In the second year of a career which was to span 16 seasons, three events convinced Simon Black he was beginning to belong among the AFL’s best.
The first event came in round 14 of the 1999 season, Black’s Brisbane Lions playing that year’s premier team North Melbourne at football’s home, the MCG.
Black, a 20yo in his 21st game, accumulated 18 contested possessions among a total of 31, had 13 clearances, two goals and eight inside 50s in a match the Lions led by 26 points at half-time but lost by two points.
Black was this week officially inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, an honour he was unable to accept in person last year due to an appearance in reality TV show Survivor, and one this year that is also unique due to the COVID-19 shutdown off events.
“If there was a game where I didn’t feel out of place for probably the first time, that was the one,” Black told AFL.com.au.
“I got a crack as an inside mid for the whole game. It was a watershed moment. The penny dropped. I still had a lot of work to do after that, but the self-doubt started to dissipate.”
The second event arrived three weeks later at the Gabba. Black was on the ground, preparing to play West Coast when legendary Eagles coach Mick Malthouse wandered over.
“He just said to me, ‘Hey, if you want to come back to WA, we’d be keen to have a chat’,” Black recalled. “I had my game hat on. I don’t think I told him to rack off, but that was what I was thinking. And then he racked off to Melbourne anyway!”
The third event was back at the MCG, linked to the first. The Lions had qualified for a preliminary final, after 73- and 53-point wins respectively against Carlton and Western Bulldogs in finals wins at the Gabba.
Awaiting the Lions was the seasoned North Melbourne, which had clearly remembered the impact of Black at the same venue 10 weeks earlier.
Black didn’t last the first quarter, Roos full-back Mick Martyn taking him out of the game in a sickening blow to the face which, had it been cleanly captured on video, would have seen the North great missing not just the next week’s Grand Final but probably the first six weeks of the 2000 season.
“I see him at the Grand Final each year. He apologises every year. It took him a few years, though. I was pretty dirty on him.
“Even today, if I look quickly to my left, it goes blurry really quickly. At the time I was concerned how my sight was actually going to be, and for quite a few weeks it wasn’t great around the eye socket and cheekbone.”
Black arrived at the Gabba in late 1997 and left it in 2013 as the Lions’ games record-holder (322).
Consecutive best-and-fairest awards in the premiership years 2001 and 2002, a Brownlow Medal in the second of those years, a third club champion title in 2006, a Norm Smith Medal in the 2003, third-flag-in-row win by the Lions, selection in three All-Australian teams and captaincy of the Lions are among the credentials that guaranteed his place in the Hall of Fame.
His membership of the Fab Four (Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis and Nigel Lappin being the other members) will forever position him in any conversation about all-time great AFL midfield conversations.
As well as winning the 2002 Brownlow Medal, Black twice finished second – 2007 and 2008 (by one vote) – in that award. He also finished fourth (2009), sixth (2004) and 13th (2001, the year Akermanis won).
Black has never been comfortable that the headlines have always been afforded the Fab Four because “there were so many others who played in there, too, who equally played the roles which allowed everyone in the team to bond so strongly”.
“Vossy was the most influential on me, the way he played and the conviction he had was unparalleled,” Black said. “His desire to win and to get the best out of himself was something that had a major effect on me. And as amazingly good as he was his whole career, I’m not actually sure we saw the best of him after he broke that leg in ’98.”
Black was an emergency on that day, round 11 1998 at Subiaco Oval, where the Lions were playing Fremantle.
“I remember him in the change rooms, just screaming,” Black said. “They put a steel rod in his leg and he had that all of the next season where he was All-Australian. The swelling he had in that leg after each game is something I will never forget.”
Among Black’s favourite moments in his career was the Voss-Scott Burns bump, where Voss bounced off and set up a goal, at the Punt Rd end of the MCG during the incredible battle that was the 2002 Grand Final.
Another one was his own supreme performance on the corresponding day the following year against the same opponent, where his 39 disposals were viewed as near-perfection in the Lions’ three-peat Grand Final performance.
“I’m not sure it was the best game I ever played but certainly it was up there,” Black said.
“I do remember feeling very calm, on top of my game, though. People talk about being in tune, and I know that there was nowhere else on the planet I wanted to be on that day than on that ground with my mates having a crack at three in a row.
“I was really nervous for the first two, but for some reason for that third one I was in a really good place. I knew we had some injuries that day. Nige had his ribs, Vossy had a knee, a few others were a bit banged up. But I felt good.”
Akermanis, who had kicked the Grand Final-winning goal the previous year, kicked five goals on the day Black was awarded the Norm Smith.
“He’s still shitty, I think, and at every sportsman’s night he says he should’ve won it, and I just say to him, ‘I’ll post it to you in the mail, if you want’,” Black said.
“What a talent. And what a promoter of the game, from the handstands to the media attention he gave us and while it got a bit messy with him with what happened, as far as having a teammate on the field to handball to, there was no one I’d rather have. He had an innate ability to be in position, no matter the circumstances.”
Black said he never wanted to leave Brisbane after his initial re-signing, largely due to feeling a sense of “ownership” of the club along with a group of equally immensely talented teammates.
“And no one would ever underestimate what Jonathan Brown did, the brutality that he played with was something I was in awe of,” Black said. “Late in his career, I wanted to tell him to take it easy because I thought he was going to kill himself.
“It was just crazy courage. We got closer as the years went on and I love what he stands for. To share his career was a privilege.”
Asked to summarise the success and impact he had on the AFL, Black immediately focused on the club’s legendary leader in one of the game’s most successful eras which went close to fourth successive premiership.
“Sometimes, the toughest thing to do is actually give yourself a chance at success, and we were fortunately able to do that because everyone did their bit for the team,” Black said.
“We were fortunate to have Leigh (Matthews, as coach). He just made everything as simple as he could for us. There was a lot of simplicity when he spoke to us. We just bought in, totally. We always had clarity.”
Simon Black by the numbers
Played 322 games and scored 171 goals for Brisbane: 1998-2013
Three-time AFL Premiership player: 2001, 2002, 2003
Club captain: 2007-08 (joint)
Brownlow Medallist: 2002
Club Best & Fairest: 2001 (equal), 2002 & 2006
Norm Smith Medallist: 2003
All Australian: 2001, 2002, 2004