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Cult Figures: Courtney Johns

Courtney Johns was easily identified. At 194cm, athletic and sporting blonde dreadlocks during a period of his career, Johns was a popular figure for the meida, fans and coach Kevin Sheedy. The now 32-year-old fireman caught up with to chat about his playing career and what he’s been doing since.

There’s a few decent photos of you floating around in recent times. You happy with how the rig is looking these days?

There’d be a couple (laughs). There’s one during my playing career and a recent one from the fire brigade for the firefighters calendar.

It was a bit of a laugh and a bit of fun. Both of them were for good causes. The fire brigade one came about when I got the job and someone knew someone who ran the calendar so I thought I’d give it a crack and see how I go.

You mentioned being a fiery these days, when did that passion begin to surface for you?

Going back to the footy days, I had a lot of injuries which made my career hard to get up and going. I did my knee in my last season, I realised that this was pretty close to the end and I’d be pretty lucky to get another go at it, so that’s when I started seriously thinking about other things.

I never knew what I wanted to do outside of football. I was lucky that I got drafted but I don’t know if I would’ve gone to university, TAFE or whatever so I always put my time into footy rather than external stuff.

Dad was in the army, which wasn’t for me, but I wanted a job that had longevity like that. I knew a few fiery guys and spoke to them and it seemed like a natural progression. A team environment but, at the end of the day, it’s a different skill. It’s a long process, too. It took one and a half to two years for the applications to even open and then the process was four and a half years.

That’s how it’s run. There’s a bit going on at the moment with the MFB, the union and the government and that was going on when I was trying to get into the job. The recruitment process was put on pause through all of that so I essentially had to wait two and a half years for the last stage, which was the interview. I waited for two and a half years for them to give me a date.

At the time, it was the worst. I was obviously working jobs I didn’t necessarily want to do but you have to pay the bills and put food on the table. I was getting paid so I could live rather than loving what I did. It was an annoying period but it was a part of life you have to deal with.

What did you do while you were waiting those four years to get into the fire brigade?

Dean Rioli had a labour hire company. I’d just come back from WA and didn’t know whether I was going to go back or stay in Melbourne. So I basically jumped on with him and was labouring for a little while.

For most of the time, though, I worked for a friend of mine who owns a cleaning maintenance company. I was an area manager for him. We looked after a lot of pubs and hotels. I got around and dealt with cleaners tradesman and managers of the venues to make sure everything was going to standard.

I’m grateful I got that job to get me through but it was a job I couldn’t do for the rest of my life. It wasn’t stimulating enough for me. It served a purpose and got me through but there was a bigger picture at the end of it, which was the fire brigade.

Now that you’re in the fire brigade, what does a regular week look like for you in terms of shifts?

We have a great system. We do four days on, four days off. I can look on the calendar in five years’ time and know which particular day I’m working.

It’s an eight-day week and your annual leave is around two months split into two. We do two 10-hour days — eight to six o’clock — then have 24 hours off and come back at six o’clock the next day and do two night shifts in a row (six to eight in the morning).

It becomes two 10-hour days and two 14-hour night shifts. When you’re trying to get into the job, they say you’re going to miss a lot of weekends because it’s shift work but you’re lucky to get a weekend in the footy industry. For me, the structure was a dream compared to the roster of playing elite football.

So how does your footy fit into that nowadays given you’re missing a weekend here and there?

I’ve been playing ever since my AFL career finished and I’ve been at Aberfeldie for the last seven years, which has been great because I live in Moonee Ponds. Essentially, if I’m working a night shift, I can still make it to work straight after the game.

I also match the fixture up with my roster so I might miss five games or so per season and you can do a mutual shift swap with other colleagues. It’s not really about playing every game if I wanted to anymore, it’s more about the body being able to hold up.

Speaking of your body’s condition, you had a pretty injury-riddled run throughout your AFL days, has that followed you since you left the system?

It depends. I did a knee when I was playing for the Tiwi Bombers in 2010, which was my second season out of the AFL, and it was my other knee which means I’ve done both of them now.

I did the ACL in the Preliminary Final. Since then, touch wood, I haven’t done anything major. The body is a funny thing. At AFL level, I essentially had two injuries and they were two big, bad ones. I wasn’t riddled with doing hammies every week, I basically did a hip and missed three years and then I did a knee and that was enough to essentially end my career.

Since then, it’s been the wear and tear of the injuries I’ve had. The hip and knees are going well but they get sore and inflame. For me, it’s maintenance and I know my body after all the experience over the year. I know my limits, when to back off and how to get through a season.

We won the flag this year, which was my first one so it’d be an awesome way to finish but the love to play with my mates is still there. There’s other things in my life now, I have a business with my partner so there’s a few other commitments.

You even played in country Victoria after you finished your AFL career. How did that come about?

I went back to East Fremantle for a year and came back to Victoria and through a few circumstances, I was unable to sign with a VFL side. Mal Michael was playing in the country and he rang me after having a chat and detailing how I was unable to play VFL, he suggested I go and play with him.

There was myself and Brad Smith, who was on Collingwood and Richmond’s list, and Brad Fuller, who was on the Doggies list, and we went and played for Heywood for a year. So we drove from Essendon Fields to Heywood each weekend, which was fun. When that finished up, I went to Aberfeldie which is where I’ve been ever since.

You mentioned the injuries during your playing career and one of those started before you’d even been drafted?

I came back from the Under-18s Carnival in Melbourne and started playing some senior footy for East Fremantle. I think it was the week before finals and only a couple of weeks after the carnival and it was bizarre.

The way I remember it, I was leading out of the goal-square and they usually turn into a sandpit by the end of the year. I rolled my ankle over and as that happened, the full-back bumped me and I somehow crossed my left hip and went on it.

I just had this almighty shock and didn’t really know what was going on. It felt like a big dead blow and I got up with two guys and went to take a step and it was like I didn’t have a leg — I could not feel a thing. By the time I got off the ground, it was pure agony. Whatever move I made, whether it was lifting a finger or turning my head, everything just hurt.

I’d subluxed my hip so it popped out the back and returned into place. Because it’s such a tight joint, when it popped out, it tore the labrum and ripped all the ligaments. But I guess the main damage was right on the head of my femur, a big 50 cent piece size bit of cartiledge ripped off from the impact.

The way it was described to me was that this is what happens to some people in a car accident — you get hit from the front and it pops out the back — and somehow I did it playing footy. That joint is a tight one, there is only a couple of millimetres all the way around it so for that chunk of cartiledge to be dislodged and sitting in there I felt it. It was like a constant stabbing pain.

I had the scans and to me, being young and naïve at the time, I just thought these things heal and didn’t understand the extent of the injury. I had the operation, which was a keyhole where they went in, cut it up into bits and pulled it out. This was going into the draft and I had footy clubs knocking on my door but I didn’t think anything was different.

When I was invited to the draft camp, I went along for the experience even though I couldn’t do anything and was hobbling around. Walking I was fine, I wasn’t on crutches but I couldn’t do any testing. There was one doctor there who did a report on every player and his report on me to every club was not to touch him because he’s done.

To find that out and then miss the draft was brutal as a kid. I never know if you’re getting drafted but I was pretty positive and for it not to happen it was a brutal moment in my life.

Liam Pickering was my manager and he went into bat for me. We went to the surgeon and tried to get as much information as we could around playing again. We got a letter sent out to the clubs saying it can heal but it just needs time — it was only until later I realised how much time it would take.

I was fortunate that Kevin Sheedy was still in the game because he’s a guy who loves a story. He took me as a rookie and I’d forgot the rookie draft was even on so I woke up to a message from Pickers saying, ‘you’re a Bomber, I’ll call you later’.

It was a pretty exciting moment and that’s when it all started.

But it took you a long time to recover from the hip injury. Can you explain the how it all worked during those early stages?

I rocked up to the footy club and was stoked to be there but I wasn’t able to do what I was there for. I walked in hobbling and in a pretty bad way. I couldn’t even do lane handballing — I was swimming, boxing and riding for the next two and a half years, essentially.

I didn’t feel great about it but I knew what I wanted. It’s not great to start off like that when no one knows who you are and I was on the rookie list for two and a half years without playing a game. My only way to compete was in rehab. If another player did a hamstring and was doing a pool session, I had to do everything in my power to beat them.

I was possessed in rehab and was an angry kid. I’d do my rehab, come home, cook and clean for my housemates, go to bed and do it all again. It wasn’t a good place to be but I wanted it so badly. I was grateful for Essendon for keeping me on for so long when that doesn’t happen too often.

When i finally got a go, it was through a good mate in Adam Ramanauskus getting sick. It was such a weird moment. To put in all the annoying work after basically learning to walk again to playing footy was satisfying but it was through my mate going through a serious illness.

I always whinged and thought why is this injury happening to me but one of my great mates gets cancer and that put things into perspective. In a way, it made me want the moment even more.

You made that long-awaited debut in 2005 and not long after began sporting those infamous dreadlocks, how did they come about?

I was in WA in Year 11 and 12 because dad got posted back there in the army so we were living in Fremantle and I took on the surfy kid look. The hair was growing ratty, messy and salt-filled then I moved to Melbourne and it kept on growing.

I always said to dad that I wanted to get dreadlocks and him being short back and sides said ‘not while you’re under this roof’ so I moved away and got the dreads. I forever cop shit from him about that but now he’s retired and has long hair himself.

What are the chances of your old man getting dreadlocks?

Never. He just wanted to grow it out a bit when he retired after having the short hair for 30 years. He’s living the great nomad life now traveling the country with mum and they’re loving it.

What were the reasons for giving up the dreadlocks the following year?

It got to a point where people were looking at me and thinking I’m trying to be a hero and make a name for myself but I was just a kid who wanted dreadlocks — it’s as simple as that.

The reality is that there was the first person who started wearing white boots and then someone started wearing orange boots and I’m sure there were people saying ‘who does this guy think he is?’ and I realised there was enough pressure on me anyway. Unfortunately, I lobbed them off. It was a silly decision that I made as a kid but at the end of the day, it’s just hair.

Chance Bateman had dreadlocks at the same time but because I was a new, people assumed, I was trying to make a statement. I actually still have them in a box underneath my bed!

How would you describe your AFL career?

Annoying. Because of the injury I had at the start, I understood the rigours associated with playing an elite sport from an early age.

In the end, I decided to pursue against the doctors’ advice and I was lucky that I was 19 because I might’ve agreed with them if I was 25. I believed I was good enough to play the game but injuries and opportunities affected my output. I loved Essendon but being behind Matthew Lloyd and Scott Lucas was always going to be tough.

If I’d arrived three or four years later than I initially did, it might’ve been different but there was a bit of unknown given I got injured at the end as well. That’s footy and that’s the way it rolls and there are so many uncontrollable aspects to being an elite athlete.

I had an annoying career but that’s by no means unique, the majority of players have probably had that. It doesn’t mean you’re any less of a person but it just didn’t click for me in that environment. I’m happy and proud that I gave it a crack but unfortunately it just didn’t work out.

You need to think about other things in life as you’re going through it and I only realised this as it was basically over for me.

Tayte Pears is a good mate of mine and he started his career like a house on fire but his body broke down on him and was playing catch up from then on.

I actually sat down with him and talked the truth about where his career was at and told him he needed to get his affairs in order because I didn’t want him to be working shit jobs for five years post career while he was working out what he’s going to do for a career.

I’m proud of him and what he’s achieved given everything that happened at Essendon. Right now, he’s sitting in recruits to become a fireman and has secured the next 30-35 years of his life. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to be that 200-game player that everyone wants to be but that’s the way the game works sometimes and you can’t be bitter at that.

I’m happy where I am at the moment. I love playing footy on the weekends with my mates, the body is going well and the pressure to perform isn’t there.

You mentioned you have a business with your partner and her sister?

Yeah, my partner, her sister and her husband and I have a business together called Tucker Street, which is a healthy home delivered dinner box. It’s a little family business that started two years ago now that’s designed for people who love a bit of healthy food who are time poor because that’s essentially what we all were at the time.

I was trying to get into the fire brigade and we tried other dinner box solutions but weren’t fully satisfied with the those products so we decided to make something of our own that was ethical, local with premium grown products for people to cook fresh and healthy meals at their homes.

We’re still in the early stages but it’s going well and we’re looking to grow. Everyone’s busy and it’s hard to find the time and energy to eat healthily at home so we thought we could eliminate the process of going to a supermarket, thinking of something to cook and buying too much or not enough. We provide quality meals without having to think about it.

You were a bit of a cult-figure in your playing days, possibly because of the dreadlocks, how did all that attention sit with you?

I started playing with half a game then a week off, followed by half a game then a week off in the VFL. I was fortunate that I was actually playing good footy here and there and I think ‘Sheeds’ was getting pretty excited about that given he’d taken a punt on me at the beginning.

He started calling me different names in the media and I think that’s where it began. I started hearing these nicknames that were coming out and, as a young kid, I didn’t get it. I was just excited to be talked about and playing well.

I remember seeing a photo of a picture of the Pope with my head superimposed over the top — it was truly bizarre. Looking back know, I just think what the hell was going on but that’s just the game and people live and breathe it.

In hindsight, I think all it was doing was putting pressure on me and I felt like I had to be Wayne Carey in my first game or at least that’s what I thought everyone was expecting. I still hear a slur every now and again about not making it but that’s part of the game and you can’t please everyone. It was great at the time but the pressure that came with it was something I struggled to grasp. It was a weird time.

So you still get a bit of attention nowadays following from your time in the game?

Most of it is actually pretty good. I might bump into a supporter at a bar or something and you get chatting and they ask your name and Courtney isn’t the most common name for a male, so here’s a tall, blonde guy named Courtney in Melbourne. I still cop a bit of grief from the punters here and there but most of it is good fun.

The majority of it comes when you’re playing on the weekend and there’s a few characters on the hill having a dip but you can’t help but have a laugh and move on.

You mentioned the nicknames before, was there a memorable one?

The Southern Aurora, which is apparently a train, I had no idea what Sheeds was talking about. He loves to have a bit of a gag with the media and it just so happened that there was a period where I was the topic. Another one was ‘The Messiah’, which was somewhat amusing, but it’s all a bit of fun. I didn’t worry too much about them.

It’s been interesting listening Courtney. Thanks for chatting.

No worries, mate. Thank you.