. At least, very few fringe players would have included them, because the ugliness of the devotion doesn’t have the legitimising corollary of success.

“Every young player would have been using mantras like that, I just happened to write them down,” Jack says. “And as a first-year player, you had to say ‘I am the best so-and-so in the competition’ even if it’s not true, because you have to will yourself to become that. And the thing is, if you then become that player, that’s seen as great, they convinced themselves of it from that age, and it was always going to happen. But if you don’t become that player, it’s then seen as some deranged sort of thing and – what’s that old definition for insanity? It’s doing the same thing again and again and again, expecting a different result. So there’s all these interesting ways that motivation can be seen, but often how it’s seen depends on the result.”

Perhaps these affirmations did resemble those of other young aspirants – but it’s possible the intensity of Jack’s were greater because he wasn’t just trying to persuade himself of his ability but his very interest in the game.

The word “courage” is glibly attached to far too much writing, but I think this rightly qualifies. Jack hasn’t included his journals because he lacks self-awareness – the opposite is true. He doesn’t want to airbrush his image. His book’s epigraph, provided by the poet Walt Whitman, signals this: “Of ugliness – To me there is just as much in it as there is in beauty…”

The ugliness that flows from Jack’s ambivalence is one of the book’s great themes. In his five years at the Swans, Jack seesaws between discipline and self-destruction, passion and disgust. 

This is the first in a three-part series on football player Brandon Jack.

Read part two: Brandon Jack’s commitment decreases as his bitterness grows.

Read part three: Brandon Jack pursues a writing career.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "All guts, no glory".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.