Back when ‘The Birdman’ soared

Brett ‘The Birdman’ Evans celebrates with the last of his premiership cups, in 2010.

There’s no doubting that Brett Evans is one of the most iconic football figures anywhere in the south east. Gazette sports editor Russell Bennett sat down with him recently to discuss everything from his playing days at Springvale, Narre Warren, and Richmond, to his love of pigeons. ‘The Birdman’ truly is one of a kind, with one hell of a story to tell…

 

Russell Bennett: Brett, I’ve been wanting to sit down with you for a while now mate. You’re probably one of the biggest cult heroes we’ve featured in the liftout over the years, so let’s start at the start – where were you and how old were you when you started playing footy?

Brett Evans: Well I’m the youngest of six boys, and with no old man. I grew up in a pretty rough and ready environment – a bit hostile – but we did really well to stay together. I suppose I was just at home on the footy field. I just absolutely practiced my guts out because I just loved the game. It was a bit like a security blanket to me – I carried a footy with me everywhere. It’s every kid’s dream to play league footy, but I never really thought I was good enough.

RB: But you wouldn’t have cared so much about that – just as long as you could play?

BE: That’s right. I just wanted to emulate my brothers, and they all played at the Hallam juniors.

RB: And you played your juniors at Hallam, Endeavour Hills, and Narre but a great mate of yours – Travis Marsham – tells me it was actually at Nyora where you made your senior debut?

BE: That’s right – when I was 16.

RB: And your mentor there ended up being Danny Green’s trainer for more than 15 years?

BE: Yes, Angelo Hyder. While I was at Endeavour Hills we played on either the Saturday or the Sunday, so I used to go down to Nyora some Saturdays because my eldest brother Richard played there. He was a really hard-nosed key defender who, along with my other brothers, showed me the ropes. They needed numbers in the thirds, so there were weekends when I’d play for Nyora on the Saturday and Endeavour Hills on the Sunday. On the weekend I made my senior debut I actually played three games, but I never told Endeavour Hills (laughs).

RB: That famous nickname of yours, mate – The Birdman. How did you get it? There’s a couple of schools of thought on that – the first being because of your love of pigeons, and the second because of your high-flying marks…

BE: I was about seven or eight when I get into the pigeons – my uncle had them, and my older brother had them, but the nickname was because of the marks.
I read the article from the Berwick City News just the other night. I remember I kicked 11 against Keysborough in Round 1 in 1992, and I think I was 19. The story in the paper said “Magpies full forward Brett Evans did his ‘birdman’ act, and took mark after mark”. That’s how it started, but it definitely took on a second meaning.

RB: In that season, you kicked 43 goals in your first four games – including 16 in Round 4 – but then disaster struck…

BE: Dandy had actually wanted me to play on match permits in the VFA in a forward pocket next to the legendary Rino Pretto (who kicked a goal with his only kick in league football, with Fitzroy) but I broke my leg so I was disgruntled that I never got the chance.

RB: And nobody saw much of you for the rest of that season?

BE: No, well I’d written off the year. I didn’t do much rehab or anything like that – it was pretty old school. But then I came back for the grand final and I’d only been training for three weeks!
I snapped my leg against Dingley. I got tunnelled in a marking contest and I went to get back up and scooped up the ball and went to kick around my body. The ground was pretty soft and my leg basically got stuck in the mud while I got tackled.
My brother could hear the break and he was a fair way away. They didn’t have to operate because the two breaks were pretty clean, but coming back for the grand final against Keysborough was a dream. They dropped a bloke who’d kicked five the week before, but I’d kicked 11 against them in Round 1.

RB: There’s a hell of a story surrounding your return for that grand final, isn’t there? You got someone to carry your bag into the ground, and I heard you even walked around in there with a can of VB to make people think you weren’t playing…

BE: That first part definitely happened. I can’t remember the part about the beer can, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. We definitely fooled a few people that day because it was a big call – I hadn’t played footy for 16 weeks, and I’d only done three nights with the boys in the lead-up. I had a bit of kick-to-kick with my brothers and mates leading up to it, but that was about it. To be honest, I didn’t even go to the other final that year. I’d just become a bit detached once I’d had the injury. I was never a good spectator – I’d much rather be out there. That was no excuse to miss it, but it’s just the way I was – pretty aloof at time.

RB: You kicked four that day and won one of your nine premierships from 11 senior grand final appearances, but at the end of the season you went to Springvale…

BE: I think I was 20 when I got drafted by Melbourne that year in the mid-season draft. I kicked seven in the first game for Springvale in a losing side and then I kicked five, four, and then North Melbourne put me on their supplementary list and then the mid-year draft rolled around and Melbourne picked me up. A few clubs had shown interest – the Bulldogs were one of them. It was just really hard getting there mid-year, not having done the pre-season and building up that camaraderie or respect from the boys by just working your guts out. But I’d only done one VFA pre-season to that point, so I guess I had that upside.
It was a pretty ruthless era and the lists had 55 players on them before they’d get cut to 45 the year after. Melbourne told me I was the last one delisted – this was when Balmey (Neil Balme) was coach.
I played in a reserves grand final – and played some pretty good games for them, including against North and a young Corey McKernan. This was in 1993 and we flogged them.

RB: Ah, the year of the ‘Baby Bombers’. As a Dons member I know it well…

BE: Well we played in the curtain-raiser that day, and actually did the same in 1997 (then with Richmond). It was awesome, and I think they should still give young players that opportunity. Everyone wants that as the real entertainment – get rid of the other garbage! It was great back in the day – you’d watch the under-19s, into the reserves, and then into the seniors. I was crook in ’93 – whether it was the nerves, I’m not sure – but if I’d played well, I probably would have been there the year after.

RB: So it was Balmey who let you go?

BE: Yeah, you’d have to blame him I think! (laughs). They were starting to value the athlete then and I didn’t run enough with the footy, but not many could take a mark like I could.

RB: How would you describe yourself as a player, mate? For people who watched you throughout your career, two things stood out: Your vice-like grip in taking those marks, and your ability to kick big bags of goals and do it accurately…

BE: I was pretty good at ground level too, and hard to tackle – probably because of all the wrestling I did as a kid. I was pretty good at shrugging a tackle, but I didn’t even realise I was until a coach told me. It just came naturally to me. I wasn’t a great lateral mover, but I had a good shrug on me

RB: By the mid-’90s, you’d already played in premierships at Narre, the Melbourne reserves, and Springvale after debuting in 1989…

BE: Yes, and in 1995 I had a really good pre-season. I was starting to take some pride in what I could do. I knew what I was capable of but I was only just scratching the surface. I had a really good year for Springvale and was the fittest I’d been. I probably kicked 30 or 40 playing as a high half-forward and I kicked five in the grand final – we won that flag too.

RB: And ’96, by your own admission, wasn’t your best season but you played in another premiership for Springvale and then Richmond came calling. You ended up playing 28 AFL games there…

BE: I got a call from their recruiting manager and I remember driving down to Punt Road, sitting in the carpark, and asking myself if I should even go in or not. I’d been watching these blokes for years – (Matthew) Knights, (Wayne) Campbell, (Matthew) Richardson. They were all stars, and it was pretty intimidating, but Matty Knights was one of the first to introduce himself. He was just really welcoming, he knew my nickname, and he just put me at ease. He’s a really good man – I just love those people who’re inclusive. I think that’s why I’ve had a lot of success – including people, making them feel comfortable, and then getting the best out of them.

RB: So they picked you up in the 1997 pre-season draft after you’d won a flag just a few weeks prior?

BE: Yes, and they said if I missed a session not to bother coming back. I was still living at home with mum and I commuted in there sometimes twice a day – doing a morning session and a PM session. Once I’d done a few sessions with them and was surrounded by elite players, I was really, really driven.

RB: You really had to hit the ground running didn’t you?

BE: I didn’t really think I’d get drafted, but to be honest once I started seeing some of the blokes on the list I thought they just couldn’t do what I could do.
Then I started doing some marking contests against senior players and I was out-marking the odd one. I was 24 and a mature age recruit so they wanted results then and there. I didn’t have the luxury of finding my feet in the reserves and being mollycoddled through injuries. I played 28 games, including 18 in 1998. That was a pretty good year – I won the Francis Bourke Award (for best clubman) and it was the inaugural one, too. Alex Rance has won it three times and he probably doesn’t even know who I am! (laughs). The other three seasons were a bit of a struggle.

RB: But that ’98 season wasn’t all smooth sailing either, was it?

BE: I actually broke my cheekbone twice that year. In the Ansett Cup (pre-season competition) Mark Bickley ran through me with a knee and I was over in Adelaide for a week because I couldn’t get on the plane to come home.
Then, later on in WA, Chris Mainwaring hit me with an elbow and broke a different bone on the same side of my face. I’ve had some nasty facial injuries actually – I’ve had two broken jaws, broken noses, teeth knocked out… I led with my head a little bit! (laughs).

RB: But from that year, a lot of people may remember ‘that photo’ from the Herald Sun with you and Danny Southern going toe-to-toe. You had each other by the scruff of the neck, but you both had these massive grins on your faces…

BE: Yeah, he was a ripper bloke – he had a few tatts and so did I, but they weren’t the norm back then. Not many people had them. My brother has one of those photos and I’d love to see Danny again and get him to sign it.

RB: Your time at Richmond included another premiership – in the reserves in 1997. But you had three coaches in four years at the Tigers and were ultimately let go at the end of 2000. Who let you go?

BE: Danny Frawley. The writing was on the wall at little bit because I did have a few injuries that year and I wasn’t playing with enough recovery time. If you didn’t know the full story, I looked like I couldn’t handle the level. I wasn’t performing above the level of the VFL. It was a bit sad how I went out because I wanted to play on but I knew I was getting delisted before the last game.

RB: You had your injury issues again in 2001, but the following year you headed back to Narre as a 30-year-old. Why?

BE: Probably the realisation that I didn’t know how I was going physically, but I always wanted to go back and play there. I just didn’t know when. I just wanted to play at the highest level I could, for as long as I could, but you can’t beat grassroots footy.

RB: A few years later, in 2005, you kicked 19 goals in a game against Keysborough didn’t you mate?

BE: Yeah, but I think I kicked one the week after! (laughs). That’s 20 in two weeks though. That first one was just one of those games – I kicked 19.1. I just couldn’t miss.

RB: In 2006 Aussie Jones came across to coach Narre. As I understand it the club wanted him to captain-coach, but he just wanted to be a player-coach. He, and the rest of the playing group, wanted you to be the skipper…

BE: The vote was pretty much unanimous. Some of the committee didn’t think I was captain material, but I was ready for it. It was great having Aussie, Trav and those guys back then.

RB: This was part of Narre’s golden era. How many flags did you win in that period before you hung up the boots?

BE: Four in five years. The last one was in 2010 when I was 38.

RB: You played over four different decades – the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, and ‘10s – and didn’t actually retire until you were 39. That’s pretty remarkable given the injuries…

BE: I was pretty resilient. I really looked after myself in the latter part of my career and I just knew I’d done the work. I also never did a knee, which helped.

RB: Who are some of the first names that spring to mind when you look over that incredible Narre Warren era?

BE: (Michael) Collins, the Clarks (Ricky and Lee), (Glenn) Hamilton, (Steven) Kidd, (Shane) Dwyer… the best thing out of all of that is that we’ve got a premiership reunion nearly every year!
But honestly, I’m not sure you have to be that successful to have really enjoyed your footy career. You still get a lot out of it. I’ve always admired the reserves players, who have a lot on the line if they get injured because they really play for the love of it.

RB: You were inducted into the Narre hall of fame in 2014, and at the time you spoke about first walking through the doors in the under-17s…

BE: I remember (Andrew) Sticks O’Halloran giving me this Tosca bag with my gear in it. I was this young kid – pretty shy and reserved – so to walk into a senior club and feel welcome and accepted when I was still trying to find my feet, that was special. It still brings a smile to my face.

RB: Why did you retire when you did, at 39 in 2011?

BE: My feet, probably. I wanted to play until I was 40 but my body wasn’t holding up that well at the end.

RB: Do you know how many goals you would have kicked by the end?

BE: It’d have to be close to 800, but I did give a lot away as well! (laughs). I could play on the ball as well as up forward – I would have probably been a big-bodied midfielder in today’s game.

RB: Collo would be bigger than you, wouldn’t he?

BE: Oh yeah, and I remember sending a letter to Richmond about him and a couple of other young Narre players at the time. This was after they delisted me. There was Collo, and Brendan Kimber. Who knows – sometimes (to make it) you just need a bit of luck, and someone to take a chance on you.

RB: So after 11 senior grand finals and nine premierships, what was the most memorable one or the one that comes to mind most?

BE: They’ve all got a pretty special place in my heart, honestly – just seeing the joy on the supporters’ faces. The twos had a lot of success too, and those boys enjoyed those wins just as much as we did.
But once you start winning premierships, you just want that feeling to keep coming back. You know how it feels, and you’re probably willing to go that extra mile to feel it again. We were blessed with our local talent – we paid hardly anything, and players just wanted to play for Narre. Some of the kids might have harboured AFL dreams, but a lot of them just wanted to play senior footy for Narre.

RB: Winning that many premierships across a range of different teams and eras – was it easy to take for granted at the time?

BE: I think because they’re so hard to win you do just know that nothing is ever guaranteed. When we won one at Narre, it wasn’t until the siren went that I realised the significance of it. Being a kid, I just wanted to play. Even at Springy I’d seen where they’d come from – a really blue collar club that had nearly folded. They lost a lot of players and then tried to bring a bit of youth through. Damien Hardwick got drafted to Essendon the year before I got there, and that was another reason I wanted to go to the VFA too – I could see the pathway there.
I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I just wanted to play at the highest level I possibly could. If that meant VFA, I would have loved it.

RB: What was it like to finally finish up after 2011?

BE: Horrible. Some days I still think I could play again one day. I’ve got a chronic back injury, so I probably never will, but I’d love to have a game of Superules one day. That’s one of my dreams – for my kids to see me play. I really do dream about it.

RB: How did you hurt your back?

BE: I had a workplace accident over three years ago and it pretty much crippled me. I slipped off the back of a van – it was no one’s fault. An accident is an accident. I’ve got to just deal with it the best I can, but honestly it has been a struggle.

RB: But your kids are clearly the light of your life and your biggest focus now…

BE: Oh absolutely – and I had the pigeons to fall back on once I retired from footy. I still have them and race them from time to time.

RB: What do you like most about the pigeons mate?

BE: I think they’re a metaphor for my old man leaving and not coming home. These birds are just so loyal and keep coming back. I’ve often wondered about that, and they’re part of the blood as well – my pop, uncle, and older brother all had them too.

RB: Just finally, I’ve got to ask this one mate because everyone who reads this will be wondering – what’s with the latte? This is supposed to be Beer O’Clock, after all…

BE: (Laughs) I just want to try and get a bit healthier. I’ve been on pain meds for my back for nearly three years now, so it doesn’t mix that well. It’s been a bit of a battle, both physically and mentally, in the past few years but the kids are well and they just keep shining. They always think I’m great, even when I’m not feeling it.

RB: Birdman, it’s been my absolute pleasure to sit down and have a chat with you mate. It’s something I won’t forget in a hurry.

BE: Cheers Russ. Thank you, mate.

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