Luke Hodge is The Man. That’s all you need to know. Of all the things I learnt from last week’s AFL Grand Final, one fact has resonated throughout my brain every minute of every day for seven days straight – Luke Hodge is the fucken man.
Very rarely in AFL football can one player impose his will on an entire game. It’s not like basketball where one player can legitimately dominate on every possession at both ends of the floor (see Jordan or Duncan in their primes for proof of this). AFL is not built like that, mostly due to the physical dimensions of the sport and the fact you have seventeen team mates (for more AFL-NBA comparisons read my All-NBA AFL Team blog). But every now and then we see a performance where it feels like a player is controlling a game, as if pulling strings in some mystical football puppet show.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend eighteen grand finals in my life, each with its own distinct memories that send shivers down my spine. Those transcendent puppet-string performances seem to manifest themselves on those days, the last day in September, and they’ll be burnt into my brain forever.
I was there in ’89 marveling at Gary Ablett and Dermie and Dipper, but mostly Ablett. I remember looking away from the play during a boundary thrown-in, only to hear the roar of the crowd seconds later – another Ablett miracle goal out of nowhere to add to the list. I saw Peter Matera tear apart the Cats in ’92 and ’94, kicking goals from the wing on impossible angles that seemed to be 60, 70 meters out. Maybe even 80? I remember thinking in ’95 how on earth Greg Williams, a slow un-athletic mid-fielder could dominate a Grand Final with 31 possessions and 5 goals – numbers that still seem ridiculous today. I remember being in absolute awe of Andrew McCleod and Darren Jarman in ’97 and ’98 – Mcleod’s back-to-back North Smith Medals making him one of the undisputed best big-game players of all time, and a lock for my top ten favorite footballers of the past two decades. I could barely stay in my seat watching Jarman kick five last-quarter goals in ’97, perhaps the most clutch GF performance I’ve seen. I was there for all three of Brisbane’s premierships, the third of which cementing my belief that Michael Voss is perhaps the best footballer I’ve seen in my life. I remember Scott Burns flattening Jonathan Brown in ’02 and hearing that Brown didn’t remember anything from the rest of the game. I also remember thinking that Jonathan Brown might take over the world one day.
I was also there last Saturday, watching Luke Hodge command the Hawthorn backline like a World War II General, throwing his battered ribs at every contest with both reckless abandon and complete discipline – a rare and admirable combination. I watched him pointing and screaming at his teammates, preparing his troops before each Geelong thrust forward and leading them out again in counterattack. His passes didn’t so much set up his team mates as the subsequent pass did – a Larry Bird-esque trait of seeing the play unfold before it happened. Every single Luke Hodge decision seemed supremely deliberate, and every single decision he made (bar one) was 100% correct. Perhaps his perfection on this day owed to the miss-kick that cost the Hawks the game against Geelong late in the season – it is since that game that Hodge has carved out what is now being called his “quarterback” role, a role he seemed born to play.
He single-handedly dictated the tempo of the entire game; Hodge decided when to hold the ball and when to push it. You may say it was Alistair Clarkson’s tactics and his zone defense that helped the Hawks control the tempo, but I disagree. When the Cats applied the pressure in their forward line (as they did throughout the entire second quarter) you could see the Hawks players look to Hodge for a calming influence, and when he received the ball you could instantly feel it – the Hawks were safe, the game was safe. Hodge’s game was so measured that when he did blaze away with a long kick forward it kind of caught you by surprise, but every time it worked to full effect. No moment epitomized Hodge’s control of the game more so than his goal in the third quarter. For five minutes the scores were deadlocked, mostly in part to the Hawks (and Hodge’s) resilience in defense and their insistence at playing tight, possession football. After a free kick in their forward line, Hodge ran the length of the ground to receive a handball outside 50 and bomb a long goal. The puppet strings were pulled. It triggered a Hawthorn onslaught – ten minutes later the Hawks were 33 points in front and the game was practically over.
But it wasn’t just his football that impressed me on this day.
I watched him run from the other end of the ground to pull a few of his teammates by the jumper and break up the impending brawl at three-quarter time – the fact there was no brawl was directly due to Luke Hodge. How peculiar that the toughest man on the field that day was also probably the smartest.
I watched him after Max Rooke tried to test out his ribs in a boundary line bump (note: a “bump” from Max Rooke is generally enough to break most normal humans in two). These were the same ribs that caused Hodge to cough up blood a week earlier (see below video). Hodge got up, gave him a friendly smirk and patted him on the backside while running off. Rooke didn’t know it at the time but he was just mentally dominated. That’s the kind of pat your dad gives you when he beats you in an arm-wrestle as a seven-year old. If someone like Akermanis or Medhurst did that to a player you put it down to them being a show-ponying smartarse. When Hodgey does it you genuinely believe he feels sorry for the other guy being one-tenth as manly as he is.
I watched him mouthing off to his teammate Campbell Brown late in the fourth quarter when the game was practically sealed. Brown had just taken a courageous mark backing into a pack, before having a massive brain-fade and tossing the ball in the air to no one in particular. He was penalised for throwing the ball and had a few choice words for the umpire. Hodgey came running over screaming at him, visibly distressed. You think his backline counterpart may have pat him on the back for putting his body on the line just seconds earlier, one of Brown’s many courageous efforts on this day. But no, not Hodgey. Hodgey was pissed. Hours later on the TV replay I finally figured out exactly what he said to Brown. “Hey… shut up!” he screamed, while Brown was still mouthing off at the umpire. Hodge ripped the ball out of Brown’s hands, gave it to the opposition and started directing his backline troops once more. The game was over, another Geelong goal would have been meaningless. Not for Luke Hodge.
Rarely have I been so impressed with a player as unflashy as Hodge, a player who doesn’t dart through packs like Ablett or Cooney, a player who doesn’t regularly rack up 30-35 possessions like Bartel or Judd, a player who doesn’t kick miracle goals like Buddy or Fevola. No more proof is needed of Hodge’s unflashiness than his Brownlow performance this season – remarkably he was only awarded two votes in total, which is a bit of a joke really. Not that Hodge would care of course. If there was an award for the AFL’s Most Manly player Hodge would win it in a landslide. Everyone knows that. Hodge knows that.
If you think I’m going overboard with my Luke Hodge love-fest then you’d be right. Right now I have all the symptoms of a classic man crush. The man is my #1 favorite footballer and will be until next season rolls around (and no I’m not a Hawks fan, I’m Blues supporter and Fev is now my #2). He’s been in my top five all year, probably since I saw his effort against Adelaide in last year’s Elimination Final at Telstra Dome. That was the first time I really noticed Luke Hodge. Now I’ll be keeping an eye on him the rest of his career, just as I did after watching Ablett, McCleod and Voss all those years ago.
There may be flashier players in the league, quicker players, bigger players, more athletic players. But right now there is no one tougher, no leader more inspirational, no man more manly than Luke Hodge. So next time you find yourself whining about something gone wrong, next time you get poked in the eye driving to the hoop or kneed in the ribs going for a rebound, stop your whining and think to yourself… What Would Hodge Do? And if you do find yourself coughing up blood only to lead your team to a championship the following week, and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror the next day thinking “I’m the man”, realise one thing… You are not the man. Luke Hodge is The Man. And that’s all you need to know.