Ahead of Brendon Goddard’s 250th AFL game this week, aflplayers.com.au caught up with Grant Thomas – Goddard’s first coach at St Kilda – to find out more about the man behind the jumper.
When Brendon Goddard arrived at St Kilda, after being selected with the first pick in the 2002 National Draft, Grant Thomas hadn’t seen a minute of his football.
Recruiters recruit and coaches coach, according to Thomas, who led the Saints for 123 games from 2001-2006. Though he soon figured out Goddard had the attributes to become one of the game’s elite, what struck Thomas first about the 18-year-old – and has stuck with him in his 249 AFL games to date – was the person behind the player.
“He came into the footy club as a different beast to most kids,” Thomas told aflplayers.com.au this week.
“He was very serious and very mature from the moment he walked in.”
While it was obvious Goddard took his footy seriously, there was more to it than that.
“BJ had to play a leading role in his family at a very young age. He was relied upon heavily and had to grow up very quickly,” Thomas said.
“He was very mature as a leader and a person with strong views, but I think in a lot of ways he was shy and introverted still when he got to the club.”
Goddard debuted in Round 4 of 2003 against Richmond, gathering 11 touches and kicking a goal in a 26-point loss. He went on to play 18 games for the season and added 24 more matches in his second year, but like many No.1 selections before and since, expectations were heightened. Goddard’s development wasn’t fast enough for some, and he was constantly being questioned by the footy world.
“You can see who BJ is from the way he plays his footy. You can see the values he has, what he stands for in life.” – Grant Thomas
“He put a lot of pressure on himself as well, and we needed to find something to give him that release from footy,” Thomas explained.
Years on, by Goddard’s own admission, his approach to footy remains similar.
“I’m a bigger critic of myself than anyone,” Goddard told AFL360 last week, after saying he’d “screwed up” a number of key plays that influenced the Bombers’ Round 1 loss to Sydney.
“I had him over to dinner at my place a lot, because we needed to chill him out,” Thomas recalled.
“Knowing your players as people is everything as a coach. It’s the most important thing.
“It’s hard not to have a parental-type relationship with your players and I certainly developed that with BJ. You’re deeply invested in their lives and play a critical role in their chances of making it in this path (AFL) that they have chosen and desperately want to succeed in.”
In the years after Thomas moved on from St Kilda, Goddard became one of the game’s elite players – winning back to back All-Australian selections in 2009 and 2010 as the Saints’ fell agonisingly short of premiership glory. Goddard was amongst St Kilda’s best in the 2009 Grand Final and produced an unforgettable performance in the following season’s drawn Grand Final against Collingwood.
“Football isn’t about football. It’s an expression of who you are and what you stand for as a person. That’s in country football, metropolitan football, the AFL,” Thomas said.
“You can tell what type a person is by the way they play the game and you can see who BJ is from the way he plays his footy. You can see the values he has, what he stands for in life.”
Few players wear their heart on their sleeve quite like Goddard. Even after he left St Kilda, his passion for the club and those within it was evident.
“I’m pretty emotional right now,” Goddard told Fox Footy in a post-match interview that followed the Bombers’ defeat of St Kilda in 2013 – his first match against his old side.
“I love the footy club and it means so much to me. And the boys – I don’t want to see them lose.”
Goddard went on to win the Crichton Medal as Essendon’s best and fairest that year, and held back tears when thanking his family during his acceptance speech.
“The things he was involved in as a young man when he joined the Saints have helped shape him”- Grant Thomas
“I’ve cried before, so you’ve all seen this before,” he joked to the crowd.
On the field, the sight of Goddard instructing teammates with the point of a finger is as familiar to footy fans as the sight of him beating his chest after kicking a crucial goal. Goddard is a leader brimming with passion, who’s always been motivated to improve.
“We went on overseas training camps, developed the AFL community camps, sat players on boards of businesses, rotated the leadership, we tried to give them life experiences outside of footy,” Thomas reflected on his time at the Saints.
“Brendon did it all. I’m proud of him – I am. The things he was involved in as a young man when he joined the Saints have helped shape him as the man he is today. Those things helped develop the mental maturity of the guys and Brendon was one who realised that and grew from it.”
“When we catch up and hit golf balls now I listen to him with a wry smile because I know those things he did have stayed with him.”