You may know of Ben Brown because of his ginger locks or lengthy set shot run up, but there is also a university graduate brain underneath that generous wad of hair.
As I waited for Ben in the reception at the North Melbourne Football Club at Arden Street, I came across two older generation super fans, both from interstate and both hoping to catch a glimpse of just one of their North Melbourne superstars. As Ben entered the room their eyes lit up. Ben has a reputation of being one of the nicest guys in football and he was exactly that: he looked at one lady’s photos of her baby granddaughter, heard all their stories about their day and made sure to get photos with the loyal fans of the blue and white.
This set the tone for the next hour that I would spend chatting to him about current issues of the game and his journey to the AFL.
Ben Brown’s path to the big league was quite unconventional. He was overlooked in three drafts before being recruited by North Melbourne in 2013 at pick #47, but let’s not get too far ahead. We begin when Ben relocated from Tasmania to Werribee in Victoria to pursue football while maintaining his studies.
Originally studying a Bachelor of Arts/Law at the University of Tasmania, Ben quickly realised the workload of a law degree was too heavy while trying to chase a dream of making it to an AFL club. That’s when he decided to delve into a double major arts degree, majoring in journalism and sociology at Deakin University in Geelong.
“When I first moved over to Victoria, I had already done two years of uni in Hobart, so I already had a bit of exposure to playing football while doing a full time course,” Ben said. “When I first moved to play for Werribee, Deakin was great for me, I’d drive down the highway and Deakin was there.
“In that year I did three units per semester, so that made it a bit more manageable than doing a full time four units per semester load.”
Ben ended up being grateful for his own timeline of working towards an AFL career; it allowed him to progress through more than half of his course before he had to manage a career on the main stage.
“A lot of the guys who come through AFL teams are 18-year-olds coming fresh out of school and the idea of doing even a three-year degree is pretty daunting.
“Generally they suggest to do one or two units per semester if you’re in the AFL system, so a three-year degree becomes between a six to twelve-year degree to finish, which for us is half or all of your career if you have a really good one.
“I feel pretty blessed that I got to the club at the time that I did and only had those few units to do, so I could take it a bit slower and just do one unit per semester to finish off my degree. In that sense I found it pretty easy and Deakin made it pretty easy too.”
So what made Ben want to study journalism?
“I was better at English than maths at school; I had always enjoyed writing, and there’s the sport side of it as well. When I was choosing which degree to go into, I had just done my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), so I thought football would be further away and I wanted to keep involved with sport.”
Would he consider a career in the media post-football career?
“Potentially. Depends which side of the media. I’d struggle as a writer pumping things out really quickly – my brain doesn’t work that way. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in terms of my writing. I’ve done some stuff in radio which I’ve really enjoyed, so keeping that idea open for post-football seems like a good idea.”
Ben admits that transitioning between small town life in Tasmania to life in Melbourne wasn’t too big of a struggle as he spent most of his time between Werribee and Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus on the outskirts of Geelong – not exactly a big city lifestyle.
“I’d only come in (to the city) for the occasional footy game, so it was a good way to ease into it. I didn’t get a myki for my first two years, until my girlfriend at the time, now my wife said that I should.
“Now that’s very different, I’ve moved a lot closer in.”
It’s coming to the pointy end of the season and in a few months’ time, the next round of kids will be hoping that their name gets called out in the draft. Ben’s advice?
“It’s really individualised as to which direction you should go. My mum and dad really pushed studies as being really important, they knew that I had sporting aspirations but not many are lucky enough to get an opportunity, so they always made sure I had a back up plan and was ready for another career outside of sport.
“I think that’s the important thing for kids particularly at school who are thinking about what they want to do, but I’m also really conscious that uni is not for everyone. The AFL make sure that we have set hours in our program every week to do professional development, which makes sure we’re doing something, whether that’s studies or something else so we’re ready for life post football.
“It’s really important that we’ve got other things to put on our resume apart from AFL footballer, because that doesn’t really help you much when you’re trying to get a job outside of the industry.”
As a mature age recruit, Ben is glad he had the extra years on his belt to mature both on and off the field.
“I think it made me feel like I was privileged once I did get that opportunity, and it made me want to stay in the AFL. I think a lot of kids who come in as 18-year-olds have maybe always had that element of always being a really good sports person growing up and almost knowing that they were going to make it and it can make you take it for granted.
“It was definitely important for me to have those few years off and to have some experience of the outside world as the footy world is a bubble.”
Mature age players continue to surprise fans of the game. Ben is a huge advocate of that style of recruitment but also knows that clubs don’t want to miss out on kids with potential who need development. Of course, Ben has some ideas of his own.
“If I was running the AFL, I’d probably lift the draft age a year or two, so kids aren’t able to be drafted as 18-year-olds, they’re able to be drafted as 19/20-year-olds and it aligns to the American football system, where they go to college and get drafted out of college. I’d like to see kids actually have a couple more years to experience the world a little more, get one or two years into their studies and when they get to AFL they’re more likely to continue and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Clubs get a better idea over the years if they’ve come on better as a player, their bodies continue to mature and it gives you a clearer picture of what kind of AFL player there going to be. It’s food for thought anyway.”
Ben is passionate about current issues and earlier this year, alongside his wife Hester and the North Melbourne FC he launched a gender equality action plan, in support of gender equality across not only AFL and the women’s league (AFLW) but sport in general. He thrives on being a part of the community aspect that the club provides, especially with the community engagement centre, The Huddle, for asylum seeker and refugee children to help with study support, providing a place for them to develop and grow.
He admits he didn’t know much about the cause until he started to meet people like Australian of the year Rosie Batty who began campaigning against domestic violence after her son, Luke, was killed by his father on the cricket field in 2014. “Once I got to learning and seeing the way it impacts our lives day to day, I thought it was something I could really get behind,” Ben said.
“Particularly with the AFLW coming in, I suppose that was my way into it. The gender equality action plan which North launched and myself and my wife have both been sitting on the sub-committee, contributing our own ideas on how the club can be better because it’s all well and good to talk a big game but if the club isn’t pulling its weight then that’s on us.”
Ben isn’t impressed with the way the AFL has been handling the future of the AFLW, proposing shortening the women’s 2019 season.
“The AFL have jumped into the AFLW and because they’ve jumped in they need to jump in head first. It’s really important they do it the right way. I think something like that just sends the wrong message and it threatens to strip back all the hard work they’ve put in to making sure the AFLW is a legitimate competition, making sure that women feel just as a part of the AFL as the male players do.”
He’s completed a university degree, is involved in causes off the field and has been the leader of the Coleman medal (awarded for the most goals kicked) for the majority of this season. How does he manage it all and still be one of the leading forwards of the competition?
“I try to continually improve and just make the most of my opportunity. I want to make sure I don’t drop the ball in any aspect of my game because I know if I do, the game catches up with you pretty quickly and opposition defenders work you out. You’ve got to keep coming up with different ways to get the ball and try have an impact on the team. Whether it’s me kicking goals or someone else, it doesn’t really matter as long as we’re winning.
“I was really lucky when I first got to the club that I had Drew Petrie who was a champion of North and Jarrod Waite – they generally took the first key defender which left me with the second or third defender which was really good for my development: I was able to gain my confidence and learn ways to improve. Teams defend a lot differently depending on which week it is so you’ve got to try come up with different ways to beat them. It is a constant battle that never really stops.”
After sitting down with Ben on his day off, I could see why he is known as the nicest guy in football.