They still talk about Gavin Wanganeen around Essendon. It doesn’t matter that he spent his last 10 years playing football for Port Adelaide, they still love him.
Especially now he’s back. Well, sort of. The other day he was on a train in the area and a group behind him were saying his name. Wanganeen greeted them warmly.
“I walk round here and a lot of people come up and say ‘Gday Gav’,” he says. “Still ask for the autograph and the odd photo. I’ve got a great history at the club and gave good service and the supporters know that. In Melbourne I’m more known as an Essendon player … They still know you. It’s amazing.”
I’ve met Wanganeen at a café in the heart of Essendon, just a few doors from the gym he’s just about to open (his third – the others are in Adelaide). There’s a nice symmetry about being here with such a local hero, and such a revered one, too.
Wanganeen is not outgoing but courteous and softly spoken. At 39 he’s in good shape – he spends a lot of time in the gym – and there is a gentleness about him and the calm of a man who knows how big his achievements are without having to trumpet them. He played in two premiership teams (for Essendon in 1993 and for Port Adelaide in 2004), he was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame, was selected in Essendon’s Team of the Century and the Indigenous Team of the Century.
With the grand final nearly upon us, it’s a chance to revisit one of the great players of the past 20 years, to find out what happens to champions when they walk away from the game that made them famous.
Wanganeen arrived at Essendon in 1990 from Adelaide as a 17-year-old and three years later was a premiership player with the young team they came to call the “Baby Bombers”, alongside then raw youngsters such as James Hird, Dustin Fletcher and Mark Thompson.
His crazy-brave courage was legendary. Over his 16-year career he threw himself into packs apparently with little concern for his own safety. He developed a reputation as a hard nut. It’s amazing he’s sitting here in one piece. “In the early days I didn’t really care too much,” he says of his courageous style of play. “I thought it was good viewing for the supporters. We all dream to be courageous and putting your body on the line, and that was something I wanted to do. There comes a time when you need to draw the line and think, ‘That could be a little bit reckless and you could get hurt’.
“So after five or six years of doing things totally fearlessly I changed that a little bit because I got sick and tired of knees going into my ribs and the odd concussion here and there. So I had to weigh that up a little bit. Still had to go when it’s your turn, but I didn’t need to jump for some of the balls when there was a teammate who could gobble it up.”
Which part of his body now hurts the most? “Little bit of a sore knee. Sore lower back. It might get worse as I get older. Fingers crossed. Feel sorry for some of the other boys who come away and have pain on a daily basis in certain areas.”
Wanganeen had a dream year in 1993. He won the Brownlow Medal for the fairest and best player – the first indigenous player to do so – and played in the Essendon premiership (he kicked the last goal of the game). It was a heady time for a 20-year-old and it might have been tempting to think there were many more premiership to enjoy.
TONY FEDER / GETTY IMAGES
“Experiencing grand final success at a young age you don’t know how to appreciate things as much as you do when you’re older,” he says. “I had to wait 11 years to play in another premiership. So when I hit my late 20s and realised it’s been a long time … (I thought) will I ever get to play in one again? They were really nervous times. I was hoping and praying I’d get another opportunity. When it did come around (in 2004) it was so special.”
Wanganeen will always be associated with that great team of Baby Bombers (one of them, Fletcher, amazingly is still going nearly 20 years later).
“When that name (Baby Bombers) comes up you feel proud to be part of it,” he says. “You do have great bonds with those guys, even though we might not catch up on a regular basis. But at functions we see each other and it’s like yesterday.”
He loved playing for coach Kevin Sheedy. “The great thing about Sheeds is that he loved his players and he would do anything for them. He had a real passion for protecting his players. The tone in his voice just made you want to play footy. There was something about the way he explained things to you. A great fellow.”
In 1997, after six years with Essendon, Wanganeen decided to leave his beloved Bombers and return home to Adelaide to play for the new Port Adelaide Power. I asked him why he left. “It’s amazing how many people ask me about that; so many supporters. I was 23 years of age. A lot of variables come into it … I thought there was an opportunity to go back to Adelaide and play footy in my home state and play for Port Adelaide in this new era.
“It was a tough decision. I could easily have stayed. I missed out on the 2000 premiership side with Essendon. That was really hard for me. They’d had one of the greatest seasons of all time. I said to myself, ‘I’ve missed out on that one and if I don’t play in a premiership with Port the decision was the wrong one’.”
Still, he was part of Port Adelaide’s first premiership, in 2004. “I feel very privileged and honoured to have had success at both great clubs. I have a great passion and love for both clubs.”
Wanganeen frets for Port, which is struggling. “I feel for the club and the supporters and even the current players, week in, week out with that burden on their shoulders.”
He finds looking back on his career “a bit of a surreal feeling, even now”. He can’t quite believe he did it all. “To see some of the things I’ve achieved … sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s a proud feeling when you sit down and think about it.”
Wanganeen retired in 2006. What was the best part of retiring? “No more training,” he says. “When you’ve done it for a long time, 16 years, you do tend to get very sore. Your back, your joints, do seize up in the last couple of years. You don’t miss that pain. And you just have so much more free time to do things. On weekends you can get up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, I’m free. What can I do this weekend?’ It was strange. It took two or three years to get used to. You’re just used to playing footy on weekends, probably since I was six years old.”
But he missed the excitement. “You miss playing in front of the big crowds, hearing that roar, whether it’s ‘ball!’ or cheering a great mark. They are adrenalin rushes that you miss and can never experience again.”
After retiring, Wanganeen drifted away from football. He didn’t consider a media career. “I didn’t want to get into the media. I felt I just wanted to thaw out, get away from football and just do my own thing. I thought football might suck me back in somewhere along the line. It’s got to be a real passion. And that can happen.
I ask him to reflect on the often-expressed view that indigenous players have a different way of playing the game. “There probably is something in that. Rocking up to Windy Hill at the end of 1990 and seeing guys like Michael Long and Derek Kickett there was great for me. Something about the skills and the speed and the evasive ball reading. Maybe it goes back a few generations. Living off the land and having to cover a lot of ground and be flexible.”
He says football has always been important to many indigenous people. “Coming from a modest background growing up, footy is all I had. I kicked it a lot with all the cousins and we all got good at it. If it wasn’t our footy, it was the neighbour’s footy. And if it wasn’t a footy it was a rolled-up sock with stickytape over it which we’d kick in the hallway. Footy is the heart and soul of a lot of indigenous communities. It’s all we had, a lot of us, so we got good at it.”
He watches Hawthorn’s Lance “Buddy” Franklin in awe. “Everyone has to. The size of him. There aren’t many tall indigenous lads – 6ft 6ins (196cm) – like that who can run. He’s not massive with the big chest, big arms; he’s more wiry but he’s still powerful and that’s why he can cover the ground. He’s obviously a freakish talent.”
Wanganeen has spent the past few years overseeing the two gym franchises he has in Adelaide. “I was going to the gym a fair bit. Someone mentioned I should look at one of the franchises, so I did. It’s a good industry to be in, being able to help people take control of their health and keep fit.”
He sited his new gym in Essendon partly because of his reputation. When offered a franchise there it seemed a good fit. “With my profile in the Essendon area it seemed to be a good opportunity so I jumped at it. I do spend an awful lot of time over in Melbourne; I love the Melbourne lifestyle.”
Wanganeen’s first marriage ended in 2009 and he has two children, Mia, 12, and Tex, nine. “My young boy Tex ran out through the Essendon banner as a mascot,” he says. And he adds, temptingly for Essendon fans: “He qualifies father-son.”
He enjoys fatherhood. “It’s good; keeps you on your toes. Tex loves a kick, so I’m always kicking the footy with him.” Tex and Mia both have Essendon and Port Adelaide jumpers. “He rotates a lot,” he says. “Mia the same.”
Five years ago Wanganeen was in South Africa overseeing football clinics for local children when he met the woman who would become his second wife, Pippa. Two years later they bumped into each other back in Adelaide. They married in July this year. “That’s been a great thing. A lovely lady.”
He keeps fit but doesn’t run as much as he used to “because my knees are sore”. It’s slightly confronting that one of the Baby Bombers is nearly 40. Is he scared of turning 40? “A little bit … to see a four in front of your name.”
Wanganeen says the news of Port Adelaide footballer John McCarthy’s death in Las Vegas last week is shocking. “I tossed and turned all night about it, it’s hard to believe it’s real,” he says. “I didn’t know John but over the past couple of years when I went down to the club and say a quick hello I’d always walk away and think ‘What a pleasant young man’. He really was such a nice young man, and very popular there.”
He says goodbye and retreats to the back of the café to send some emails. He’s left the spotlight and the roar of the crowd that used to thrill him, but he seems to be in a very good place.
“Life’s great,” he says.
Sweat » Anytime Fitness, at 23 Keilor Road, Essendon, will open in late September. email@example.com