Most kids growing up in football-mad Victoria dream of one day playing in the AFL.
Dustin Martin was no exception.
He always had a football in his hands, he spent hours perfecting bananas from the boundary, and he lived and breathed the time-honoured, ‘First to training, last to leave’ footy mantra.
But ‘Dusty’ was different.
Former Castlemaine senior coach Jamie Elliott can recall when Martin, then 16, returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in Sydney, where he lived with his father.
“He trained the first night, and it was from that night he was the best trainer,” Elliott told aflplayers.com.au. “He was the best trainer at the footy club as a 16-year-old from day dot.”
Martin, who impressed with his work ethic and attitude, bypassed junior football and was selected in the senior side immediately.
“He was a bull in a man’s body already,” recalled Elliott. “He had a solid build, big hips and was pretty strong. I actually thought he was a man when he first trained.”
The awe was echoed by assistant coach Frank Byrne.
“The best kid I’ve ever seen at that age. Just incredible,” Byrne said.
“He was one of those kids that wanted to talk to you, and a lot of kids don’t do that. He would yell out your name from across the road. He was just a genuine kid.”
Not long into the season, Castlemaine were taking on Golden Square, and Martin was mixing his minutes between the midfield and full forward — sound familiar?
Even at 16, a one-on-one Martin in the goal square had devastating impact on the opposition.
“He was playing on the ball, but he went down forward and played on the interleague full back,” Byrne said. “He kicked five goals on him.”
Elliott saw Martin’s rapid progression through the same lens.
“Bendigo Footy League was pretty good footy back in that day, but he used to run in, fend them off and run out backwards at 16 years of age, and not many could tackle him then,” Elliott recalled.
“He’d come from a family that wasn’t that well-off, but he’d always want to know about footy and listen and learn. He was there first, and last to leave on the track. Even if it was just kicking ‘boomerangs’ from the boundary line after training with the young fellas, he just had a footy in his hand all the time.”
The club’s coaching staff were desperate to send Martin to the Bendigo Pioneers, who competed in what was then known as the TAC Cup.
The Castlemaine wunderkind had not been considered for the squad after missing the pre-season when he was in Sydney, but soon, the Pioneers were forced to take notice.
“When he first started playing in the seniors, we put his name in the paper as much as we could to try and build him up and send him to the Pioneers,” Elliott said. “Then they started ringing, and we said ‘Look, you’ve got the best kid in Bendigo, you’ve just got to play him’”.
Martin played out the season’s remainder for the Pioneers as a bottom-ager. He only played a handful of games, but still featured among the top five players in the club’s best and fairest.
And despite missing the latter stages of the season for Castlemaine, he finished second in the count for the senior side.
Castlemaine would not see much more of Martin on its Camp Reserve home ground, as the Pioneers developed the prodigy into a top-three pick at the following year’s AFL draft.
Martin’s dream was realised, and the town of Castlemaine would be eternally proud.
“People love talking about it,” Byrne said.
“My Mum absolutely adores him, she’s really good friends with his grandmother and she just loves him. She named her dog after him, she was a Carlton supporter but as soon as he got drafted, she changed to Richmond. She cries when they lose.
“He was up against it. From where he’s come from to where he’s at, he’s a Wayne Carey, he’s match winner. Look at the Grand Final last year. That’s what he can do, and not many players can do that.”
Since being drafted to Richmond in 2009, Martin has captured the fascination of the football world.
For a star player, he is rarely seen in the media and seldom heard in the public domain. Whether it’s the rugged haircut or the tattoo-covered body, Elliott says Martin has often been misperceived.
“He was one of the most generous kids,” said Elliott. “He didn’t have a lot of money, but if we went out for tea, he would always want to shout some tea. He was very respectful. When he played at Castlemaine, he had hair extensions at one stage, so he’s always tried to be a little bit different.
“Around the football club, all the 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, they were always out there with him. There was probably a group of five or six blokes that would always tag along with him.
“I heard he was back there [in Castlemaine] on the weekend. He is like the Pied Piper; everyone wants to be around Dusty.”
And Dusty wants to be around everyone else. He’s innately influential, and Elliott says he has always possessed natural leadership qualities.
“He’s very cheeky, he loves being around his mates,: Elliott said.
“When he was a kid, we’d go down and have tea and he’d want to play pool. He was useless at it, but he’d try to play pool against everyone else. He tries to get everyone involved.
“He’s a bloke that brings everyone together. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Richmond are the way they are. He loves to band everyone together and he’s a brilliant leader without trying to be a leader.”
250 games, a Brownlow Medal, three premierships and three Norm Smith Medals. Byrne sees a sweet sense of irony in the Dusty story.
Martin once dreamed of being an AFL footballer. Now, every kid dreams of being Dustin Martin.
“It’s a good story,” Byrne said.
“It’s a great story for a kid that didn’t have much when he was younger. It’s every kid’s dream. Now, I’m sure it’s every kid’s dream that they want to be Dustin Martin. The Alex Jesaulenkos, the Wayne Careys; it’s Dustin Martin now.”