As Dustin Martin walks out of Richmond Football Club and onto Melbourne's Punt Road, his eyes fix on a point in the middle distance and stay there. If they were to stray in any other direction, he would see what he must intuit - that all other eyes are trained on him. It's the same wherever he goes, which must be an overwhelming sensation. In the rigidly blinkered bearing he adopts in public to deal with it, he reminds me of American golfer Tiger Woods at his peak. The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but only those in Martin's most intimate circle get a peep in.
In the vernacular of a game and a city, Martin is now simply Dusty. Last Monday, he polled a record number of votes to win the Brownlow medal as the best player in the Australian Football League this season. On Saturday, he will be the central figure as Richmond, a huge and once powerful club, but chronically unfulfilled, plays in its first grand final since 1982. It's long been the club of eternal false dawns and regular Messiahs, of which Dusty is the latest and most exotic.
Now 26, Dusty has become a cult figure and the most compelling character in the game. He is sumptuously tattooed and sports a permanent mohawk. He's a high school drop-out from a broken home, whose father Shane Martin is a former bikie gang member now living - under protest - in his native New Zealand, his hopes of returning to Australia all but snuffed out by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Dusty's own set of friends and acquaintances might most kindly be described as "raffish". The sum of all this gives him a pseudo-underworld glamour that fascinates many. And he can play football like few others.
Mentor and former Richmond assistant coach Mark Williams says it's a marvel Dusty has made himself into a champion footballer considering his background. But Ian "Stewie" Stewart, a star VFL player from the 1960s and '70s, says his success might be because of his background. He recalls others who have overcome difficult upbringings to become stars. "It seems to drive them," he says. "It does drive them." Stewart, who grew up without a father and went on to win three Brownlow medals, the game's highest individual honour, including one for Richmond, would know that as well as anyone.
In his first season, 2010, Dusty was already being talked of as a future Brownlow medallist and compared with the game's best. To one ex-player, he looked like the reincarnation of Leigh Matthews, the one-time Hawthorn champion regarded by many as the code's greatest of all. Earlier this month, Matthews, who is not one for hyperbole, said Dusty's 2017 season was the greatest by any player in the game's history. He got little argument.
"His ability to impact games, to be the match winner, is right up there," says Richmond chief executive Brendon Gale, who played 244 games for the Tigers. "A lot of the old-timers talk about his similarity to Stewie."
Dusty Martin and his Brownlow medal. Photo: Wayne Ludbey
Dusty's style was and remains explosive rather than artistic. AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan is an admirer. "The immediate word I associate with Dustin Martin is dynamic," he says. "You can't miss him on the field. He plays football like most of us would want to play - breaking out of packs, pushing off opponents and kicking long goals."
"I like watching Dustin Martin play," The Age's one-time football poet Martin Flanagan once wrote. "He's the football equivalent of a four-wheel-drive with a tray full of work equipment and red dust on its sides."
Dusty's signature move is an open-handed fend-off by which he keeps fit, strong, hard, murderously intent opponents at almost contemptuous bay, making room for his next act. He is King Canute, this time stopping the tide. The move is known as the "don't argue", but one day it will be named for him, the way wrestlers, gymnasts and ice-skaters have manoeuvres named for them. It's also a metaphor for Dusty's life: keep your distance while I do my thing.
By the standards of professional sport, Dusty is a recluse in full view. Seen and beheld, but little heard. He's the polar opposite of Geelong's ever available and availing Patrick Dangerfield, last year's Brownlow medallist and Dusty's rival as the code's best player. "Rarely have we known a footballer who looks so effortless and natural on the football field," wrote dewy-eyed Richmond blogger Dugald Jellie, "yet so unsure and displaced when put on one of life's other stages." When teammate Shane Edwards drove Dusty home from training one night in his first year, Dusty wouldn't even say where he lived. "We ended up way past his place," Edwards says in a club-produced video. "I couldn't get a word out of him."
Once, that was shyness. Now, more likely, it's self-protection. Dusty rarely gives mainstream media interviews and divulges little when he does. He bobs up fleetingly in post-match on-ground chats, and in self-consciously casual social-media clips - including one with another lavishly tattooed maverick Brownlow winner, Collingwood's Dane Swan, with whom he's close. He's appeared in video snippets produced by the club but with decreasing frequency. It drives them mad. "As soon as I get into the footy club, and out there on the 'G [MCG], all I'm thinking about is footy," he said on Brownlow night. "The rest is just noise." He would not even accede to photographers' requests to kiss the medal, as per long and cliched tradition.
When, after season-long intrigue, Dusty turned his back in late August on a vast offer from North Melbourne and signed a lesser but still enormous seven-year, $8-million contract with Richmond, the announcement was made not by or at the club, but in an interview on Channel Nine's The Footy Show for which Dusty was paid about $50,000. It was pre-recorded, too. By the time it aired, Dusty was where he's happiest - in the lounge room of club captain and friend Trent Cotchin. Out of sight, front of mind. "It was certainly stressful," he said. "I was sick of talking about it, sick of my ugly face in the paper every day."
To the Brownlow count, Dusty did not take a glamorously dressed girlfriend in the usual style, but instead, his teammate Sam Lloyd. Because of the impending grand final, he was unable to drink on the night, not even the toast. When the winning spotlight turned on him, his discomfort was acute. He fished out of his pocket a speech he said a friend had written for him, and said he hoped he could read the hand-writing. "I'm obviously not a big fan of the media, or talking to people," he said. It was strangely affecting.
Dustin Martin and Sam Lloyd arrive at the Brownlows. Photo: Paul Jeffers
The way Dusty has asserted control over his own image is something of a parable of modern sport. His manager, Ralph Carr, oversees the affairs of pop singer Kate Ceberano, opera tenor Mark Vincent and TV presenter Richard Wilkins, among others, but he's represented few footballers, though he once sat on the board of Carlton, Richmond's arch rival. Carr has been good for Dusty. Early in his career, an acquaintance and former player had thought to find someone else to handle Dusty's affairs but, when he heard how much money he was making, said: "You don't need a new manager." On Brownlow night, Dusty said Carr was "like family".
Concerning Dusty, Carr told the Herald Sunin 2012: "Certain players will be treated more like special brands and, with modern technology and social media, will earn more income outside of the club and AFL boundaries." To whatever figure he had in mind then, you can now add a couple more noughts.
No doubt, Carr would like Dusty to do more, but at $1.1 million a year from the Tigers, his income barely needs leveraging. He is one of few players who can name his price, which includes privacy. When pressed about his contract status at a promotion he did as a favour to Mark Williams this year, Dusty simply walked out. As journalist Jake Niall once wrote of another taciturn, enigmatic and sometimes troubled superstar, Gary Ablett snr, Dusty has become a puzzle the media feels it must solve.
Dusty's story certainly has a picaresque thread to it. He grew up near sleepy Castlemaine, an old Victorian goldfields town re-enriched by and for foodies, on 1.2 hectares that Dusty and his two brothers converted into their own football ground, with goal posts at one end. In the winter, they played up and down the hallway of the house. "I didn't care about the walls," his mother, Kathy Knight, said in a recent interview. "They can be fixed, and boys have to burn off some energy."
When her home was flooded in 2011, Dusty bought her a new dining table and fridge, but made certain to say they were from all three brothers. The same trait is evident in his footy; he has the riches but shares them around. It has been a feature of his season. "I call him my warrior," Knight told the Herald Sun. "That's what his name, Dustin, means."
Dusty objected that his mother had even been interviewed. "I was pretty filthy on her because I told her not to talk to any media," he said after winning the Brownlow. He did, however, forgive her.
Dusty's father, Shane Martin, is a fearsome-looking Maori who lived in Australia for nearly 30 years but was deported in 2016 because of a previous connection with the Rebels motorcycle gang. Shane protested that he's long since renounced the bikie gang and has never been to jail. "I've got history, you know, but it's not indictable," he said in a TV interview.
Dusty's father, Shane Martin. Photo: Supplied
It was to no avail. Dusty appealed publicly - and privately, via Richmond - for a reprieve for his father. "Just because he was in a club doesn't mean he has done anything wrong," he pleaded on Channel Nine's A Current Affair. "I am in a footy club, he is in a bikie club. They join, get together, go for rides."
This month, Dutton affirmed the ban. "He's not coming back, no," he said on Melbourne's Triple M radio station. "I feel for the Martin family in the circumstances, but I've got to take into consideration not only those people that have been victims of crimes committed by outlaw motorcycle gangs members, and those associated with them, but also the future impact. That is, we want to try and reduce crime." Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull backed Dutton. Asked on 3AW if Shane was a threat to safety in this country, he replied: "Of course."
In lieu, Dusty visits his dad in New Zealand several times a year, with Richmond's blessing. Dusty lives in inner Melbourne with his brother Bronson, who has served in the Australian Army and done a tour of Afghanistan. His other brother Tyson, an electrician, lives in Spain, but is returning for the grand final.
Dusty and Shane are unaffectedly close. Both sport the same "live free, die free" tattoos on their torsos, and the same distinctive pair of neck tattoos, "Ngati Maru" and "Matai Whetu", honouring Shane's North Island tribe and their gathering place. "I was depressed for a week when he got the neck tattoos," his mother told the Herald Sun. "He'd just turned 18. I just kept telling myself that they suit him."
With Carr in tow, Dusty flew to New Zealand to get Shane's blessing before signing his new Richmond contract. When interviewed on The Footy Show, Shane struggled to articulate his thoughts until he was asked what he had to say to his son, whereupon he thumped his fist against his heart so forcefully the percussive sound carried across the airwaves. In another online video, Shane's wife Adriana, who lives in Sydney, says: "If Dustin was to have the choice of receiving the Brownlow or having his dad home, I know what he'd choose in a heartbeat."
Dusty's parents separated when he was a teenager and his life teetered for a while. He left school in year nine, Castlemaine High somewhat quaintly citing "irreconcilable differences". He's often said he regrets this. Years later, in a draft-camp interview, a Port Adelaide rep asked him: "Are you dumb?" Dusty took no offence; he knew where they were coming from. His father, anxious to impose order on Dusty's life, summoned him to Sydney, where he was then living. There, Dusty worked long hours in Shane's transport business and Adriana's sports apparel firm. In these jobs, as well as during a brief stint as a stonemason in Castlemaine, he is said to have abhorred the drudgery. But he was never as angry as he looked, telling journalist Emma Quayle in a 2010 interview that he detested "slow traffic, that's all".
The provenance of Dusty Martin's prodigious talent is a mystery. Shane, not born to footy, was by his son's account no better than a trier at the game, and his mother did not play sport at all. Dusty decided at a young age that he was going to be an AFL footballer, which is not so unusual, and mapped out a program for himself, which is. At draft camp, where likely recruits are inspected and compared like houses or cars, he showed himself to be quick, a thumping kick and - surprise, surprise - accomplished at breaking tackles. "I reckon I was born to play AFL," he said at the time. Others reckoned it, too, but in the 2009 draft he became Richmond's prize. Quickly, he learnt what being an AFL player meant. "You're always being watched, I guess," he said in a club-produced video clip. "Any little thing you do wrong, you're going to be pulled up for it." He began to put his guard up.
Mark Williams, Cotchin and Carr, along with former Richmond president Gary March, with whom Dusty boarded for three years, have variously acted as guardians, mentors and mates. Evidently Dusty has honoured their comradeship and support, because they all honour his need to lie deep even as his profile expands to the horizon. Dusty won't speak to Good Weekend and, as a result, none of his confidants will tell tales about him, in school or out. March is a salt-of-the-earth footy type who also once billeted another of AFL's enfants terribles, Ben Cousins, a former star player whose drug use has got him in trouble with the law. Approached about Dusty, March is polite, but makes clear that to engage would be to betray a young man he has come to treat as a son.
Dusty with Tigers captain and close friend Trent Cotchin. Photo: AAP
There's been an element of rebel-at-large to the Dusty story, almost to the point of caricature. His list of associates would be called "colourful" on a racecourse, and some of them "known" in a police report. They include Swan, Cousins, Michael Gardiner, Jake King, Aaron Edwards and Marley Williams, all footballers who have fallen foul of the law. His preferred holiday destination is Las Vegas, latterly popular with a strand of AFL footballers who want to let go of all the disciplines that govern their lives and neither be recognised nor look out of place. His favourite movie is Straight Outta Compton, an ode to gangsta rap. For added dramatic effect, Carr sometimes comes across more as impresario than business manager.
It's a dossier that suggests Dusty is a handful to manage. "Not as much as you might think," says Gale, the Richmond CEO. "He's really matured in the last few years. He was always a great competitor, but in the early days it was about coming to terms with what was required in the whole of his life and the whole of his preparation. That might have been a bit challenging. He's got a real independent streak. He's a self-starter, self-motivated. And he's got a really strong sense of who he is. Not everyone has that. It's a form of intelligence. He's got a different set of friends, but when he comes to the football club, he's the uber pro."
Dusty is genuinely close to Cotchin, himself a brilliant, Brownlow-winning footballer, but from the other side of the tracks. The standards Cotchin sets as captain can be divined from footage that appeared after Richmond's win over Geelong in the qualifying final, of him cleaning up debris in the change rooms, alone. Recollecting his initial impression of Dusty in a video made by media firm Unscriptd, Cotchin said: "I just thought we were from different worlds. Bit yin and yang in some regards."
When Dusty briefly moved in with Cotchin and his wife, each saw a new side of the other. "Some of the changes I've made in my life are on the back of someone as raw and unique as Dusty," he said. The highly self-critical Cotchin also noted: "The number-one thing he has taught me is to be comfortable with who you are. Stand up for what you believe in. It's an incredible strength ??? He does it every day."
Dusty Martin has been judged, exactingly, by the company he keeps. In 2012, after moving out of March's house, he briefly shared digs with troublesome teammate Dan Connors, until they messed around with sleeping pills one night and missed training the next day. Connors, on a final warning, was sacked. Dusty, who had also been drinking, was suspended for two matches and warned to stay away from Connors. The next year, St Kilda players Sam Fisher and Leigh Montagna made travel plans with Dusty but were told to call them off. Closer to home, Richmond discreetly, unofficially deployed minders.
While 2012 was Dusty's worst year of footy, it also marked a turning point. He came under the guidance of rough-hewn but big-hearted Mark Williams, a premiership coach in his own right with Port Adelaide in 2004, who immediately recognised that Dusty was at the crossroads between stardom and oblivion visited by many young players. Weekly dinner with Williams, wife Pauline and their five kids became an anchor. Williams, though no longer on the Tigers' payroll, stays in touch with Dusty even when he's overseas. "That can be tough because he's probably lost or broken 10 phones since I've known him," Williams has written. "He has a bit of trouble with that."
Still Dusty nudged up against rules and sensitivities; metamorphosis in any endeavour is rarely painless. In 2013, he flirted with a move to Greater Western Sydney, straining Richmond hearts. At the best-and-fairest count that year, Dusty begged for understanding, especially for the demonised Carr, saying the Sydney move had nothing to do with his manager and was spurred by his desire to be closer to his father. Ultimately, it was GWS that advised him to stay at Richmond; he was established and well cared for there.
He was sanctioned twice for gestures to crowds. In 2013, he crossed his wrists as if wearing handcuffs and followed that in 2015 with a two-finger salute. Most shocking of all, late in 2015, was what became known as the "chopsticks incident". After a drunken day out at a music festival, Dusty was making a racket at Mr Miyagi, a restaurant in Melbourne's Windsor. Another diner asked him to tone it down whereupon, holding a chopstick, he menaced her, hitting the wall next to her with an open hand before the restaurant manager escorted him away. He apologised, she accepted. The matter was referred to police but went no further.
Richmond legend Kevin Bartlett called for a 12-month ban for Dusty. Instead, Richmond fined him $5000 and the AFL moved to tighten its respect and responsibility code, which had fallen into the too-hard basket. It was also alleged that the AFL acted too vigorously in protecting its image. "I was the one made to feel guilty," the victim has said. The incident left a bad taste that lingers still. It also hardened Dusty's already distant attitude towards media.
It was about then that a crisis meeting was held between Dusty, his manager, his father and his club. "I was just a young bloke who liked to play up every now and again," Dusty said this week. "I'm sure Ralph and my old man were sick of it. They told me to pull my head in, otherwise they weren't going to help me anymore. Ever since then, I've pulled my head in a bit."
The Brisbane Lions' Nick Robertson meets Dusty's specialty, the open-handed fend-off. Photo: AAP
It would be easy to deduce that Dusty Martin is a footballing dilettante, picking up a kick here and there while living the life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In eight years of AFL footy, he's missed just four games. Other than in 2012, he's been one of the Tigers' three best players every season, achieving a rare standard of consistency. Last year and this, the awards have piled up. They include the 2017 AFL Players Association award for the most valuable player, the Leigh Matthews Trophy, which is prized by players above almost all others, and the AFL Coaches Association award, too.
You cannot compile a record like that on talent and wits alone. He's a seriously good footballer who is serious about his footy. He is strict on himself about recovery and diet, honouring his boyhood manifesto. He took cooking lessons paid for by the club, practises mindfulness and does extra training at Leo Berry's boxing gym, a Richmond institution. In other words, he leaves no stone unturned. In Dusty can be discerned the overtones of a well-known footy trope, the star who works hard but likes to present as blas??.
Dusty is a fan favourite, and not just at Richmond. Gale says he is popular with all genders, age groups and demographics. "People realise he hasn't had it handed to him on a plate," he says. "He's got some gifts, but he's a fanatical trainer. He's made the most of his opportunities. That resonates with people."
McLachan also notes Dusty's broad appeal. "He's a prime reason that Tiger fans go to games," he says, "and I think supporters from other clubs can't help but admire his ability and how consistent he is."
Cotchin has said repeatedly that Dusty is a book misjudged by its cover. He and Mark Williams have both spoken in wonderment of the gentle man who lies on the floor to play with their young daughters, and of the reciprocal affection. It's true that shy people often find children easier to deal with than adults. It is also true that the fiercest warriors often find refuge in the most gentle pastimes.
If Dusty Martin is a book, it's closed tight - albeit with a cover that's nothing less than arresting. Retired Western Bulldogs star Bob Murphy wrote in 2013 of the manifest presence of some players and the distorting effect they exercise on the field: "It happened with Dustin Martin last year. He jogged down to full-forward, where I was going to meet him, and as he got closer, I had to blink. He seemed a foot taller, and two stone heavier. Angry, too. Like a rhinoceros."
Five seasons later, Dusty Martin is larger again than life, a singular presence filling the game's consciousness. That's how opponents see him. That's how fans see him. What Dusty sees, who can really say? One day a book, a doco, a movie, or all three, will show us what it looks like through his eyes. But for now, they are looking resolutely and unblinkingly where their gaze cannot be returned.