Twice dead and buried before his AFL career got off the ground Brett Kirk is the ultimate story of persistence.
He’s also an incredible tale of durability.
Kirk missed just one game in his entire career, country and reserves footy included, that’s right, one solitary game in 18 years of footy.
From the age of 16 when he was thrown into the deep end of the Ovens and Murray League playing for North Albury to his ‘Swansong’ in the 2010 semi-final loss to the Western Bulldogs at the MCG 18 years later, Kirk had just one week on the sidelines. It was a Swans reserves match in his first season in Sydney in 1999.
“It was a nick in my quad,” Kirk said. “I remember having a chat with Matt (Cameron) the Swans physio. I thought that I could play, and Matt thought I should take a week off.”
Neither Cameron nor Kirk knew at the time they were putting the kybosh on a ‘Guinness Book of Records’ type effort for resilience. Imagine going through an entire footy career without missing a game.
On top of his 241 games for the Swans, Kirk estimates he played more than 80 games for North Albury and another 60 plus for the Swans Reserves. That’s more than 380 games and only one missed through injury.
It’s a phenomenal effort in any era of football but Kirk achieved this feat with the added challenge of playing as an inside midfielder. Heavy body contact was a given, and in his case, it was being delivered by players like Mark Ricciuto and Nathan Buckley who were more than 10kg heavier than his 80kg frame.
“Timing was everything,” Kirk said. “I did a lot of homework on my opponents. Mark Ricciuto for example, I would push him under the ball and hit him late and move my feet. I kept away from situations where I was vulnerable, if I got into a wrestle with these guys, they would move me, and I wouldn’t be effective”.
“You changed your tactics according to whether it was Lenny Hayes, Simon Black, Nathan Buckley or Mark Ricciuto. They all had different strengths, it was about knowing their strengths and where I could expose them,” he added.
Kirk also learned a thing or two from his dad, Noel Kirk, who played for the Burrumbuttock Swans in the Hume League. Noel lost his hand in a farming accident at the age of four but still played out a long and successful career.
“He played on the half back flank and was as tough as an old boot,” Kirk said.
“He would spoil the ball with his right fist and then hit someone in the back of the head with his stump. He was a left footer and played an aggressive bruising style of footy. He played for a long time.”
Growing up Brett loved the atmosphere at the footy at Burrumbuttock, when he wasn’t sneaking into the rooms, he would be climbing trees, eating chips and peeping over the fence to see how it was going. He even followed the Sydney Swans because they wore the red and white of Burrumbuttock. He also gleaned some pretty handy footy IP”.
“When I was growing up, my dad said if you hesitate you get hurt,” Kirk said. “He was right, the way I attacked the contest was I was fully invested in it every time. I was never in the in-between phase, I was in it or through it.”
The footy and life lessons Brett learnt from his dad would come in handy over the coming years as the knock backs came.
The first was in 1996 when Kirk was on the Swans supplementary list. He was studying a Bachelor of Education at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga and flying in each week to play for the Swans Reserves. He had played every game for the season (19) but was dropped for the Preliminary Final.
“I was shattered,” Kirk said. “I didn’t hear anything from the club from that point on. The first I heard from the club was a letter from Rob Snowdon in January. It said thanks for your service, but I was no longer required. I just put my head down and worked harder, spent another couple of years at Uni and finished my degree and got another chance.”
He earned another shot thorough a stand-out performance for Victorian Country at the national country championships at Bendigo in 1998 and he was selected in the All-Australian Country team. The Victorian team was managed by David Matthews (now Giants CEO) who strongly encouraged him to have another crack at the AFL.
Kirk was back at the Swans in 1999 and kicked three goals on debut in round 19 against the Kangaroos. He played the remaining four games, including a losing final against Essendon, and another 36 games over the next three and a half seasons. But when Sydney hit a bad patch of form midway through 2002, Kirk was in the gun again.
“Rocket (Rodney Eade) took Daniel McPherson and I into his office and said we’re not going to make finals so we will play younger players,” Kirk said.
“I remember going home devastated, but within seven days Rocket had left and Paul Roos took over. I didn’t play in his first two games as coach, but I played in his third and then the next 200 consecutively.”
Those 200 included the 2005 premiership, that year when Kirk won the Bob Skilton Medal and added another in 2007. He was runner up four times, third once and eighth in his last year.
His partnership with Paul Roos was an enormously successful period for the Swans resulting in 18 finals appearances over seven campaigns in eight years.
“Paul coached 202 games and I played in 200 of them. We finished up in the same match in 2010,” Kirk said.
“Paul and I had a strong relationship that was built on honesty and trust and we would challenge each other to be better.”
Kirk is currently the Head of Wellbeing and Development at the Swans.
His family are all involved in footy, his wife Hayley coaches and their children Indhi, Memphys, Tallulah and Skout all play.