AFL

After debuting for the Sydney Swans as a teenager, Brandon Jack’s AFL career fails to flourish and he soon becomes bitter and unmotivated. What he needs – and discovers – is a new passion.

By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Searching for purpose: Brandon Jack’s dwindling passion for AFL

Brandon Jack (left) and brother Kieren Jack run laps at the SCG in 2014.
Credit: Matt King / Getty Images

This is part two of a three-part series.

Brandon Jack wasn’t expecting to get a call from the Swans asking him to come train. He hadn’t been drafted, and was planning on stocking shelves at the local Kmart so he could save money to backpack overseas. But the call came. He was 18.

So anxious was Jack about missing his first training session that he rehearsed the drive to the ground the night before, memorised the route in case his GPS failed, set two alarm clocks for the next morning and then committed to hours of solo drills in his backyard.

There are sweet, earnest moments like this in Jack’s career. Moments when his hunger eclipses his ambivalence. But there are plenty of darker moments, too.

Jack describes the oppressive conformity enforced by footy culture, and ponders the “mutilation” of his own personality. He describes club nicknames and their usefulness in mocking – and blunting – individual difference. “Not standing out is a big thing at a footy club,” he writes, and we’re left with the fragile contradiction of players who have the courage to risk spinal injury but are too afraid to read a book on the team bus.

Jack describes the monotony of drills, airport lounges and hotels – especially monotonous if you’re selected as an “emergency” player, as Jack often was, and so occupy a dreaded netherworld between reserves and seniors.

If an individual has breached club rules – failed to show up for training, say – Jack describes the collective punishment: knuckles at 5am. This is where the team gathers at dawn at the car park of a local beach to perform push-ups on the asphalt surface, and are forced to punishingly alternate between palms and fists. Knuckles are invariably bloodied and bruised.

Jack describes his juvenile sense of grandeur in his early days at the Swans, the vodka and VIP booths and the buzz of his own sense of exceptionalism. He argues with bouncers, snorts lines off toilet cisterns, and briefly sees himself as the world’s axis. But the obnoxious jock isn’t a good fit for young Jack, as when he feels faintly embarrassed for not having slept with more women and feels compelled to invite a random woman – met hours before online – to his hotel room in Perth. He immediately regrets it and pretends to be stricken with guilt about betraying an imaginary partner in Sydney as a reason for not sleeping with her. Jack’s recently released memoir, 28, wrestles with a few heavy and destructive expectations – as a son, a man, an athlete.

Jack describes manically redoubling his efforts in his third year to become an entrenched seniors player. He wakes at 4am each day to perform 100 push-ups and 200 sit-ups on a yoga mat on his bedroom floor, but even as his physique becomes increasingly sculpted, the game doesn’t become any easier – at least not in seniors. At some point – after two or three years – Jack realises that, Jesus, maybe he’s just not good enough.

He tells me he’s unsure if the relationship between talent, hard work and success is all that clear. “I think we try and create a correlation there between the best players are the ones that work the hardest,” Jack says. “I’ve played with some mighty great players who didn’t train that hard. And I’ve played with some average players who train the house down. And there’s maybe a psychological aspect to winning performance and being able to translate that into games.”

Jack also describes playing with injuries – and downplaying them. While concussion is never mentioned in the book – and Jack never suffered one – the culture of toughness and competitiveness he describes, and the incentive to disguise injury, brings it to mind. “I know that if we were in a team meeting, and watching tape of the previous game, I would have loved some tape of me running with the flight of the ball and taking a big, courageous mark,” he says. “That’s terrible to say, but it’s hard to get a sense of your future through to young, competitive players. It’s terrifying to think about. My brother Kieren had this pretty serious concussion a couple of years ago and I remember talking to him the next day, and he was just a shell of himself. He was frail and it was very scary to see.”

Of Brandon Jack’s 28 games in the AFL, only one of them was played in his last two years with the club. These two years were marked by decreasing commitment and increasing bitterness. And drinking. So much drinking. He becomes a ringleader for the scorned fringe, organising loose and embittered booze-ups – even as he dominates in the reserves league.

There are blackouts and lots of vomiting. He’s increasingly drawn to music – to both listening to and writing it – and while his love is sincere and long-held, the punk rock also has a way of pleasantly intensifying his sense of victimhood and outsider status.

There’s a subtle but poignant symmetry in Jack’s career: early on, he pretends he’s not injured so that he might be selected for the seniors. He manipulates unobserved stress tests to pretend he’s fine, though his ankle resembles an overripe plum and is incapable of bearing weight.

Four years later and Jack’s pretending to be injured when he’s not. Leaving a hospital where an MRI scan confirms his fitness, the coach calls with an opportunity for a seniors game. Jack knows that few would knock this back – he would have done anything for it not long before – and is a little astonished to hear himself say of his match-fit ankle, “It’s no good.”

His resignation was then almost total, but the ultimate moment – of meeting with the senior coach to confirm his 2017 delisting, in the same room in which he was first told he was in the seniors – is still awful. Jack feigns an air of relaxation and laughs genially, but only because his words are stuck in his throat. He knows that if he speaks, he’ll break down. Not for the first time, coach John Longmire tells him he should be proud. “You left no stone unturned.” The meeting’s over in minutes and Jack trundles off to a clubroom shower to sob.

I asked Jack if he thought he’d still be playing had he been a regular – if his career had been more like his older brother’s – or if that ambivalence would have survived. “It’s an interesting question,” he says. “I know that even when I was at the closest point to being a regular, so in my first year, for example, when I played a fair few games and was on track to becoming a regular and I wasn’t yet burned by being in and out of the team at that point, well I still don’t remember feeling like that was my thing. You know, that that was my purpose. I remember still having to force myself to feel like football was the natural thing for me.”

Footy wasn’t all bad. Far from it. Jack’s not self-pitying, and he tells me he’d never trade his brief career. As complicated as his relationship with the sport is, footy gave Jack cherished friendships and moments of delirious pride and excitement.

The enormous challenge was writing about it – something he once vowed never to do. And this is where things really get interesting. 

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

Read part one: Brandon Jack exposes the ugly side of football.

Read part three: Brandon Jack pursues a writing career.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Searching for purpose".

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