Nat Fyfe wins 2015 Brownlow medal
He missed four of Freo’s last six games, yet Nat Fyfe still managed to bring home the AFL’s biggest individual honour.
September 29, 2015 – 9:16AM
It’s got almost everything, the Brownlow. Skinny orange women wearing taffeta sheaths with odd-shaped holes cut in them. Oversized footballers stuffed into undersized penguin suits. A bloke reading out numbers for three hours.
All it needs is a meat tray raffle; no best-and-fairest night is complete without one. But this being a do for the whole league, not just one club, it needs to be a big tray – say the tray of a ute – filled to the brim with chops and straps and sides of beef. Toss in a couple of tuna, maybe a gummy shark, and let’s call it a surf and turf. Hell, why not throw in the ute as well?
The Brownlow is baffling television. It really shoudn’t work, yet somehow it does.
Chris Judd of the Carlton Blues and Rebecca Judd. Photo: Getty Images
For a start, it’s a bit like time itself – it just goes on and on, without beginning or end. Before the Brownlow there’s the red carpet, and before that the build-up to the red carpet. After the Brownlow we cut away from all those beefy blokes in tuxes sitting around tables at Crown to … Talking Footy, with a bunch of beefy blokes sitting around a table at Crown. Only this time they’re in the foyer outside the venue, rather than in it. Phew, that’s a relief.
Innovations on the recently-bought-by-the-Chinese Swisse red carpet include a multi-screen split that shows the parading lovelies in slo-mo, as well as a gripping shot of the empty red carpet. It isn’t interactive, but now the People’s Party is on the case we should have a camera in every crevice of Crown for next year’s event.
There are lots of bumps on the red carpet this year, many of them deliberate. The wives will likely get around 40 weeks each for those off-the-ball incidents.
There’s a hook-up from Perth, because the Eagles have decided Melbourne was too far to fly. Let’s hope they buck up their ideas before the weekend or it’s going to be a very one-sided grand final indeed.
Nic Naitanui is just Nic Nat to the reporter; he arrives with his lovely partner Patti Whack. Medal favourite Nathan Fyfe – who finished the weekend’s preliminary final with a fractured leg – hobbles in on a cane and professes he’d “rather be playing and getting ready for a granny”. The nation’s blue-rinse set collectively swoon.
Chris Judd and wife Rebecca rock up, for possibly their last Brownlow night, a potentially fatal blow to the paparazzi. She’s wearing a dress made from a squizillion beads, which were sewn the night before by a legion of busy house elves. “You can hear me coming a mile away,” she says. Apropos of nothing, Chris says the beds are comfy at Crown. Hopefully the rooms are soundproof too.
Suddenly – well, OK, finally – we’re inside the room and it’s time for the Brownlows to kick off in the traditional way. With a James Blunt song. About bonfires. “Your love is like a soldier, loyal till you die,” sings Captain Blunt, and I think it’s dedicated to those of us who will stay till the bitter end, about 367 hours, 26 minutes and 15 seconds from now.
“It’s a Brownlow count like no other,” says the voice-over man. “And here’s your host – Bruce McAvaney.”
Just like for all the other Brownlow counts.
AFL boss Gillon McLachlan – having survived a bruising encounter with brother and red-carpet host Hamish outside – tells us “tonight’s event is a properly constituted meeting of the AFL, with eight commissioners present”.
Man, if they drink like this at every AFL board meeting it’s a miracle they get anything done. But I suppose it explains the Grand Final pre-game show at least.
And then we’re off. Twenty-three exhilarating rounds of “one vote, two votes, three votes”. Whatever did we do for fun before this?
Last year’s winner, Matt Priddis, introduces the round 1 highlights reel, then McLachlan runs through the votes at a serious clip, like he knows everyone is just hanging out for the real event – the drawing of the night’s meat tray raffle-winning ticket. Jeremy Cameron (GWS) intros round 2, and as a presenter he makes a terrific footballer. He does get to mention himself in the highlights reel, though. Is that even allowed? But he doesn’t pull a vote.
Third round is Nat Fyfe’s turn, and the big fella nails his delivery and has a great highlight reel of hits (players colliding with players, with posts, with fences and with umpires) and misses (air kicks, open goals and even a kick in the wrong direction). But he doesn’t get a vote either.
Note to anyone asked to introduce a round next year: just say no.
Finally, it’s time for a young footballer with presence to grab the microphone. Lachie Sunderland, the 2014 Auskicker of the year.
The kid tells Brent Harvey, “You played 216 games before I was born.” Ouch.
He asks Joel Selwood “how to get a beautiful girl like Brittany”. Smooth.
He chats to Brad Scott, who asks him if he’s a North supporter. “No, I’m a Geelong supporter.”
“Well how do you know I’m not Chris,” a Scott brother asks him. “I don’t know.” Stumped.
Finally, he asks Chris Judd this: “My grandad goes to the library every Wednesday when he’s retired. What will you do now you’re retired?” Zinger.
By round five there’s a little bit of noise in the room as the votes and the booze begin to flow. Bruce McAvaney is on stage with the leader board, talking a little more excitedly and urgently to try to get the attention of the rowdy crowd. Some big bloke up the back will surely start tapping a fork on the side of his stubby and calling for “a little hush please” any second now.
By the round 7 highlights reel a clear pattern has begun to emerge: We love screamers; we love a bit of biff; we love to see blokes hit in the face by the ball, or hit in the balls by anything; and we love to see the umpires come a cropper. Yeah, goals are pretty good too.
After round eight Nat Fyfe is a clear leader, with 17 votes. We seamlessly cut to a bloke who introduces himself as “Matthew Campbell, live at CrownBet”; in the background is the Brownlow room. He gives the live odds. Then we cut to the ad break. So that was technically an in-program promotion of gambling, with live odds? ACMA, are you paying attention?
Back to the broadcast and it’s time for goal of the year, introduced by “everyone’s favourite Tiger” and Daisy Pearce, captain of the Melbourne women’s footy team.
Suddenly, it feels like the Oscars.
“You’re no stranger to kicking the odd sausage roll,” says Richo, single-handedly reviving the dead art of rhyming slang. “In fact I’m not either,” he adds, pummelling chivalry into the ground with a left-right combo of what-about-me. “I kicked 800, but anyway…”
Eddie Betts wins goal of the year for a left footer from the very point where the 50 hits the touchline (not bad for a right-footed player).
“Just take us through what was going through your mind,” says Daisy. “I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that you might have been trying to centre that.”
“Ah,” starts Eddie, ever the raconteur. “To be honest no, I was having a crack, but. I’m just glad it went through.”
He’s available for weddings, parties, anything, is Eddie. Tells a terrific joke, too.
After round 10, Bruce is back on stage, bobbing around excitedly like a kid who’s just scored and scoffed the WizFizz bag at the Show. “We’ve not seen a leader board like this,” he tells us. “This is a remarkable leader board. And the Nat Fyfe story is a remarkable one.”
Cue the mini-profile of said Nat Fyfe. He grew up in the country. He loved playing footy as a kid. He now plays footy as an adult. He has long hair. If there were any hurdles to overcome they must have been at Little Athletics, because they’re not in this utterly unremarkable story.
By round 11, Fyfe has 26 votes, which was enough to win last year. We’re not even halfway through. Now that is remarkable.
Jim Stynes’ widow Samantha presents the community award to Carlton’s Dennis Armfield for his work with drug addicts. Judging from the clips they show, they’re all about six years old. Then we cut back to Bruce, and he looks like he’s about to fall asleep at the podium. He’s got the noddies.
After round 14, Fyfe is streaking away from the pack. He has 29 votes; last season’s winner, Matt Priddis, is second on 19.
There’s a touching moment as Adelaide’s chairman Rob Chapman takes to the stage to talk about the night Crows coach Phil Walsh was murdered. He pays tribute to “the overwhelming support and genuine care shown to us by you, the broader football community,” and says footy “is a wonderful game made up of equally wonderful people”.
Then it’s Mick Molloy’s turn. Oh dear.
He’s on a small round stage out in the middle of the room, like Bono prowling through the crowd at a U2 concert. Only without the prowling.
“Nat Fyfe, good to see you’re carrying on the rich tradition of the memorable hairstyle,” he starts, throwing to a clip from the 1987 ceremony, with some shocking dos atop the bonces of Dermott Brereton, Wayne Carey and a bunch of others. “I think Tony Lockett and the mullet were the big winners.”
Some other lame stuff follows, then a tour (allegedly) of Chris Judd’s “man cave”, featuring what appear to be the antlers of some sort of hooved beast on the wall. “They’re not antlers,” Molloy jokes, “they’re his original shoulders”.
And with that, he throws – or do you call it grasping for a lifeline? – back to Bruce.
“Good luck to the Tigers for next year,” the host says.
“Thanks Bruce. What could go wrong?”
“How long have we got,” shoots back Bruce. Laughter all round. Well, from the two of them at least.
After round 15, Cameron Ling asks Fyfe if he can relax at all. The 24-year-old is composed, humble, and seemingly genuine when he says: “I think the Phil Walsh thing really just reminds us that this is a celebration of all footy people, it’s not so much about who wins tonight.”
Besides, he adds: “I think I’m dusted from here. They’re all coming over the hill”.
Well, yes and no. Everyone knows his form and fitness tailed off towards the end of the season, but by round 17 Fyfe is on 31 and Priddis on 21. Priddis could win but it’s a long shot.
Round 19 is introduced as the one where Adam Goodes came back “from a week off”. Where was he, Vanuatu? Whatever you do, don’t mention the race issue. I may have, but I think I got away with it.
There’s a cross to the hotel at Lake Grace, Fyfe’s hometown (pop: 500), where just about every able-bodied inhabitant has gathered to cheer “Fyfee, Fyfee, Fyfee”. They workshopped that chant all week, bless.
Priddis is up to 25 votes now, with the Swans’ Dan Hannebery and Hawthorn’s Sam Mitchell a little too far back to snatch it on 22 apiece. In round 21, Priddis pulls another two votes, taking him to 27. Two rounds to go, and Fyfe is static. Can Priddis catch him?
OK, to all the sceptics out there, this is what happens every year. The Brownlows begin as an annoyance – “really, is this all that’s on?” – and after a few rounds, maybe seduced by the highlights packages or the prospect of someone getting rat-faced and doing something completely inappropriate on camera (sadly, not this year), and maybe fuelled by a few simpatico brews at home, you’re in. And now, you’re on the edge of your seat. Soon, you’ll be saying, “No way” or “Well done, he deserved it”, or “Wait, did I just spend three and a half hours watching a best and fairest medal count? Is my life really so empty?”
Trust me. It really could happen to you. It happens to me every year.
Anyway, so here we are, round 22 and again there’s no votes for Fyfe. But nor is there for Priddis. And with that, it’s over. He’s won.
A microphone mysteriously appears at Fyfe’s table. From the stage, Bruce asks: “With one round to go, Nat, you’ve won the Brownlow Medal, mate. Are you going to be OK to come up and join us here or do you want me to come down there after round 23?”
“I’ll be all right but I might get going now,” says the injured Fyfe. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
He doesn’t move. He can’t. He’s surrounded by well-wishers.
Gillon McLachlan races through the final round like a man who knows he’s standing between a pack of burly men and the bar.
As Fyfe finally gets up – disappointingly, leaving his walking stick behind – the orchestra swells, just like when Luke Skywalker goes up to get his medal at the end of Star Wars.
It’s the same one-two as last year, Bruce notes as Fyfe takes to the stage.
“Yeah I’m pretty happy to keep that tradition going for the next few years if Matt agrees,” says Fyfe.
Bruce asks him about playing injured last week, though if Tony Jones were here he’d rule it a comment rather than a question. “When we found out later you were playing with a broken leg, it was just extraordinary, really,” he says, his little-man love oozing out of every pore.
“Once you declare yourself fit to play, you have an obligation to fulfil your role,” says Fyfe, who really does seem a level-headed and deeply committed young chap, just the sort of soldier James Blunt was singing about all those hours (or was it days?) ago. “In hindsight maybe I should have let someone who was fit and healthy play, but I live and die for the Dockers and I wanted to do everything I could to help them.”
He pays tribute to his family, who have been “nothing but supportive all the way through of everything but my hair, to be honest”. Remarkable.
Bruce has done his homework. He says he read somewhere that as a kid, young Nat Fyfe “didn’t take a footy to bed, you took a notepad to work on strategies”.
“These stores get glorified, don’t they,” says Fyfe.
Well, maybe. “I was pretty fascinated in centre square bounce set-ups and stoppages, always keen to get an edge,” says Fyfe. “But as a nine-year-old it was pretty hard to convince the other blokes to get on board.”
Fyfe says he was a pretty scrawny kid; Bruce says “I still am”, which gets him a squeeze on the bicep from the big fella, and draws an “aw-shucks” smile from Bruce.
Fyfe says the medal belongs to the whole team. “Bruce, you could probably win a Brownlow with Aaron Sandilands hitting it down your throat,” he says.
As it all winds down to more footy, Bruce McAvaney helpfully sums up how we feel. Because he knows. Oh yes, he knows.
“We’ve all loved Nat Fyfe’s footy,” says the smitten Bruce. “And I think we’ve all fallen in love with him a bit tonight.”
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