Born to lead
A strong-minded kid has grown into one of the AFL's finest captains, a formidable competitor but a man still strongly bonded with his home town.
THE moment when I realised Luke Hodge had that indefinable but nonetheless real quality called "presence" came halfway through our interview. It was like bumping my head on a low doorway I hadn't spotted.
I had asked him if he carried a rib injury in the 2008 grand final. "I was OK," he replied. That's the sort of brush-off you expect from an AFL player of his standing, but this was something I needed to know as it goes to the story of a famous game. I put the question again, in a slightly different way, "But did you carry a rib injury into the 2008 grand final?" "I was OK," he repeated.
The change in tone was only slight but it was accompanied by a look from a pair of arrestingly clear eyes that told me not to ask again. Luke Hodge was OK in the 2008 grand final because Luke Hodge said he was. He has that strength of mind which the Romans prized and called "firmitas". Just as he imposed himself on the actual game, he imposes himself on the history of the game.
Three years ago, I put in a media request with the Hawthorn Football Club, asking whether it would be possible for me to spend an hour driving with Hodge around his home town of Colac. You can learn a lot doing a lap of someone's home town with them, particularly someone described by his first AFL coach, Peter Schwab, as "strongly bonded with the place he's from".
Hodge's father, Bryson, says "Luke's mates he'd go to war with" are his mates from Colac. He says his son has country values. Luke's wife, Lauren, is his girlfriend from the days when both attended Colac's Trinity College. When I ask Luke Hodge what growing up in the country means, he says, "Always having mates who lived close by that you could play footy and cricket and basketball with."
His father — who has also been unable to find out whether his son carried an injury into the 2008 grand final — says Luke was "always a strong-minded kid". As a boy, when asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he had only one answer, "I want to play football on the MCG at 10 past two on a Saturday afternoon."
He won an A-grade basketball best and fairest when he was 15. That same year, having starred at the AFL's under-16 national carnival, he was chosen to play seniors with Colac. Disregarding opposition from his wife, Bryson declared his son "good to go".
In his second game, he was named at centre half-forward. His opponent, the Cobden captain-coach, was what is called a top country footballer. "Luke ran rings around him," says Bryson. "He kicked six or seven goals. One was from 60 metres out on the boundary. After the match, I said to him, 'Mate, you can play'."
Hodge was drafted by Hawthorn and selected in the Victorian under-17 cricket squad in the same year. He is remembered in Colac as having been a genuinely quick bowler (he says he was erratic and didn't know where the ball was going). His father says his son "had a fast bowler's temperament — he put the fear of God into you and then got you out".
Bryson Hodge says one lesson Luke had to learn along the way was how to control his temper, but from the start he had two special gifts in any sport he played — he could read where the ball was going next and he could organise his teammates. Recalls Bryson, "He was the sort of bowler who'd make a field change and then get a wicket because of it. I'd say, 'Why did you put that bloke there?' and he'd say, 'Because I knew I could get him out that way'."
I eventually meet Luke Hodge in the Hawthorn offices overlooking Waverley Park, Hawthorn's training ground and the site of the Hawks' 1991 premiership win. Encountering the Hawthorn captain for the first time in the home of his club a fortnight into a finals campaign, Hodge actually reminded me of a hawk — he's clear-sighted and has a single intent.
When I ask him why he chose footy ahead of cricket, he says because his "mates" were in the football team. He uses the word "mate" like he means it.
Initially, his loyalty to his Colac mates did him no favours at Hawthorn, which had taken him ahead of Chris Judd in the draft. "Judd knew from the start what was required," says Peter Schwab. "Luke didn't."
He'd still have a few beers at weekends with his mates and possibly a pizza. Then Hawthorn learnt a whirlwind left-arm bowler named L. Hodge was shining for Lorne Cricket Club. A bout of osteitis pubis further retarded his early development, but once he got the necessary fitness his progress was assured.
Then, in the 2008 grand final, he proved himself a master of the game — positioned behind Hawthorn's defensive wall, he controlled the event like a quarterback and won the Norm Smith Medal.
Hawthorn is a club with an impressive list of past champions. It is instructive to hear the regard in which they hold their present captain.
Peter Hudson, one of the great full-forwards in the history of the game, says, "If they pulled together Hawthorn's best-ever team right now, he'd be in it. He's so beautifully composed — he's cool under pressure, he's got excellent disposal and all the courage you could ask for. He can play forward, he can play midfield, he can go to the back line and do so well."
Schwab agrees, saying Hodge would be "a terrific player in any era — he's smart, hard, flexible and he's an excellent kick".
When I ask Leigh Matthews if he thinks Hodge is a great player, he replies with two questions of his own, "What do you mean by great? How many great players have there been?" But then he says, "I've got a lot of time for him — I'm a great fan of his whole persona, not just how he goes about his footy."
Matthews called the Hawks' qualifying final against Collingwood two weeks ago. The match went 17 minutes without a goal, the deadlock being broken by Hodge, who scrambled one from the forward pocket. In the commentary box, Matthews, with genuine appreciation in his voice, said, "Some players just will themselves to the contest."
When I remind Matthews of this, he says in his classically understated way, "When something needs to be done, there's always a fair chance he's going to do it."
Another former champion, Dermott Brereton, sides with Matthews on the issue of classifying Hodge. "He probably needs to finish his career before we mark him as one of the greats, but his competitiveness is extraordinary. He plays the game in the spirit a father would love to see his son play — he gives it and he wears it and at the end of the match he compliments his opponent."
Hudson believes Hodge's natural ability as a leader is his biggest asset. "He's a really approachable sort of guy — he gives freely of his time. He's not someone who doesn't talk to people or can't be bothered with people. He looks like a leader. When he's not on the field, there's a feeling that Hawthorn is missing something."
Hodge replaced Sam Mitchell as captain at the end of 2010. As Hudson puts it, "There must have been an overwhelming groundswell to replace an exceptionally good player as captain."
When I ask Hodge about captaincy, he says, "You've got to understand your teammates as best you can. We've got 47 different blokes on our list. You have to react differently to different ones, some you hit between the eyes with your message, some you find other ways of telling things. It's a lot to do with communication and relationships, and also leading by your actions."
He refers to recent comments made by former Hawthorn great Don Scott, saying Hawthorn's not the club it was and the players aren't as close as they used to be. "I've got 47 bloody good mates here. I'm as close as I've ever been at a footy club. There's still plenty of passion at Hawthorn. This is a great club to be involved in."
He talks about the support the players get from the members, about "running out to a big cheer and hearing the crowd when Cyril or Buddy do something. This is a great thing to be part of."
I take him back to Cyril Rioli and Lance Franklin. Of Cyril, he says with a grin, "There's not many things he can't do. He's so competitive, but he's also one of the most selfless blokes at the footy club." He calls Cyril "Junior", the name by which Rioli is known in his home town of Darwin. At Hawthorn, says Hodge, "Junior is so respected by everyone."
He tells me the Hawks' philosophy — "don't do anything over the top, do your job and try and make your teammate better". What he notes about "Buddy" is "how he's matured and developed over the last few years. His whole focus now is on us winning. Look at how many goal assists he has."
Of himself, he says with stark simplicity, "I've got a massive burning in my gut to play."
That's about where we are in our conversation when a Hawthorn media officer taps me on the shoulder. Time's up. "Ah, well," Hodge says with one of his slight grins, "have a good day." Coming from him, it means something.
A HAWK-EYE VIEW OF HODGE
"I'm a great fan of his whole persona, not just how he goes about his footy."
"When he's not on the field, there's a feeling that Hawthorn is missing something."
"He plays the game in the spirit a father would love to see his son play."
"Hodge would be a terrific player in any era — he's smart, hard, flexible and he's an excellent kick."