JONATHAN Brown built an AFL career on fearlessness.
It was a trait which embodied the South Warrnambool export from an early age and was emphasised in a contest as a teenager early in his Hampden league career.
Brown’s retirement yesterday revived stories of his football journey, notably an onfield battle with former Koroit forward Jason Mifsud in his second senior season.
Just 17, Brown fronted up to Mifsud, a renowned hard man of the competition. He didn’t take a backwards step.
Brown carried that self-belief with him to TAC Cup side Geelong Falcons and eventually Brisbane, where he carved out a 256-game AFL career which netted him three premierships, two All-Australians, three club best and fairests and a Coleman Medal.
It was that courage which helped the Lions centre half forward win the 2002 Mark of the Year for an effort when he threw himself into an oncoming pack against Hawthorn.
Leigh McCluskey coached Brown at South Warrnambool, handing him a debut against Port Fairy in May 1997.
He said the former Emmanuel College student had “no fear”.
“In his second year he was as good a centre half-forward in the league,” McCluskey said.
“He could influence a game at that age. We played better with him in the team.”
McCluskey recalls Brown — “just as comfortable coming home to Warrnambool and having a few pots with the old boys at The Cally” as he was on the AFL stage — as a natural leader.
Brown joined Brisbane via the 1999 national draft as a father-son pick, following his father Brian Brown and uncles Noel Mugavin and Billy Picken into the elite level.
Mugavin, a former South Warrnambool and Koroit coach, remembers his nephew ‘s impact in a Roosters-Saints match as a teenager.
Mugavin was coaching Koroit at the time and Brown was playing for South Warrnambool.
“He came on the ground against Koroit and proceeded to turn the game,” he said.
“The calibre of the person, that night he babysat for us and bought the kids pizza and let them run amok.”
Mugavin said Brown never forgot his roots.
“He is so respectful of where he has come from and the people he associated with growing up,” he said. “The wonderful success he has had has never gone to his head.”
Mugavin said Brown, who finished his career at an imposing 195 centimetres and 103 kilograms, had a hunger which stood him in good stead across almost 15 AFL seasons. Brown, a talented junior cricketer, was respected for his courage, desire and strength.
“The thing that stood out right from an early age … he had a wonderful appetite for the contest,” Mugavin said.
“He never took shortcuts, even as a junior.
“He played football at its purest.
“His love of the game was paramount in how he approached his football, from juniors to now.”
South Warrnambool coach Matthew Monk, who was at the club during Brown’s stint, said the Mifsud incident personified Brown’s onfield fearlessness.
“(In one game) he went up and confronted Jason Mifsud and said ‘let’s dance’,” he said.
“We’ll never forget that. He’s been an amazing player.”
Monk said Brown’s impact at the Roosters stemmed well beyond his senior games’ tally, which was under 20.
Brown was one of three South Warrnambool players on the Lions’ list, playing alongside Brent Moloney and Matt Maguire the past two seasons.
Coincidently, Brown’s 256 games is the same number for South Warrnambool greats Kevin “Cowboy” Neale and Leon Cameron played at VFL/AFL level.
Monk said the amount of Brisbane supporters at the Roosters was evidence of Brown’s impact.
The pair have become good friends.
“I’ve joked with him about coming back and playing when it was to finish,” Monk said.
But he said Brown’s health issues, family and other commitments would make a fairytale Rooster comeback difficult.
“We would welcome him back with open arms,” he said.
“He’s the epitome of a favourite son. He’s very vocal and involved.
“This year he put up a player sponsorship and he is always helping us with tributes for player milestones.
“He certainly hasn’t forgotten where he has come from.
“I have sought him out for advice when I took on the coaching job with drills and fitness.”
Monk said it was hard to compare players from different eras and highlighted South Warrnambool’s strong imprint at the elite level.
“I wasn’t (there) back in the day when you had Cowboy Neale,” he said. “(Leon) Cameron and (Wayne) Schwass were great players but just for everything he (Brown) has done, he is a poster boy for the code. He’s quick to point out where he’s from and everyone tends to know where he’s from because of it.”
Mifsud said Brown always had the attributes to make the grade.
“At that age he had all the characteristics that the broader AFL community has come to admire and respect,” he said of a teenage Brown.
“He had enormous courage and played with great conviction.”
Mifsud can’t remember Brown confronting him onfield as he made his way in Hampden league seniors but likes the fact the story is still retold among the competition’s followers.
“I don’t have any direct memory of anything of that notion,” he said of the incident.
“It might be one of those nice romantic stories but I can’t remember anything specifically. I will leave it up to other people to tell that story.”
Mifsud, like Brown, made his senior Hampden league debut at 15.
“I wasn’t given any concessions because of my age,” he said.
“Because of that initiation to the Hampden league I wouldn’t have treated anyone any different when any other young person made their debut.
“Ultimately he will be a hall of fame member and a legend of the game.”
Brown’s father Brian had mixed emotions yesterday.
“You can’t go against medical reasons,” he said. “It was certainly in his own best interests.
“While it’s sad in one way we’re relieved in another.
“He has his future to think about now and the next stage of his life.”
Brown snr said his son called early yesterday morning to confirm his retirement.
“You could sense he was quite relieved once he made the decision,” Brown said.
“It’s been a wonderful journey.
“I remember saying to him after two years if someone said to you you’d win a premiership you’d take it and run. To play in two more premierships was unbelievable to be quite honest.”
Geelong Falcons regional manager Michael Turner watched Brown progress from a talented 15-year-old to become one of the Hampden league’s finest AFL exports.
“In terms of Hampden football, he’d stand head and shoulders above everyone else,” he said.
Turner said Brown would be remembered as an “outstanding leader and fantastic player who played a very difficult position at centre half-forward”.
With GREG BEST