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Gleeson repaying the players’ faith

In Australia, where sport is religion and footballers are Gods, the MCG is the cathedral. But for a significant number of players, football is just what they do, not who they are. It’s their faith that defines them, not their football.”

The 2014 winner of the Grant Hattam Award for Excellence in Sports Journalism, The Age’s Michael Gleeson, was able to tell one of footy’s largely untold stories.

“Media awards are usually voted on by ex-media people so it’s an interesting and different perspective, and therefore a valuable one.” – Michael Gleeson

His piece, the AFL’s growing band of religious players revealed a side to many players’ lives that’s bigger than what we worship them for on the football field.

It won Gleeson the respect of the players who adjudge the award, for taking an article beyond the general issues usually associated with AFL.

Now a two-time winner of the Grant Hattam Award, Gleeson told the fact it’s voted on by the players makes it a significant prize for football journalists.

“It is really sought after,” said Gleeson.

“It’s a different view of media. Media awards are usually voted on by ex-media people so it’s an interesting and different perspective, and therefore a valuable one and one that’s highly regarded.”

Winning the award held personal significance for Gleeson, too.

The Award has recognised high standards of work in the sports journalism field annually since 1999, the year following the sudden passing of leading sports and media lawyer Grant Hattam.

“I worked with Grant Hattam when I was at the Herald Sun and my brother had also previously worked with him.”

The inspiration for Gleeson’s piece came in the form of an Instagram post from one the greatest ever players, Gary Ablett Jnr.

The photograph of Ablett in arms with Suns teammates Zac Smith and Aaron Hall praying pre-game put Gleeson to work, prompting him to ask questions that revealed how common that sort of ritual was throughout the league.

2001 Norm Smith Medallist Shaun Hart and Essendon’s Matthew Lloyd are two past champions of the game who have been devout to a faith. Current North Melbourne stars Andrew Swallow, Todd Goldstein and Daniel Wells joined GWS ruckman Jonathan Giles in discussing this aspect of their life with Gleeson, who was surprised with the volume of response.

“We just started asking around, then found out this guy goes to this church or this guy prays before a game, or this guy’s father is a Uniting minister. It’s only once you start asking the question that you discovered the broadness of it,” said Gleeson.

Surprising for Gleeson too, was the openness and character with which many players spoke about their faith or religion, particularly coming from a football club environment but also knowing where their stories would end up.

“Being prepared to talk about your faith and be open about it shows a special kind of courage.” – Michael Gleeson

“I thought it was interesting to be able to talk about something so personal to them that people probably wouldn’t know. It’s an area that some people would still find an uncomfortable conversation to have.

“Faith and religion or spirituality is very personal but also football clubs are very secular. Being prepared to talk about your faith and be open about it shows a special kind of courage. Nobody in a football club wants to be preached to, or told this is how you should behave. But none of the players struck me as doing that.”

“They illustrated there’s a strength of character that footballers are prepared to be open and honest about what their background is without seeking to evangelise others within their group.”

In today’s digital age – where social media is the home of instant news – supporters and media are closer to a player’s life than ever before. Gleeson believes stories similar to his – exploring who a player is, rather than what they do – will begin to become commonplace.

“To a degree, players’ lives will be in the public sphere whether they want them to be or not – if they get up to mischief or that sort of thing,” explained Gleeson.

“But with something like this, there were a number of other players who didn’t really want to talk and you have to respect that, they’ve got their right to privacy.”

“Personally I really like the stories about players away from the game. 99 percent of the time it’s innocuous: finding out they’re a painter or a guitarist, they’ve got a dog called Bill, or what car they drive.”

“That sort of stuff informs who they are and gives a more-rounded picture of the person who’s playing, not just the footballer.”

Read the story behind 2013’s Grant Hattam Award winners here.