Author: Brandon Jack
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021; RRP: $29.99
Brandon Jack, known as BJ, is the youngest son of a sports-mad family. His father is an ex-professional rugby player, and his two brothers also played at a high level. His mother, he admits regretfully, was someone he did not know outside her role supporting her sons’ football-filled childhoods. Family life circled around sport: attending training, playing games, talking about and watching games with all family members fully involved.
When BJ reached 18 he was drafted to the Sydney Swans AFL side where his brother Kieren also played, joining an intake of 44 new players that would fill only 22 available spaces in the senior games. His journey is told chronologically, from childhood to his final decision to leave professional football.
BJ stayed with the Swans from 2014 until 2018. The first two years he went all out, doing all that was asked of him and more, undertaking gruelling training sessions and extensive post-game sessions watching replays of the game and micro analysing personal and team performance. Despite all his efforts he was frustrated by how he failed to be chosen for senior games, instead relegated to reserve. At the same time he continued his love of heavy metal music, learning guitar and enjoying writing, including songs.
Around 2016, as disillusionment set in at his repeated failure to fulfil his football dreams, he began to question his life choices. In the process he discovered a stronger than expected identification with the music and writing side of himself. His changing feelings included re-evaluating the almost hothouse environment in which he spent his childhood with his sports-obsessed family, discovering in the process that underlying his dream to pursue high-level football was mainly a desire to play with Kieren.
At this point, still floundering and unable to make a final break but already committed to a second two years, he decided to complete the two years simply to honour his contractual obligations. This he did, playing as required and fulfilling only basic training requirements. To fill the emptiness he felt inside he indulged heavily in drugs, alcohol and expensive and stupid pranks, which meant when he finally finished he discovered he had only $30,000 in savings to show for five years’ work.
I found this autobiography totally engrossing despite the fact that my interest in sport is casual at the best. Its raw and unfiltered honesty leaps off the pages. His analysis of those in his life is rigorous, whether he is looking at himself, his family, or the sporting personnel central to how the Australian football world operates.
He comes across as focussed and fair, and worth reading about, an athlete and a writer who can speak with careful insight into his upbringing and his disillusionment with the way high-level football works and also share stories of his football mates, some of whom he maintains connection with, such as regularly meeting with a favourite coach to kick a ball back and forth in a local park after he left the Swans.
His relationship with his family is complex and written through the eyes of a still-angry son and brother but he writes with care as well as passion. Family and football come across as intertwined, his dedication to the game born of family ties as exclusive and blinkered as that of a high-level football team.
The language of 28 was particularly effective in drawing me in. He uses the short, terse and urgent notes in his training manuals to describe his first year, which captures perfectly his almost manic commitment to training and self analysis. He uses football language, blithely assuming we will all know what he is referring to, as do all those deeply enmeshed in their chosen worlds. While the words and phrases were warm and familiar, as I have heard them in the background on radio and TV all my life – sometimes to hear how Geelong was doing – some did require googling to understand what he was referring to.
Once past the first year, football language doesn’t dominate as much as he moves into areas such as a thoughtful section analysing the difference between sport and creativity, and artist and athlete. This shift adds to the raw feeling of the book, strengthening the sense of who Brandon Jack is and showing the artist and musician within and emphasising the struggle it was to extricate himself from who he thought he was to being who he actually was.
It’s also an excellent opportunity to be a fly on the wall in the training room of an Australian Football League team!
Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell, February 2022
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy provided by the publisher