After 249 games in the AFL, Lance “Buddy” Franklin remains the great enigma of Australian sport.
On field he is the player of his generation, a larger than life centre half forward for the Sydney Swans boasting a commanding presence, bottomless confidence, freakish kicking skills and an athleticism rarely seen even in elite sport.
Yet once that full-time siren goes he retreats into his shell, hiding away from the constant public scrutiny that his reverence commands and still very much the shy young man who was drafted to Hawthorn in 2004.
The same shy young man who ex-Hawk teammate Jordan Lewis, now at the Melbourne Demons, first met at draft camp that year.
“We had an hour spare between things and all he would do was just kick the football for the whole hour, he’d be in bare feet so my first impression was a kid with just an unlimited amount of energy,” Lewis told Fairfax Media.
“It’s funny in a way, on the field he commands that attention and he loves the limelight but as soon as that final siren goes, he’s a complete opposite.
“He’d rather just go about his business with a sense of anonymity but he can’t obviously get that. In the perfect world, that’s what he would want.
“As he’s matured he’s learned to deal with that and certain places you can and can’t go. He found that hard initially when he moved up there [to Sydney] but as with everyone in the limelight up there you learn to deal with it.”
Buddy has been the headline AFL act in Sydney ever since joining the club at the end of 2013 on a $10 million deal over nine years.
As always he’ll carry a huge responsibility on his broad shoulders when he runs out for AFL game No.250 on Friday night at the SCG, with the Swans and Collingwood Magpies looking for their first wins of the season.
His journey has been longer and more arduous than most and threatened to come to a premature end in 2015 when Franklin stepped away from the game to deal with mental illness.
But he bounced back and was named All Australian last year before narrowly failing in his quest for a third career premiership, and a first at the Swans.
Ex-Hawthorn recruiter Gary Buckenara, the man who drafted Franklin, Lewis and Jarryd Roughead with three of the first seven picks in 2004, said Buddy had long been misunderstood in the public eye.
“He’s very shy and people don’t understand that,” Buckenara said.
“Sometimes some of the best athletes are quite extroverts on the football field and are actually quite shy off the field.
“They are so confident in their abilities to perform but they do that because they’re comfortable in that environment, but put them in a crowd or put them in a public space and they’re not that confident.
“He’s certainly been a marvellous player for the game. He’s brought people through the gates because he does the incredible.”
Surprisingly, certainly in retrospect, Franklin was taken with pick five in 2004, with Hawthorn initially favouring Roughead.
Richmond twice passed over Franklin, drafting Brett Deledio, now at the GWS Giants, with pick one and then Richard Tambling with the fourth selection.
“They made a mistake not taking him pick one, let’s be honest, he’s turned out to be the best player of any of us with no disrespect to Rough or Griff [pick three, Ryan Griffen],” Deledio said.
“If Richmond had their time again they’d certainly take the big fella.
“He’s certainly one of a kind and he could very well go down as one of the best players, if not the best player in AFL history.
“He’s got a heart as big as Phar Lap. He keeps on going he can certainly run all day and he’s got that explosiveness as well. He’s very genetically blessed but he’s also got a lot of other great traits.”
It’s that physicality and athleticism, often overlooked by spectators amid his long kicking and spectacular highlights, that stays with teammates the most.
Like Stuart Dew, who is now an assistant coach at the Swans after winning a flag with Franklin at the Hawks in 2008.
“One of my first impressions [of Buddy], we were doing some repeat speed stuff and the best runners in the group – which at that time were Sam Mitchell, Shane Crawford and Chance Bateman – were taking it in turns to try and beat him,” Dew said.
“Basically, they were running rings around him trying to beat him but he would still just beat them, he would’ve won 52 hundreds.
“His ability to run those repeat speeds, it’s no wonder this bloke can kick so many goals and he went on to kick a hundred that year. You just physically couldn’t go with him.”
Lewis is also still in awe of Franklin’s athletic prowess.
“We did a pre-season camp in Coffs Harbour and we did I think it was 21 150 metre sprints in a row and he would average probably 18 seconds for those runs,” Lewis said.
“I remember Drew Ginn the Olympic rower was watching and he just said I’ve never seen anyone of that size run like he’s been able to.”