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.
I open the interview by saying: “So you’re a New Zealander”. “No,” he replies. “But that’s what’s been written.” His parents are New Zealanders but he was born when they were living in Australia. The family then returned to New Zealand before coming back to Australia while Big Max was still an infant.
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. 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”.
(It’s around this stage of the interview that Big Max leans across the table, peers at the pad upon which I’m scribbling my notes and says: “Good luck reading them when you get home.”) Big 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. For a time, he called Jordan McKenzie and Sam Blease by the same name.
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.”
Cox had superb skills. Hudson had everything else. “He followed up, he tackled. If one of his teammates was getting tagged, he kept belting into the tagger.” Gawn calls Hudson “the player everyone wanted to play with”. And Hudson was also a sledger of rare quality and distinction. Gawn says: “As a sledger, I’m gaining confidence. I was poor to begin with.”
The two players who have most impressed him are Jones and James McDonald. When he first got to the club, he saw Jones as a self-absorbed footballer. “He’s a completely changed man. He’s team first with everything.” McDonald, his first captain at the Dees, “could pull you into line. He had a word in my 17-year-old ear.” Gawn points out that he’s one of the few public schoolboys in the AFL. He was coming from a different culture, one in which, by his own admission, he had featured by being the class clown.
“Professionalism was the big issue for me.” He’s had three coaches. Dean Bailey? “Looking back, he was ahead of his time as an offensive coach.” Mark Neeld? “I got along quite well with him, but his game plan didn’t work.” Roos? “He brought excellence to the club.” He was a great player at Fitzroy, I remark. “Yes,” says Big Max. “He’s told us.”
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. He’s already booked in to see Steve Hughes, Ronnie Chang and Carl Barron at the Comedy Festival. “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.”