As Lance Franklin prepares to play his 250th game, his former teammate, Ben Dixon reflects on his early memories of a raw and gifted athlete, exclusively to Aflplayers.com.au.
I remember just prior to the 2004 draft, Gary Buckenara was tossing up what to do with the early picks that we had, and the consensus was that we needed key forwards.
He mentioned to me that they were having a discussion around them and that there were a couple in the draft that we could potentially get hold of, but that’s all we knew about Buddy until he got into the footy club.
He came in nice and skinny and I thought, ‘gee whiz, he’s not a bad kid,’ because he didn’t really say a lot, and then it took about three or four days for us to work out that he had the swagger.
I always thought he had potential but I thought a breeze could blow him over, but as soon as the balls came out at training, you could just tell.
It was apparent that he had something that simply couldn’t be taught, it all just came naturally to him. We figured that we didn’t need to do a lot with him in terms of teaching because he just had that raw ability.
It was a bit like when Cyril got to the footy club, he didn’t need a Melway to get out to Box Hill, he was never going there.
Buddy’s brilliance was obvious for all to see very early on in his career.
It was back in the days when we trained at Glenferrie Oval, and for years and years the tradition at Hawthorn was that you had to kick balls after training from the race and from ridiculous angles. It’s one of those things where everyone is trying to kick the impossible.
Buddy just started bending the ball like Beckham, it was actually frightening because there was almost no daylight between the goals from the race. All of a sudden, and because he was a left-footer, it felt like an easy kick for him so the race became the carpark!
Believe it or not, he was dobbing it from there, too. There was no ceiling on him.
While he had all of that raw talent, potentially his only flaw was his lack of strength. To give you an indication of this, he couldn’t do a pull up, and I think my grandfather could do 20. He just had no strength at all. He was the worst at the gym by a country mile.
The weird thing about that was that he may not have had any strength when it came to the gym, but when you got out on the field, he knew how to body his opponent and get them out of the way.
A few weeks after the new draftees got to the footy club we went to Kokoda, and Clarko nearly killed Buddy on the first day.
We had a meal pack that had to last the whole day until we got back to the camp for dinner, and most guys packed muesli bars as a backup etc. but Buddy got his pack and ate it in the first hour.
Clarko said, ‘don’t give him any food, he’s got to learn a lesson this young boy!’ We thought he might drop dead if we kept it up, but sure enough, he went the rest of the day without any food and survived.
Each player had a backpack and in there was all of your possessions and Buddy brought a photo of his first girlfriend. All the boys got into him about that.
I noticed a really soft side to Buddy when I first started to get to know him. He has a lot of empathy towards a lot of people, so despite his swagger, his natural personality is empathetic. He’s actually a cuddler.
You have to love the fact that he’s probably the most recognisable person in the country, yet he’s lovable and cares about people. When you’re coaching him, you have to earn his trust but once you get that, you’ve got him on your terms.
When we started to do our leadership and peer assessments that’s when the loving side of Buddy really came out. When things got a little brutal, you could tell with him that he was trying to take it on board, but we were mindful that he hadn’t faced confronting coaches or peers in the past. It was easy to identify his softer side.
Looking at Buddy now, it looks like he hasn’t received a lot of coaching, but I remember a funny story from my first year of coaching at Hawthorn. It was when Damien Hardwick was the forward-line coach, and Buddy was missing everything in front of goals from about 20-25 metres out but nailing everything from 45.
So Dimma and I decided to have a chat with him, we said ‘Bud, how about when you mark it 25 metres from goal, you go back to about 40 and go through the routine from there?’
He listened and then he turned to us after he finished and said, ‘If I’m really struggling, maybe I’ll try your way, but if I’m on fire, I’ll do it my way.’ I thought to myself that I just love this kid.
In his second year in 2006, Jason Dunstall came down to the club and he gave Buddy and Roughy a goal-kicking lesson. He put these poles up and tried to get Buddy to run straight and Buddy had a fresh-air shot.
It was just that unnatural to him because of his arc, so he left the field and I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘Bloody Dunstall doesn’t want me to break his record, he’s trying to stuff with my routine!’
The on-field moment that sticks in my mind with Buddy was the 2007 Elimination Final against Adelaide, which was the first final that he ever played and he kicked the winning goal.
I’ll never forget that because when he marked it, I thought that if we wanted the ball in anyone’s hands at this moment, it’s him. I spoke to him after the game and I don’t think he really knew the status and the enormity of the kick, he was just wanting to know how many goals he could kick on the day!
This was a young kid playing in his first final and he kicked seven! The occasion never bothers him.
He’s definitely in the top three of the players I’ve played with. He’s one of those players that when you’re playing out there with him, you actually get excited because the ball is going into his vicinity, which is rare because normally you’re so consumed by your own game.
You always thought that something special was going to happen. There were many times I switched from a player to a spectator.
I’m rapt for him that he has made it to 250 games. It’s a big milestone for him and I’m sure he’ll get to 300. He’s moved from a club that he holds dear to his heart and then moved to Sydney and put bums on seats.
Some blokes you use a free ticket to see, Buddy is one that you pay to see. He’ll go down as one of the greats.