Josh Gibson’s right middle finger is taped. The digit looks crooked. Like it got jammed in a door, or wedged in a crack. It looks like a finger that belongs to a defender.
Gibson is vague about exactly what happened. The injury certainly doesn’t seem to be hampering him as he mucks around with a Sherrin at a local footy oval on a typically moody Melbourne winter’s day. Might have been a smother. Perhaps it got snapped back in a tackle? One thing’s certain: it happened at ‘work’.
That would be his job. Safe-as-houses stalwart of the backline of one of the AFL’s all-time great teams. One that enters this year’s final series with a chance to win its fourth consecutive premiership, a feat not accomplished since back in the days when men wore top hats.
Look at Gibson from the outside and you see a bloke living out the charmed, slightly cartoonish life of the modern athlete. Beautiful girlfriend, lucrative endorsements, successful side businesses, TV spots, red carpet appearances, eye-popping Insta account. A bloke you might dismiss as all surface and swagger, in other words.
Unless of course you’re his teammate, or just a mate, someone who actually knows him. Then you’d do anything for him. Because you know he’d do the same for you. Sure, you might chuckle at the designer suits, shake your head at those eye-catching red trainers, but you’d let it go because you’d know that behind the razzle dazzle lies one of the hardest working guys in the entire competition. A player who never made a rep team growing up, who wasn’t considered good enough to get drafted, who had to fight every step of the way to get where he is. Someone who took what ability he had and worked tirelessly to fashion it into a career that can’t be ignored, even among the champions at Hawthorn. A bloke, in other words, to whom you might want to listen.
BUILD ON YOUR TALENT
Everyone who crosses the line on the sporting field, or walks in the door of an office is wearing a mask of some description. Some go from nice guy to nasty piece of work, others from cool head to expletive-spewing sergeant-major. Gibson? He takes the mask off.
“Off the field I enjoy other things and I’m a bit out there but the way I play the game is not very flamboyant, in fact it’s pretty boring,” he says. “I play it like a defender.”
He started playing it that way in a game back in his teens for an Associated Grammar Schools side, when as an unknown, he was put on a bloke who was supposed to go top 10 in that year’s draft. Gibson shut the guy down. He’s been a defender ever since.
“I’m glad it happened,” he says, squinting into the afternoon sun as he sits on one of the oval’s sheltered interchange benches. “I’d rather be a defender any day of the week. Forwards are put on a pedestal. If you can chop down people’s favourite players it’s a little pat on the back for yourself.”
It’s also the stuff that earns pats on the posterior and annoying hair-ruffles from exuberant teammates. They know that while it may not garner many Brownlow votes, Gibson’s no-frills line of work is the ugly scaffolding upon which premierships are built. Perhaps that’s why he’s so highly regarded among his peers at Hawthorn. They’ve voted him best and fairest twice in premiership years, a feat only matched by two of the club’s immortals, Leigh Matthews and Jason Dunstall. Not bad for a guy who didn’t crack the AFL until he was 22.
You see, nothing in footy has ever come easy for Gibson. Son of a Barbadian father and a mother from Sydney, his parents had little interest in the local game. Early on Gibson focused on squash and cricket - links with the local Caribbean community saw him invited into the mighty West Indies’ dressing room and showered in champagne by the likes of Ambrose and Walsh after one day matches at the MCG.
He was introduced to footy at a Vic Kick clinic as an eight-year-old and quickly showed promise. He made it to Trinity’s first 18 but although he was invited to draft camps, after school was done he wasn’t picked up.
Instead he ended up in the VFL, turning out for Port Melbourne, who at the time were North Melbourne’s reserve side. It wasn’t the big time but it was something. More importantly it was an opportunity upon which Gibson was determined to capitalise.
“I spent two years there and my philosophy was that if I could play better than the guys on the North Melbourne list, maybe I’d get noticed.” So it proved. The Kangaroos picked up the kid with the wonky afro in 2006.
Despite taking the hard road, Gibson was never in any doubt that he’d one day crack the big time. On the last day of year 12, when schoolmates wrote messages to each other on white-T-shirts, he’d written on his mate Nick Fletcher’s, “see you in the AFL”. Fletcher, a Hawthorn supporter, still has the T-shirt.
What transformed those words from preposterous to prescient was hard work. Gibson knew he had ability. He also knew he had weaknesses. Still carrying teenage puppy fat while at Port, he hired a PT and did countless hours of conditioning work outside of training, attempting to harden his body for the punishment it would have to absorb in senior footy.
“Once you get to a certain level, everyone’s talented,” says Gibson, leaning against the shelter’s corrugated wall. “It’s what you do outside your talent that allows you to forge a career.”
You may as well type that sentence out, blow it up and stick it on your bedroom door, because you won’t find a clearer distillation of the ethos that underpins achievement. Gibson knew it earlier than most, possibly because he’d never been the most “freakishly talented” player. Prodigy or not, rely on ability alone and you’re leaving too much to chance.
"It's what you do beyond your talent that allows you to forge a career"
ELEVATE TO EXCELLENCE
So Gibson had self-belief. He had a work ethic. He also had determination. Not getting picked in all those rep teams while other kids his age got drafted and spent time in the AFL, it stung some.
The other thing Gibson had that’s vital for anyone who wants to make it in sport, work or life in general, was resilience. At the start of his first year at Port Melbourne he suffered a horrific ankle injury that all but ended his season. Then in 2007, he fell over in his bathroom and hit his head causing bleeding on the brain. Told he might never play footy again, he spent a month sitting around, anxiously waiting for test results. The time, torturous as it was, hardened his resolve. “Knowing it could all be taken away from me, I thought if you do get another chance to play, make sure you do everything possible.”
By the time Gibson was traded to Hawthorn at the end of 2009, he was primed to make good on his talent and reap the harvest of his hard work. It was just as well because he was arriving at a club who measure success in silverware and dissect failures with the rigour of a royal commission. If he wasn’t quite the finished article when he arrived, Hawthorn’s elite culture of excellence would iron out any remaining wrinkles.
“When I walked into the locker room and you had Buddy Franklin, Roughhead, Hodge and Mitchell sitting there it was quite daunting,” recalls Gibson, whose contract was recently renewed for another year. “At training, playing on Franklin and Roughhead, you had the best of the best to try and master your craft. It got the best out of me.”
FOCUS FOR FINALS
On a day off Gibson can be a tough guy to pin down. If his job involves a prosaic procession of smothers, spoils and trying to head off repeat-leads, off field his life is a carousel of offbeat pursuits and eclectic business interests.
He might take a swim at Brighton Baths, smash out a workout at the F45 gym he has a share in down at Mornington, head down to his property near Daylesford to ride his horse JB (short for Jet Black), or fly up to Sydney to look after business interests that include a line of vodka.
“Some people think I’m crazy, but I do like to get away from footy and do other things to stimulate my mind,” he says. “Sometimes I think I’ve played my worst footy when I’ve just been thinking too much about footy.”
You can see the logic. Spend his downtime idle and he’s likely to find himself ruminating on what Buddy or Josh Kennedy might do to him on the weekend. “Being active keeps you fresh so that when you’re at the club, you can give it all you’ve got.”
Which is exactly what you need to do if you’re going to have any hope of withstanding the flame of finals footy. Playing in the backline come September, Gibson reckons, invokes a siege mentality among defenders. “We really work together as a back six because it is such a pressure cooker environment.” He pauses for a moment as he thinks about those five other guys and the helter-skelter intensity of what has effectively become their annual all-or-nothing exam. “It’s a brotherhood down there. We’ve got each other’s backs.”
FOOTY AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
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