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Legend of Jonathan Brown

THE media exaggerated this week when it reported that Jonathan Brown described his collision with a car while cycling as a ''hiccup''. He didn't rate the incident quite that seriously. He actually described it as ''a bit of a hiccup''.

After the car was left with a smashed windscreen and a dent in its side, the coverage made much of the Jonathan Brown ''legend'' as the ''toughest man in the game''.

On the Border Mail website, Matthew James posted: ''Thoughts are with the vehicle hit by Jonathan Brown this morning on the Gold Coast.'' Among many gags on the Fox Sports website, one poster wrote: ''Ghosts sit around the campfire and tell Jonathan Brown stories.''

Last year, 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. The detail that remains with me is that the damage to his face was such that, 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.

That detail was only one aspect of the story, the other being 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.

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 like Brown would have breathed into the old club. Not only that, football in Melbourne would have been different. Not all great players are great personalities. Jonathan Brown is both.


Five years ago, I sought an interview with Brown. The process took over a year, lots of phone messages were left, individuals approached him on my behalf. He agreed to do the story, but it just never happened. Then one day I got a message inviting me to the team hotel when Brisbane played in Melbourne.

As a sports writer, I am all too familiar with the hotel-lobby interview - a handful of rushed questions met with a series of perfunctory 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. Some tough men are merely callous. 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. (In the TV interview after this week's accident, he went out of his way to minimise the role played by the woman driver.)

At one point in his hotel room, I remarked that people like himself who become known publicly through the tabloid media end up being reduced to caricatures. ''Yes,'' he said, nodding, ''it does follow you.''

He is someone who has a lot to offer when his playing career is over, having watched the expansion of the game into Brisbane, a city that crystallises the challenges facing the AFL, being simultaneously home to reigning A-league premier Brisbane Roar, 2011 super rugby champions the Queensland Reds and, the most potent of them all, the NRL's Brisbane Broncos.

The stories about Brown's early life are the sort you hear in epics about Irish heroes like Finn MacCool. 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, the 15-year-old 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, he 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 the history of the game, 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 now the game was changing rapidly. 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 will find it interesting to watch Brown run in to kick for goal - the long run, the way he finds his rhythm. And how many of those goals has he kicked from outside 50 at big moments? His courage is beyond question but, as a footballer, he is also a fine craftsman.

Twice he has been named the AFLPA captain of the year and in 2008 no one did more to try to breath life into the Victoria v All Stars game. Living in Queensland, he had observed the power of NRL state of origin and wished his code could deliver something comparable for AFL players and their fans.

People say footy doesn't have characters any more. Brown is arguably the closest of his generation in stature to Ted (''Mr Football'') Whitten.