Busted by his captain for smoking, two knee reconstructions, a mid-career identity crisis – Melbourne ruckman Max Gawn has endured an unorthodox journey on the way to his date with destiny.
Gawn wrote himself into preliminary final folklore last week with a mesmerising four-goal burst in the space of six minutes to kill off Geelong’s flag hopes.
The five-time All-Australian and current Demons skipper will etch his name into the history books if he can lead his side to victory in the grand final against the Western Bulldogs next week.
Gawn is now one of the most liked and respected players in the AFL.
But it was far from the case during his early days, when his lack of professionalism left his Demons teammates unimpressed.
Gawn, the No.34 pick from the 2009 national draft, lobbed at Melbourne shortly after undergoing his first knee reconstruction.
Arriving at a club while nursing a serious injury is tough, but Gawn didn’t do himself any favours.
During the 2010 pre-season, then Demons captain James McDonald was left shocked when he pulled up to a set of traffic lights on the way to training and saw Gawn smoking in the car next to him.
“I was in a bit of disbelief,” McDonald told AAP.
“We’re all young once. Max was pretty green when he first got down to the club.
“I don’t think he understood what was required at the AFL level.”
Gawn was summoned to a meeting in front of the club’s 10-man leadership group, where he was given the chance to explain himself.
The first-year player produced a fictitious “sob story” about how his whole family smoked, saying for that reason he was also a part-time smoker.
“I do remember him saying that,” McDonald said, reflecting on that excuse which Gawn has since revealed was a fib.
“You could see he took the feedback from us on board, and I’ve never seen him have a smoke since. He may have had one – I don’t know.
“But I can have a bit of a laugh about it now. It all turned out well in the end.”
Despite being sprung red handed, it wasn’t the penny-dropping moment for Gawn.
The 208cm ruckman continued to do just enough to get by.
Then on December 14, 2011, he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament and medial meniscus at training.
With just four AFL games to his name and a second knee reconstruction to come, Gawn’s career was in danger of running out of lives.
But with age still on his side, Gawn returned to play 13 games in 2013 and nine games in 2014.
It should have been his platform to launch.
Instead, Gawn found himself out of favour on the selection front for the first half of 2015, and he took the news poorly.
“By round eight, 2015 I’ve got my head so far up my arse that I’m nowhere near playing AFL football,” Gawn told the Phil Davis podcast last year.
“I had a real identity crisis around 2014-15, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
“I didn’t know if ruckwork was what I wanted to do. I was 208 centimetres but I was playing as a forward. I stopped wearing shin guards because I thought I was a forward, and I hated going into centre bounces.”
A heart-to-heart chat with then-assistant coaches Simon Goodwin and Ben Matthews helped Gawn rediscover himself.
He won back his spot in the senior side by round 10, and two weeks later he played a blinder in what former Demons coach Paul Roos identified as Gawn’s turning point.
Melbourne were up against Geelong that day at Kardinya Park – a graveyard venue for most teams.
The Demons entered the match with a 3-8 record for the year, but Gawn’s 19 disposals, 44 hit-outs, eight marks, five clearances, and a goal inspired Melbourne to a shock 24-point victory.
“That was probably when he really started to put his stamp, get some self-belief, understand how good he could become,” Roos told AAP.
“Now he’s in the top five players in the competition.”
Gawn’s hot form in the latter half of 2015 proved to be the springboard to his first All-Australian jersey the following year.
His standing in the group continued to rise, to the point that he was appointed captain last year.
Now at 29 and with 158 games under his belt, Gawn looms as a key figure in the grand final against the Western Bulldogs.
Roos was mesmerised like everyone else by what Gawn did to Geelong in the preliminary final in Perth.
“That is probably the best game a ruckman’s played, particularly that quarter of footy – and in a final,” Roos said.
“His last four or five years have been exceptional.
“He (always) had a good balance between being serious and enjoying his footy and everyone gravitated to him and loved him – so absolutely (I could see his leadership qualities).”
Gawn switched to the No.11 jersey in 2014 in honour of the late, great Jim Stynes.
If Melbourne can end their 57-year flag drought next Saturday, it will be fitting to see a lanky, likeable bloke with the No.11 on his back raise the premiership cup.