Over the past decade, when people have declared that there are no characters in footy any more, I’ve thought, “Well, you can’t have met Jonathan Brown”.
In 2007, I sought an interview with Brown. The process took over a year. Then one day I got a message inviting me to the team hotel when Brisbane Lions played in Melbourne.
As a sports writer, I am all too familiar with the hotel-lobby interview – a handful of rushed questions eliciting a series of half-replies. Brown invited me to his room, meeting me like a genial publican, ordering coffee from room service, insisting on pouring mine. And then we yarned for a couple of hours.
It would be a pity if Brown's reputation as the toughest man in the game obscured the fact that he's a thinker and a decent human being.
At one point in his hotel room, I remarked that people like himself who become known publicly through the tabloid media invariably end up being reduced to caricatures. ''Yes,'' he said, nodding, ''it does follow you.''
In 2011, Brown and I spoke at his old school, Emmanuel College in Warrnambool. Over the course of the night, he opened up about one of the two bad facial injuries he received in 2011. As the ambulance raced towards a hospital, he overheard a discussion among the medics about whether they should cut his throat and insert a pipe to give him a clear airway.
What made the story so memorable was the laconic manner in which it was delivered. Brown is an old-fashioned country boy. He likes to yarn, to tell a story and hear one back. One of his favourite people to yarn with is Fitzroy legend Kevin ''Bulldog'' Murray.
The stories about Brown's early life are the sort you hear in ancient epics. When he was two, he was left for a day with another family. The family dog bit Jonathan. What did two-year-old Jonathan do? He bit the dog.
''I was a footballer from day dot,'' he told me. At 15, he made his senior debut for South Warrnambool. His second match was at Camperdown. ''There are some pretty tough farmers around Camperdown,'' he observed. There were ''three or four'' all-in brawls and three send-offs. By the end of the match, Brown and one other player were all that was left of the South Warrnambool forward line. ''It was a pretty quick learning curve.''
In his final year at school, he went for lunch each day at the pub but, as he informed the audience at the Emmanuel College function last year, the man-boy always wore his school tie out of respect for the school.
At 18, he was playing centre half-forward in one of the best teams in AFL history, going on to play in three premiership sides.
A number of suspensions in his middle years caused him to be sent away for anger management but, as he told me, the problem was never anger. He had learnt the game in places such as Camperdown and the game was changing. One of the signature aspects of his career is how he adapted to those changes.
As a young man, he had been a promising fast bowler, and anyone interested in the technique of fast bowling would find it interesting to watch Brown run in to kick for goal – the long run, the way he found his rhythm. And how often did he kick goals from outside 50 at big moments? His courage was legendary but, as a footballer, he was also a fine craftsman.
Twice he was named the AFL Players Association captain of the year and in 2008 no one did more to try to breathe life into the Victoria v All Stars game.
Brown would have played for Fitzroy under the father-son rule had the Roys hung on as a club. One can only imagine the life that a supremely talented young giant such as Brown would have breathed into the old club.