Max Gawn is tall. Very tall (208 centimetres). He looks like the middle third of his body was fed through a roller and elongated. He has a lumberjack beard and greyish-green eyes that are friendly but also watchful.
The 24-year-old who has New Zealand heritage through his parents has been setting the AFL competition a light with his scintillating form playing for the Melbourne Football club.
Gawn was born in Australia, but his family is originally from Greymouth in the South Island. They’re a rugby union family, his father having played for the South Island representative team before “he did a couple of knees”. Of his family, Big Max says: “When I started playing footy, they’d ask me questions like, ‘Does the ball go back to the centre after a goal?’. Now they’re telling me how to play.” But Big Max has a Kiwi spirit and, as history shows, that’s a remarkable attribute in sport.
Gawn is a character – the sort of character every football club needs and that the Melbourne Football Club needs desperately. He’s a true believer. Melbourne great Irishman Jim Stynes spotted him early and started Gawn in the No.37 guernsey the Irishman had when he first came to the club. Gawn now plays in No.11, the guernsey Stynes wore when he won a Brownlow medal and four club best and fairests. Gawn says Stynes’ death in 2012 “knocked me round a bit. At the time, he was my idol”.
Gawn says things other footballers say but, with him, you’re in no doubt that he means them. He says you have to love the game to be a footballer. “That’s number one.” As a kid, he barracked for Richmond, his favourite player being Clinton King. Why Clinton King, I ask. (King was a journeyman small forward who played 89 games at three clubs). “I’m a different cat, Clinton King was a different cat. My eye went straight to him.” After King departed the Tigers in 2003, “I jumped on Richo. I loved his passion”.
Max describes himself as “a sociable person with a touch of whiteline fever”. Taken by Melbourne with their 34th pick at the 2009 national draft, he entered the Demons changerooms for the first time to find all the players dressed up for a dancing contest. “There’s 40 blokes in wigs and costumes,” he said. He didn’t know any of them.
Melbourne had some star recruits that year, principally the No.1 and No.2 draft picks, Tom Scully and Jack Trengrove. The president, Stynes, greeted all the recruits but Gawn was the one he pointed at and said: “I’m looking forward to seeing what you bring to the club.”
Gawn does not have Stynes’ illustrious playing record. He is just beginning his career in earnest, but what he does have in common with Stynes is a certain sinewy strength and unqualified commitment. Of his time at Melbourne, Big Max says: “First, I fell in love with the club.” He was sidelined by a knee reconstruction for the whole of 2009. “I watched a lot. I became a supporter. Then I became a real big supporter.”
Nathan Jones, Melbourne’s captain, is a serious footballer. He’s also a serious surfer. Jones wants to ride the wave of premiership glory and, in Gawn, he sees a kindred spirit. “Max is super-competitive and a terrific contested mark who’s really learning the craft of the tap ruckman,” he said. Gawn is part of a core of serious ambition that is finally building at the Dees.
Jones says Gawn “attacked” the pre-season, putting in one session that coach Paul Roos described as the best he’d seen in 30 years. “Max has got really good balance,” says Jones. “He knows when to have fun and he knows when to really switch on.” This year, Big Max was elected to Melbourne’s leadership group.
Gawn describes rucking as “a completely weird craft that no-one else does”. His football judgments are shrewd. The two ruckmen who have most influenced him are Dean Cox and Ben Hudson. He played Cox just before he retired. “I don’t know why he was retiring. He was still dominant.”
Away from sport – he has what he calls “an old-fashioned interest in cricket” and is a keen Black Caps man – Gawn is a fan of stand-up comedy and music. “I can sit at home and watch replay after replay of stand-up comedy shows.” A lot of the laughter around Melbourne Football Club originates with Big Max although he claims teammate Angus Brayshaw has got him “covered” for comedy.
He also draws up the playlist of songs to be played in the changerooms before each match. “You have to cater for everyone. A bit of Metallica for the old blokes, Justin Bieber for some of the young boys.” Jones says people are drawn to Gawn. “He’s a larger than life character who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
His break-out game, against Geelong last year, was when he brought together what he calls “the Dean Cox and Ben Hudson side of things”. The previous week, he’d tapped the ball to the wrong spot in the final seconds against St Kilda. The Saints goaled, Melbourne lost and Big Max “got a bit of a whack” from the coach. “The next week, no matter who we were playing, I was going to come out pretty hard.”
North Melbourne’s Todd Goldstein is the current king of ruckmen. What Gawn has observed about Goldstein is that “he’s going as hard at the final siren as he is at the start of the game”. Gawn has put a lot of work into building up what he calls his “cardio base”. “After six years, I’ve finally got muscles where I need them.”
At the age of 24, Gawn is where he wants to be, Melbourne’s No.1 ruckman, measuring himself against the best in the game. Jones says Gawn is “a very loyal person”. Gawn says: “I just want to see this club be great again.”
Story – theage.com.au