Rugby League

Brian Johnson, premiership-winning St George fullback, dead aged just 59

Has there ever been a former footballer with a fate so unfair as Brian Johnson, the blond haired St George fullback who died too young of a disease at odds with his lifestyle?

The 1979 premiership fullback was a teetotaller, a healthy eater and a fitness guru but died aged 59 of dementia and its associated problems of wasting.

"Sad" has been the dominant word of the mobile phone texts of ex Dragons lamenting a death we have been expecting for four years, ahead of his funeral in Dapto Wednesday.

How can a guy who scolded us on end of season trips for drinking too much; who finished up the front in all those 400 metre circuits of Kogarah Oval; who studied diet and health as a Physical Education teacher; who, when he and wife Karen could not have children, adopted two little boys ...  how could a man lead such a moral, decent and healthy life, yet be cruelly taken by a disease we do not understand?

Sure, some will say he is the victim of his career on the football field...too many head knocks.

Yet he was a fullback, not a combative forward.

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In fact, we would chide Brian for his tendency to slow up when the defence swept menacingly towards him, gently dubbing him "Better Brakes," suggesting he make the opposition earn the tackle.

He would argue, quite reasonably, that there is no point in getting belted when he could cover his head against the swinging arms.

Once, when an over-zealous trainer ran the boys into the ground at the Tuesday night training session after a loss, he went home to his PE textbooks and underlined the relevant pages demonstrating how punishing players can be counter productive.

He then printed them off and handed them to me at the next training session.

When I replaced him as fullback for Glenn Burgess in 1985, he volunteered, "Burgo is playing better than me." And on the day of that year's grand final, when he played in the successful reserve grade premiership team, he said, "I want you guys to win more than anything." He played with Warrington later that year, winning trophies with Les Boyd, the former Wests and Manly international who became the godfather of his two children.

I once stayed with their families in England, sitting at a table with two men of vastly different reputations, musing silently of the days Les fired up at face slapping while Brian preferred to turn the other cheek.

But the game bonds in ways outsiders do not understand and Les drove up from Cootamundra to see his old teammate as the life force was leaving him.

When the position as inaugural head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport coach came up and Brian was an applicant, I was on the board of the Australian Sports Commission and in a position to help him.

The AIS program initially catered for young lads from indigenous families and those from remote rural areas, young fellows whose talents needed to be nurtured before being recruited to Sydney clubs.

The other short listed candidate was Mal Meninga who had just finished his fabulous career with the Raiders.

But Brian, with his background as a teacher was preferred and, as it transpired, Mal's star took on another more spectacular trajectory.

The AIS program, which was cancelled last year because of budgetary cuts, counted amongst its graduates Israel Folau, Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend, Ben Hunt, Sam Thaiday and Kevin Proctor.

When Brian's heath began to fail, the award for best and fairest player in the program was named after him.

The last time we met was at AAMI Stadium, Melbourne and he had taken his squad to observe Storm training.

Over a coffee, I noted his speech faltering, with his assistants subtly and loyally finishing his sentences.

Years before, Brian had read a travel piece I wrote on a visit to Oradour-sur- Glane, the French village where a German tank battalion slaughtered 642 villagers, including 247 women and 205 children for reasons still mysterious.

He took his young AIS team to the village every year until 2011.

The village remains today as it was in June 1944, abandoned, with rusted bikes and burnt out cars, a reminder of mans' inhumanity to man.

The words humanitarian and rugby league rarely appear in the same sentence but Brian, particularly as father and AIS coach, forged them.

Sadly the AIS medal and the man after whom it is named have both gone, too soon.

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