Brad Johnson, our new AFL Hall of Famer, is pretty much my all time favourite Western Bulldogs player. Alongside Chris Grant. And Bob Murphy. And Dale Morris. And Daniel Cross. Well, he's right up there, that's all I'm saying.
Three hundred and sixty four times, over 16 years, he ran out for us, doing us proud in the red, white and blue. He grew from an enthusiastic young bloke with a bad haircut and erratic, wonky kicking style, into a dominant, dangerous power forward despite his size.
His greatness isn't always recognised, even among our own fans. I don't know why, as to me, alongside great natural talent and one of the best work ethics you could hope to see, he epitomised leadership, integrity and loyalty.
And he was such a joy to watch; with his infectious enthusiasm he never seemed to lose a sense of fun, the sheer love of kicking a goal, the star-struck aura of being out there, playing footy, having a great time with his mates.
It's still a bit staggering to think that in 2006, Johno finished second in the Coleman medal with 74 goals. He kicked more than 50 in each of the following two seasons. Despite being an elite midfielder for most of his career, he actually played to an even higher standard after his transition to the forward line in his late 20s and early 30s. The fact that he was such a hard match up - combining the gut running and athleticisim of a midfielder with marking prowess and uncanny goal-sense - were big factors in our tilts at the flag in that era.
This week, it's been a little bit hard to be upbeat about our club, as our relevance and future have been questioned. The sustained period of success that Brad was part of - and integral to - has passed, and hard times are here again, and we have to learn all over again that a) losing sucks and b) that this too will pass (It's worth remembering that Brad was part of one of our more dismal seasons in 1996, captured in The Year of the Dogs, where we copped some fearsome drubbings and were only saved from a wooden spoon by poor Fitzroy's death throes.)
So it feels like a good time take a trip down memory lane and reflect on what I've written before about Brad Johnson. Because if ever a player could remind us of what's important about our club, and reinforce what we can be proud of (while inevitably recalling some of the sadness about our recent missed opportunities that's now hardwired into our DNA) it's Johno:
When the then Footscray Football Club drafted a local boy in 1993, he was pictured on TV beaming from ear to ear (actually that was his default facial expression, but we didn’t know it at the time), when his name was called out by the club he had barracked for all his life.
Brad was a captain who led us through what was one of our most successful eras, a member of the Bulldogs Team of the Century, a three-time best and fairest winner, and an All-Australian captain. I loved watching his brave marks, his relentless running, and his freakish goal sense (a mid-air soccer goal against Brisbane in 2005 stands out). Playing at centre half forward vs North Melbourne against the revered Glenn Archer and driving him to distraction by being so damn good that Archer punched him in the stomach (later being so embarrassed about this that he rang Brad to apologise). Showing rare anger against John Barnes (a rude gesture was involved after the final siren) because he'd decked him in a match against Essendon in 2000 (come on, we all know the result of that one). Coming back on the field when we were down and out against Sydney in a 2010 final, bandaged up after a severe head gash, and performing heroic feats that dragged us back into a match that seemed lost.
It was his second last ever match, though he didn't know it then.
There were never, as far as I recall, any dragged out contract negotiations with Brad. Never any whispers that he was holding out for more money, or, sick of the premiership drought, looking to bail out and get a flag elsewhere.
There's spine-tingling footage on YouTube (see below) where the surviving 54 premiership players watch highlights of the match at the Yarraville Sun Theatre, alongside members of the 2009 team. Brad sits with Charlie Sutton, the premiership captain, and one of his predecessors in the number six guernsey. Brad asks him how he prepared, what it was like. You feel he's asking as an awestruck fan, trying to drink it all in, not just as a player.
Brad commentates on Fox Footy now, having handed on the famous number six to Luke Dalhaus. The smile is just as wide, though the receding hairline reminds us that he is no longer the starry-eyed local kid living out his dream. He still picks the Bulldogs in the Herald-Sun tipping competition on an inordinate number of occasions, defying all logic, reminding us that he's still a fan underneath after all.
The last time we saw Brad in our jumper, though, even his famous smile was dimmed. In his last game, another preliminary final loss, he was attempting to console Nathan Eagleton, another retiree, as they sat in the rooms. Brad knew that, unlike Charlie, 'premiership player' would not be added to the list of accolades, no matter how close it seemed that day in the Sun theatre.
Brad in fact played in five losing preliminary finals.
Looking back at them, this week, the ever-upbeat Johno (even Bob Murphy once said: "I can't believe anyone can be that positive all the time!") is quoted as having no regrets.
“The first couple I was only young and ‘97 was the one (that got away). In ‘98 we weren’t in it as Adelaide blew us off the park in the first quarter, Andrew McLeod was on fire.
“The last three we couldn’t have given any more. As a group and being captain at that time you walked off, while bitterly disappointed that we didn’t win one of those prelims to get through, but you knew that our effort and what we put out there was everything.
“We didn’t walk off going, ‘What if?’. Obviously there are always some things you look back at and think if we had of done this different at this time it might have been a different story.
“But the one thing you can sit back and never question was what was put out there from the group. It helps lessen the pain in some ways.”
Congratulations to Brad Johnson, Hall of Famer, and so nearly premiership captain, for the pride and honour you have brought our club.
Here's the video of the 2009 team with the 54 premiership heroes:
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.