There is always a lot of excitement surrounding the end of the AFL season.
With premiership glory on the line, the last few weeks draw massive attention from fans, even those whose teams fall short of the top eight.
But it is during this time that many players face the harsh reality of being de-listed, and in the business of elite sport it can be easy to forget those left behind.
Mitch Brown knows first-hand how heartbreaking it feels to be told you are not wanted, especially when you have spent 10 years at a club that holds loyalty as its key value.
The former West Coast Eagle went through a stressful time when, he says, the club repeatedly changed their mind on whether they wanted him to play on in 2017.
Brown missed the 2015 season after undergoing a full knee reconstruction. His luck did not get much better in 2016, as a preseason finger injury kept him sidelined for the first half of the season.
Last August, knowing he was off-contract at the end of the year, Brown expressed his interest in signing another deal with West Coast.
After holding a list management meeting, the club’s original decision was that there would be no place for him in their next roster.
“I was preparing to play Carlton at the ‘G at the time and I felt betrayed,” Brown told The Outer Sanctum.
“I was hurt by my family and and my initial reaction was I’d totally been blindsided. I thought I was good for one more. I decided I wasn’t going to get bitter.
“I was going to use the last five weeks to celebrate my 10 years at the footy club.”
West Coast’s season finished the first week of finals, knocked out by the Western Bulldogs. All the while, Brown’s wife Shae, an elite netballer, had become a free agent after the finale of the trans-Tasman competition.
Netballers across the country were scrambling to align themselves with one of the eight Super Netball franchises and she had been offered a contract to sign on again with the West Coast Fever.
Mitch Brown’s Instagram post of wife Shae with her West Coast Fever players’ player award.
The pair loved Perth and their respective clubs, but struggled to decide whether to live apart or to try to pursue their options together in eastern states.
Shae was offered a contract to play with Collingwood and the day she accepted, just half an hour later, the Eagles changed their minds about Mitch.
“For her it was a hard time because she loves her netball and we made the gutsy decision to say ‘OK we’ll knock back the netball contract in Perth’,” Brown said.
“That was really hard for her to do because she grew up with that club and was loyal to the Fever, but she made the brave decision to sign with Collingwood.
“We’d finally decided that we were going to go to Melbourne and then this comes and hits us and we’re back to square one, where we were just confused what to do.”
While happy to be given another opportunity, Brown was torn with his wife already committed to moving to another state. He decided to sit on the Eagles’ offer while exploring his options in Victoria.
Another backflip, more heartbreak for Brown
Brown says West Coast, now aware of the tricky situation he was in, told him: ‘You’ve got this contract now, so just be honest with us and take your time.’
When nothing progressed in the eastern states, Brown, on holiday overseas with the Eagles contract hot in his hands, decided he would accept.
Even if it meant playing WAFL and living apart from his wife, at least he would get to play footy at a club he loved. But again, things took a turn and the Eagles reneged on their offer after superstar Hawthorn midfielder Sam Mitchell became available.
“Day one of the trade period I got a phone call while I was overseas. It was from the Eagles and they sounded a bit upset,” Brown said.
“I literally had the contract in my hands, I had it. Obviously a few things had developed pretty quickly with the Sam Mitchell stuff and, just like that, the contract was taken away from me and I couldn’t really do anything about it.
“I got off the phone incredibly upset and wondering how I was going to tell my wife. I didn’t know what to say. That was it.”
Brown’s experience — albeit complicated — is common for many fringe players of elite sporting competitions.
With so many AFL retirements in 2017, it is important to remember not all athletes who dedicate their life to footy are chaired off and farewelled with dignity.
The toll of elite sport on a player’s mental health can be immense, not to mention their families or partners who often have to make a lot of compromise.
While Brown admitted he understands where modern footy is at, he said the news was “a bitter pill to swallow” and a sobering lesson in loyalty.
“As a footy club, loyalty is one of our core values,” he said.
“We have it written on the wall and the coaching staff, the club, they expect loyalty. They expect excellence and they expect us to go out on game day and give everything for them.
“What I felt that day was that they expected everything from me but when it was on the other hand, they don’t show it back.”
Brown adjusting to life after AFL
Mitch is now playing A-grade amateur footy with St Kevin’s Old Boys in Victoria.
Initially he was not sure whether he wanted to play on but the experience has brought back a childlike love for the game.
Mitch Brown playing against Lance Franklin during a 2014 preseason fixture. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
“At St Kevin’s I wake up Saturday mornings and just want to jump out of bed,” Brown said.
“I’ve just got that love of football that I had when I was younger, when myself and (twin brother) Nath used to kick the synthetic rubber ball around, trade cards and have a radio on of the Saturday game with Rex Hunt.
“I just loved footy back then and I’ve sort of regained that. I’m enjoying myself and I’m actually a better player — it’s funny how that works. I feel like I’m a better footballer because I’m enjoying myself.”
With his brother Nathan still playing for St Kilda, Mitch also enjoys heading out as a fan.
“I’m truly happy for him and I’m not jealous or anything,” he said.
Shae Brown’s Instagram post of Mitch Brown hugging brother Nathan before his 150th AFL game.
“Of course I see him out there and when I watch other players play I’m like ‘geez how good is this game, they’re so lucky’. It’s so lucky that I’ve been able to play it as well.
“Maybe it’s a twin thing but when I watch Nath and I go to all the Saints games I still get the same nervousness and it’s great. You’re in the stands and at least this time you can have a beer in your hands and have a drink.”
Looking back, Brown’s advice for friends who have not had to deal with the transition from elite sport back to regular life, is to take networking very seriously.
“Transitioning — you’ve got to prepare for life after footy. I can’t stress that enough,” he said.
“It could be something simple like don’t take networking opportunities for granted while you’re doing a clinic or the club asks you to go up to a function room at a game.
“Talk to people, get to know them, because once you finish, those people are the ones that will want to help you.”
This interview first appeared on the latest episode of The Outer Sanctum podcast.