With a nod, and a blink of his Sinatra-blue eyes, Brad Sewell acknowledges that this week he is entering a flashpoint in his career.
On Friday night, he will be celebrated for the brutish effort of his 200 games, and then largely forgotten, swallowed whole by the maw of September on the MCG.
Sewell is a man who has for years understood himself through the laws of football. And as such it is impossible for him to miss the irony in his own grand achievement falling on a final, where it will be swamped by the occasion and the fate of his teammates.
Every footballer traffics in nostalgia, one way or another, and Sewell has an interest in the photographs of players carried from the field by their teammates. He wants to see himself in time, on the shoulders of his friends.
“If we lose,” he said, “they won’t chair me off the ground.”
“What I’ve noticed more lately is a desire to see others succeed” – Brad Sewell
It is befitting of his wonderful career that Sewell identifies the fallacy in milestones, how they shrink in the face of a bigger movement. He’s spent the majority of 200 games in a blur of anonymous elbows, driving Hawthorn forward for its greater good.
His has been one of those strange careers illuminated, yet overshadowed, by the broader success of his team and its dynamic talents. But now that Sewell knows what it is to reach the distinguished air of “round numbers”, as he puts it, that old cliche about team has become meaningful.
“The individual numbers, the 200, or the 300, mean little to me next to the premierships,” he said.
For a young player, even in a losing team, the thrill is in doing something definitive on the field. But across time, across 200 times, it’s the joy of others that begins to matter.
“What I’ve noticed more lately is a desire to see others succeed,” he said.
His belief in what matters can be read, in part, from the colour of his boots, initially black because there were no other colours, and eventually black in spite of them.
Sewell’s boots are one of the symbolic gestures he makes to himself, and to others, that some things in football are timeless. One of these for him is the joy of team success, and the other is the mode of his contribution to it.
“What never changes in football is the need for someone to win the ball,” he said.
“I THINK WHAT YOU LEARN CONTESTING THE CENTRE-SQUARE FOR SUCH A LONG TIME, IS A RESILIENCE TO THINGS” – BRAD SEWELL
And in this you have the man’s ethos, and also his survival method in a game that better rewards fluency and run, variety and efficiency.
As an athlete, Sewell has long been acknowledged for his absorptive capacities in a fight, and the gorilla-strength of his upper torso.
His career brings to mind A.J. Liebling’s portrait of the great puncher, Rocky Marciano, whom Liebling described as always being confident “because he had a hard time forgetting how strong he was.”
And Sewell is a fighter, like Marciano, who stays inside a contest because he finds some comfort in the rattle of bones, and those bruising dances he performs with the ball in his grip, looking for a runner.
It’s been there, in the clinches, that Sewell has made himself useful for Hawthorn, and so difficult for others.
“I think what you learn contesting the centre-square for such a long time, is a resilience to things,” he said. “It gives you the confidence to just push on.”
He trains in a size large because he likes to feel relaxed, but wears a medium jumper in a game to feel meaner, and make it harder for players to tackle him.
Not being tackled is often the difference between losing and gaining momentum from the middle, those modern tides that two weeks ago the Hawks surfed in on and booted 10 straight goals against the Cats.
And it’s the craft of the centre-square that has defined Sewell’s career. He looks happier there than in an ocean of space on the wing. He says he is the kind of player who needs to approach the ball in a state of mania in order to better access his talents.
“I have to be going at the ball, and then there’s something innate that happens, I suppose, to actually get hold of it,” Sewell said.
And it’s the innate thing, as Nick Cave put it, that a man must cup his hands around to protect, “like a candle flame in a storm.” He will not speak of the future beyond Friday because his flame still burns and because “talk of the future makes it the talk of now”.
Attending a commentary session this year, Sewell came upon David Parkin sitting in the MCG stands eating a sandwich and he felt something move in his chest. It was some sense of time, that gulf into which all things fit, sooner or later. Sewell, ever up for the fight, says he doesn’t fit yet.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.