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No success like failure: Brandon Jack’s memoir ‘28’

By Adam Rivett

The former Sydney Swans player restores a measure of dignity to defeat

Between 2013 and 2017 Brandon Jack played 28 games and kicked 16 goals for the Sydney Swans. During this time the club was a perennial flag contender, making Jack’s infrequent selection to the senior side no mean feat. During his five years at the club, he bounced between the starting 22 and the reserves, ending his career in the lesser of the two teams, by then thoroughly disillusioned with football. Having tinkered with music and writing throughout his footballing years, he committed himself wholly to these pursuits in his post-football life. He is now 27 years old, still several years short of standard retirement age, when these sorts of books are normally published.

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The question of whether he might have flourished elsewhere, in a team more in need of his skills as a small forward, or at a club undergoing a rebuilding phase and thus more patient with his development as a player, is a point rendered moot by blood. His brother, Kieren, was a Swan, and – tracing the family line if crossing codes – his father, Garry, was a rugby league legend, practically NSW royalty. It had to be the Swans.

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The year before Brandon joined the club, Sydney won the 2012 premiership, a victory in which his older brother kicked two goals, including a goal late in the final quarter to level the score. Future teammate Ryan O’Keefe was named Norm Smith medallist for best on ground that day. The next year Kieren was named co-captain of the club.

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I was a Balmain Tigers supporter as a kid, and watched Brandon’s dad play hundreds of games. When Kieren joined the Swans I felt a connection to him more intense than with any other player on the list because of this. Like him, I had grown up in an NRL family but had drifted, with a passion, to AFL. Kieren had become, to use the childish phrase beloved of the footy-addled adult, my favourite player. When he was named on the 2013 All-Australian team I was unnaturally happy about his selection to a hypothetical construct that didn’t actually play any games. When his brother was drafted to the Swans I was happier still; a new favourite player to jostle for my affection, and, to my mind, yet more talent bolstering an already strong team.

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Brandon Jack is, among many other things, an example of how a family name carries a weight akin to a curse, and how legacy can over time become a burden.

It amazes me that children of great footballers rise to any level of excellence, or can manage even one senior game. That’s one cliché of footy that holds true: to play even one game is a monumental achievement. For me this will never stop being the case, no matter how many poor games are played by debutants, and however many highly rated draft picks don’t pan out. That certain sons or daughters of the greats go on to themselves become great seems borderline miraculous, like Robin Hood splitting an arrow with his second shot.

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28 (Allen & Unwin) is a book about many things, but one of its central obsessions is failure. This is all relative, of course. For example, in Brandon’s most notable senior performance – a game against Melbourne at the MCG in front of 26,216 people – he kicked four goals. Most people, myself included, would consider kicking four goals at the MCG an achievement akin to winning a Nobel Prize or an Olympic Gold Medal, but it’s an achievement not lingered on in the book, though Jack acknowledges nearly every football administrator he has ever met would give it all up for just one goal in front of such a crowd.

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Let’s establish a value judgement: 28 is a very good book – tender, honest and engaging. It’s highly perceptive about many things – binge drinking, youthful uncertainty, artistic desire, the strange dynamics of masculinity – but if I was to praise it in one sentence, intending no insult to its author, it would be this: it’s a great book about being a loser. I intend to qualify that statement.

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Books of low quality trail the lives of great athletes. Their publication can seem something of a formality – the greatness of the figure demands memorialisation in prose, however lacking the writing might be compared to the achievements. Perhaps it’s a tell-all memoir, or a dutifully assembled and overly detailed biography. Yet aside from the rare gem, these are books bought en masse and quickly forgotten, the athlete retreating soon enough to where they could always be found: in the highlights, the raw numbers. The book moves along to the charity shop.

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In comparison to the greats of the game, Brandon Jack is unburdened. With no obligation to render grand achievements into humble words, and being honest enough to commit himself, throughout 28, to looking as bad as possible, he goes the other way. Witless club buffoonery, petulance, youthful inanity and dismal sexual encounters – all can be found within the book. Most refreshing is the tone Jack finds throughout these retrospective glances. There’s a clear-eyed view of ugliness and adolescent uncertainty, with none of the barely suppressed braggadocio that often distinguishes such a memoir. (You know the kind, the one that seeks to atone for past sins while clearly revelling in the reliving.) The prose of 28 is chastened, but honest: blunt about the low stuff, and straightforward about the perks.

One night I drunk-drove and then narrowly escaped the death-grip lunge of an older man who wanted to tear me limb from limb after I’d thrown tomatoes at his house in the early hours of the morning. Another night ended with a woman who was in the year below me at school and her father carrying me across the front yard and into my house after they had driven past and seen me passed out in the gutter outside Showground McDonald’s […] One morning I awoke from a night of drinking and saw that $16,000 had been deposited into my bank account from the Swans. I had clothing companies sending me free clothes, people messaging me online saying I was their favourite player, and when friends from school bumped into me they would ask in wonderment, ‘What’s it like, being a professional athlete?’ I was nineteen years old, and the world moved around me.

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Like any sporting book, there are clichés, as the above excerpt makes clear (“limb from limb”, “the world moved around me” etc.) Yet what is treasurable about the book is the same quality that allows Jack to write these occasionally familiar sentences: vulnerability. While now wiser than his blackout-drunk adolescent self, this is still very much the book of a young man finding his place in the world, every new discovery raw and fresh to him no matter how clichéd it might seem to an older reader. His writing about music, his love of early punk, has all the unguarded sweetness of a teenager enthusing over his parents’ record collection.

Or consider this paragraph of beautiful, unintentional comedy:

I know Kieren because I have spent much of my life trying to be Kieren, but there are parts of him that I will never understand, and parts of me that he will never understand either. A small example, one that I remind him of from time to time: he walked out of the movie Joker after half an hour, whereas I went back and saw the movie three times.

Brandon, how truly twisted of you.

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When public profiles harden and fame becomes that unremovable mask, the sort of sweetness that would treat a killer-clown movie with such awed reverence disappears. So many memoirs arrive before fame is earned (or justified), or they scan as little more than score-settling from someone with too many grudges to count. 28 is rarer – it feels like a book catching life in mid flight; almost there, not quite, in the process of working it out.

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There’s no better example of “almost there” than the reserves-level superstar who is dominant at the lower grade, but a step off the pace in the seniors. This is the world of 28: poorly attended games, grinding desperation to catch the coach’s eye, and always the dream of the call up. While the book spends some time on Adam Goodes’ disgraceful treatment by the AFL community, it’s a rare moment when a star player is the book’s focus. For the most part, modern greats like Buddy Franklin and Josh Kennedy are background figures. The real supporting cast are players whose names wouldn’t resonate much beyond the Swans faithful: Dean Towers, Daniel Robinson, Xavier Richards. Sometimes, as in the case of Tom Mitchell, you’re spending time with someone in a holding pattern before superstardom is achieved elsewhere. And sometimes, as in the case of Ryan O’Keefe (known as Pebbles) you’re sharing locker rooms with people in their final days:

It was Pebs’ final game for the club; he and Peter cried in the sheds after the game. The memory of this loss comes up a lot for the boys who played that day. Recently I had a drink with Deano and he told me he cried when he saw his parents after the game. If we’d have won then it would’ve been a joke, but to lose stung deeply. Such was the no-win nature of the reserves.

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A footballer’s use of cliché is more complicated than it might seem.” It’s easy comedy – too often employed by cynics or the self-consciously clever – to point out that post-game interviews are rarely rhetorical masterclasses. But athletes, the lucky ones, don’t live in language, and at the end of a game, spent and still gasping for breath, they are within seconds called to account for their deeds, asked to describe in reductive terms actions that should on their own suffice. Do we need someone who can collect a hard ball at speed and within two steps compose themselves and then slot a goal on the run from 50 to be able to find the equivalent in language? 

If 28 deftly evokes the aimless downtime and revelry that a football career permits, it’s even stronger at evoking the frenzy of regular training, and the restless desire for improvement. It’s a sport that can be both enormously complicated and shockingly straightforward. Often the book will abandon its first-person narrative perspective and shift into diary entries that in their manic repetitions and all-caps exhortations capture the stripped-down reality of athletic performance:

CHASE TACKLE SPREAD

CHASE TACKLE SPREAD

YOU ARE ALWAYS ABLE TO GET THERE

JUST GO

RUN WITH BALL

BACK SELF TO KICK GOALS

Something similar, or perhaps something even blunter and baser, likely passes through the minds of an athlete as they perform with awe-inspiring grace and power. “JUST GO.”

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Who is this book for? Football fans, sure, and Swans fans obviously. But not all of them, I suppose. True art never has to answer this question – it insists without permission. But a memoir is a more public-facing work that seeks to engage and clarify – misconceptions of self, and of society. I’m sure in the coming months 28 will be praised for its honest examination of ugly masculinity, for the questions it asks about the often crude expectations placed on the heads of young men as they run out weekly, with their terrible haircuts and unrealistic expectations, to put their body on the line for the desperate amusement of the country. The sort of soggy platitudes that pad out well-intentioned talk shows will no doubt be heard: “a conversation we need to have”, “a book for the young men of this country”. I don’t doubt any of that, and would try not to sneer at the utilitarian dreams of the community. But the book performs another, even more valuable service, I think.

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It’s one thing for a great novel like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes to memorialise the desperation and delusion of sports fans, to portray failure so eloquently. This is the life of following a team, to varying degrees, and it’s what sport is nearly all the time, to both participants and viewers. But it’s another matter when someone from the other side of the fence returns the favour. 28 provides a brief moment of harmony, a shared fate seen clearly. You can rack up small wins within a game and balance the ledger most weekends, but the natural arc of competition narrows to eventual losses. It’s the biggest sports cliché of all, and the most punishing: there can only be one winner.

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Throughout the book, Jack writes of his love of punk music – a loser’s music, however self-consciously it fashions itself as such. Punk takes pride in its lowliness: its crudity of construction is unabashed, its directness of emotion unashamed. It redefines loserdom – it defuses the insult. The very name of the genre unpicks the abuse – it’s now impossible to hear the term used as an insult in old movies and not hear it as a kind of praise.

Lose, losing, loser. This is what you have to do when you play or watch sport – you prepare for loss. The finals are almost upon us, the Swans certain to compete for the first week if no longer. I’m already half-sick with nerves, and dreaming of victory while preparing for dejection. It’s a reality we work hard to supress, as forcefully as humanity rejects the certainty of its own demise. You think sporting grounds fill up around the world (or did once, pre-COVID) in pursuit of loss? 28 returns to failure a measure of pride and resilience. It doesn’t see the end of a career as the end of a life. That is truly useful.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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