For those wanting proof of football’s ability to transform lives, the record-breaking exploits of the 2017 Brownlow Medallist Dustin Martin would be Exhibit A.
Leaving school aged just 14 and battling a disrupted family life, the Richmond midfielder polled a historic 11 best-on-ground votes to finish with 36 overall.
He finished three votes ahead of last year’s winner, Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield – who was ineligible after being suspended in round 19 – and Hawthorn’s Tom Mitchell on 25.
“I think once you step out on the footy field all you think about is footy, it’s just the best two hours of the week,” the notoriously media shy Martin said after becoming just the sixth Tiger to win the AFL’s highest individual honour.
“I think once you step out onto the ‘G it’s just game on.”
This week that game is the grand final against Adelaide, with Richmond attempting to end a 37-year premiership drought.
Martin’s win capped an eventful year marked by speculation about his playing future at Punt Road and the absence of his father Shane, who was deported to New Zealand last year because of his links to the outlaw Rebels motorcycle gang.
The 26-year-old had a stellar season despite the distractions and finally signed a new seven-year deal with the Tigers worth about $1.2 million per season.
“There’s been a lot to think about this year, but I’m glad to be in this position,” Martin said in his acceptance speech. “I’m really happy to be living my dream right now.
“It’s a very awesome position to be in. Just soak it up and enjoying it.”
School was not for Dusty
The heavily tattooed star conceded that he’d often been a handful and admitted that leaving school early had made for a difficult childhood as he moved between his mother’s home of Castlemaine and his father’s in Sydney.
“I think I was about 14, 14-and-a-half, I just wasn’t a fan of school,” he said. “Probably should have stayed in school because I worked a lot of sh–tty jobs after that, but yeah, here I am today.”
Martin’s father organised a job for him and before breaking into professional football he drove forklifts for a living.
“He said if I wasn’t at school he was going to work me hard, so I was getting to work at six in the morning and getting home at six at night and I absolutely hated it,” the 26-year-old said.
“He means the world to me I’m sure everyone’s old man is the same. I’m sure he’s watching over in Auckland so ‘hello’.”
— Richmond FC (@Richmond_FC) September 25, 2017
The newly minted Brownlow Medallist also admitted the speculation over his contract talks had taken a toll.
“It was certainly stressful, by the end of it I was sick of everyone talking about, sick of my ugly face being in the paper every day, but you know [my manager] Ralph [Carr] was there for me. I pretty much lived at his house towards the end because I was that stressed out, but I was glad that it got done.”
Martin also admitted there were times where his football career could have gone off the rails.
“I was just a young bloke who liked to play up every now and then and I’m sure Ralph and my old man were sick of it and the club probably as well were fed up with it,” he said.
“So they sat me down and told me to pull me head in, otherwise they weren’t going to help me anymore. So ever since then I think I’ve pulled my head in – a little bit.”
And how will Dustin Martin – multi-millionaire, Brownlow Medallist and potential premiership player – deal with the extra scrutiny?
“It’s been really surreal the last couple of weeks and we are enjoying every moment of it and hopefully we can go one better [in the grand final],” he said.
“I’m obviously not a big fan of it the media or talking in front of people, but I’ve just got to deal with it I guess.”
BROWNLOW MEDAL 2017
- Dustin Martin (Richmond) – 36 votes
- Patrick Dangerfield (Geelong) – 33 votes (ineligible)
- Tom Mitchell (Hawthorn) – 25 votes
- Josh Kennedy (Sydney) – 23 votes
- Lance Franklin (Sydney) – 22 votes