Thursday, 19 May 2016

A two-part friend, one-part fan account of 'Box'.

I don’t remember how many beers we’d drunk, but I remember that inhibition had departed us both hours ago.

It was the Northern Blues’ Mad Monday 2014 at the infamous Cricketers Arms on Punt Rd in Richmond. Folks who know the venue, need no further explanation. To keep it PG, it can be confirmed that two ‘entertainers’ had already frequented the venue, and one of the younger players had already fallen in love with both of them.

Outside and removed from the main group, I sat with Brent Bransgrove, chatting about all the things blokes talk about when the blood alcohol level is well above 0.05. Suddenly, his face sobered a little and his tone – which previously had been a confident ramble – resembled more of a croak as he uttered his next sentence.

“I think I’m done, Lodgey. My hips are cooked, my hamstrings aren’t much better, we didn’t win a game from June and my mates are all gone.”

There was a tear or two. Alcohol in its descriptive form as a depressant probably didn’t help. But this was raw emotion brought about by his love for football, his physical health and his emotional stability being as balanced as an Indian cricket umpire at Eden Gardens.

Brent Bransgrove will play his 100th and final Victorian Football League match on Sunday at Preston City Oval – where it all began – against crosstown and suburban rivals, Coburg. As our great game pulls itself away from its grassroots traditions, the script is set for once-sacred customs to be upheld for one final time.

As he retires from competitive football, Brent – arguably – goes out as another footballer in the grand scale of things. But in VFL circles, he goes out as one of the most courageous players to have ever played. In Preston/Northern Bullants/Blues circles he goes out as one of the club’s best captains, a deeds-before-words leader and a Life Member.

To me, he remains a legend – both defined by the vernacular term and a memory to those who got to watch him play. Brent is a footballers’ footballer, all the more impressive as the fact that he stands at just 170cm tall.

Brent. Glovebox. Boxer. Boxman. Boxy. Box.

My first memory of Box was during the 2012 pre-season at Carlton, when I thought my own football was going pretty well.

It was a mid-week session, and I remember that we had some of ‘the VFL boys’ come and join us, so they got a taste of what a proper AFL pre-season training session was really like.

Upon looking at Box, I thought it was great that the VFL side, the Northern Blues, was taking on a 16-year-old to foster his footballing development.

It took me a quick introduction to realise that Box was actually five years my senior.

It took me a couple of game-style drills to realise that he was pretty quick.

And it took me the rest of the session to realise that I had seriously underestimated him as a person and a footballer. Fortunately, I’m not alone in that camp. Unfortunately for the rest of those in this bracket, they’ve had to play against him and find out how wrong they were the hard way.

Despite playing four games for the year in 2012, my relationship with Box quickly turned from respected teammate, to genuine mate.

For the last four or five years, that mateship has un-wavered. The disappointment that I only got to spend one game on the same field as him is balanced by the joy I had to still work at the club during his leadership and playing tenure.

As my football petered out into uselessness and shifted my focus into a job as a club media figure with the Northern Blues, Box has been the most constant clutch of support in my endeavours.

Over the years of watching, supporting and reporting on Northern Blues matches, I’ve rode every one of Box’s bumps, hard ball gets, ferocious tackles and scream of delights when he kicked a captain’s goal.

On the field, moments stick out.

It was late 2014. Williamstown vs Northern Blues. It was the first time that Brent, in a depleted Blues side, was lining up against best mates Nick Meese, (now Richmond players) Kane Lambert and Adam Marcon for the Seagulls. In fact, it was the first match they’d played where they hadn’t shared the same jumper, going back almost 15 years.

There was plenty to play for, amid the personal motivations - the Blues needed a win to play finals. Box lined up on the edge of centre square for the first bounce as the opening siren rang.

As the ball was punished into the ground for the opening bounce, Box took off as Meese’s tap found Lambert, who had barely begun his pivot goal-ward before he was collected by an irresistible force.

Lambert – to his great credit – brushed off the opening bounce assault and carried on, but Boxy’s act signalled the tone for what was to come. He harassed, mauled, bashed and crashed his way for 120 minutes during a cyclonic day at Burbank Oval.

The final siren eventually sounded: advantage Williamstown, by 40-odd points. Box’s stats read 21 possessions, 12 tackles, plus physical and mental exhaustion.

That year he battled hip, groin and hamstring issues. This match occurred just weeks before the scene I set at the beginning of this article. Football was starting to take a toll.

Box has always kept it well hidden though, through an always positive demeanour and a laugh that could be heard from two suburbs away. reality was that former Northern Blues physiotherapist, Jay Anderson, was the only one who understood the sacrifice that Box made each week. Only Jay was privy to just how much of a risk the decision was when Box made the call to play on in 2015, let alone this year in 2016.

Success has been sparse for Brent Bransgrove, the footballer. Lost Grand Finals, seemingly always on the wrong-side of nail biters…and then there are the injuries.

It has never been about him. But Sunday will be – and fuck me, it deserves to be.

It’s not just 100 games. And it’s not just another VFL player retiring.

It’s a celebration of a chapter in Brent’s life that has had a profound impact on opposition coaches, opposition players, VFL commentators, prominent coaching figures in AFL circles, his own coaches, his own teammates, his friends and 19-24 year old girls who used to frequent Eve Nightclub.

If you do nothing else aside from nursing an anticipated hangover, get down to Preston City Oval this Sunday at 2pm, as the curtain falls on a football career belonging to one of the bravest I’ve ever seen, with a heart of gold.

Your day, Brent.

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