This article continues my series on some of the AFL’s famous nicknames.
Danny Frawley sounded upbeat.
Focused. Passionate. Excited.
The former St Kilda legend, captain, hall of famer, avid cyclist, coach, football commentator and mental health advocate played his last game of football in 1995, but had spent much of his retirement analysing games, providing commentary and in more recent times advocating men’s health.
On this day in April, 2019, five months before he tragically died in a car accident in Millbrook a day after his 56th birthday, he was more than happy to talk about a story I was working on about the new AFL mental health role that was being proposed.
After the initial greetings, I could tell that Frawley took the topic of mental health seriously. His jovial and vibrant banter quickly turned to a cold calm demeanour.
“Did you know that 80 per cent of suicides are men? Most of them are young men,” he told me. “It’s eye-opening isn’t it?”
It was through Frawley’s Monday night radio program in 2018 titled No Man Should Ever Walk Alone where he guided his audience of sport tragics through the complex trail of men’s health and addiction in 37 episodes.
The thesis for the show revolved around “manning up” and quite simply put: it’s courageous to ask for help, it’s dangerous to suffer in silence. On his program he spoke to former football greats like Carlton’s Ken Hunter who spoke of his spiral into a dark place when he was dropped to the reserves.
Frawley spoke to psychologists about the stigma around mental health and how historically it’s seen as a weakness in football: “the glass ceiling has been cracked but we need to smash it open,” he said during one episode.
When I talked to Frawley about his playing days he recalled a much more balanced life where separation existed between football and life outside it. Football used to be “just a release.” Now it’s become a 24/7 beast where players are scrutinised more intensely and the industry has evolved into more of a cutthroat career.
Frawley believed clubs needed to be proactive in order to identify what balanced football looks like to help make the work environment for players less stressful.
“You’d like to think now players are able to talk freely without fear of retribution or getting delisted because unfortunately that’s what’s happened in the past,” Frawley told me. “Now manning up is to put your hand up and ask for support. But it’s a moving beast.”
It took Frawley four years to come out publicly with his battle with depression. He told me people would see him as a happy-go-lucky public personality but behind closed doors it was hard on his family and little problems became mountains.
In 2018 when a story broke detailing Fremantle forward Jesse Hogan’s drinking incident and clinical anxiety diagnosis, Frawley saw it as a good thing that Hogan was able to voice his struggle.
He said if more players did that it would help other players who suffer from mental health issues come out of the shadows and feel comfortable about asking their football club for support.
“Mental health is not a weakness. What that support looks like, you know, you need your club, you need your family, and maybe some psychologist, to come in and help because the landscape the players are living in now is different to five years ago,” Frawley told me.
“The AFL can only do as much as the clubs want them to do. Clubs have to be more honest if they do need more support. It should be a common goal for all clubs to join together on best practice on wellness and mental healthcare as it doesn’t really have a lot to with on-field performance. I think the whole competition needs to shoulder the arms on this one.”
We said our professional goodbyes. I told him I’d send him the article once it was published. Frawley said he couldn’t wait to read it. He said gone are the days where you ignored how you felt and being proud and stubborn will do more damage than harm.
Things are changing. Football clubs are better equipped. They ask more questions about players. Most clubs have hired a psychologist to help treat and deal with players’ mindsets.
And we are seeing more players stepping away from the game when they need to and making their personal health a priority – Sam Powell-Pepper, Tom Scully, Dayne Beams, in recent times.
Sadly, for all the attention Frawley gave to mental health and all of the personal experiences he shared publicly, it wasn’t enough to save himself. This weekend St Kilda is dedicating their game to Frawley with the launch of Spud’s Game: Time2Talk, an initiative that the club calls a ground-breaking program that focuses on mental health. It’ll carry on the work that Frawley started.
“We’ve still got a long way to go.”