I wonder what could have happened had he not strayed?
Medal caps Johannisen's incredible football journey
Steve Butler - The West Australian on October 1, 2016, 3:30 pm
Among all the Western Bulldogs' stars on Saturday Jason Johannisen shone the brightest.
Video Jason Johannisen wins the Norm Smith medal
The West Australian dominated Saturday's AFL grand final at the MCG, winning the Norm Smith Medal for his best on ground performance.
Johannisen racked up 33 touches and nine inside 50s on football's biggest stage as his team broke a 62-year flag drought with an upset win over Sydney.
But it hasn't always been this easy.
A 10-minute kick-around with a WA football great on East Fremantle Oval late in 2009 was the event that set him on a path to the MCG.
Overlooked by his zone club South Fremantle, largely because of his diminutive size, and only faintly on neighbouring East Fremantle’s recruiting radar, Johannisen needed precious little time to convince Steve Malaxos that he had pace and talent to burn.
Seven years on and the former Willetton junior is a key cog in the Western Bulldogs’ grand final fairytale against Sydney tomorrow.
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Malaxos, then East Fremantle’s colts coach, recalled seeing Johannisen’s name as a district junior best-and-fairest and wondered why he was not on his squad list. Encouraged by fellow coach Lance Lennon, a phone call was made that lured the South African-born teenager to Shark Park for the fateful football session that set his path in the game.
Jason Johannisen with East Fremantle teammate Ryan Lester-Smith, left, after winning the 2010 colts premiership. Picture: WA Football Commission
“It was one mid-morning. I liked the look of him,” Malaxos, West Coast’s inaugural club champion and 1984 Sandover medallist, said. “Just the way he handled the ball, he was a good kick and the way he moved with his athletics background.
“I don’t know how much of it is subconscious or subliminal, but there were a couple of things about him and we gelled.
“He never came across as desperate to play footy, he was just a good kid.”
Speaking before the grand final, Johannisen said it was the faith Malaxos put in him to take the next step in East Fremantle’s 2010 colts premiership that gave his career impetus . He was then chosen by the Bulldogs with pick No.39 in the 2011 AFL rookie draft.
Lachie Hunter consoles an injured Jason Johannisen. Picture: Getty Images
“I wasn’t the best junior football player, but he obviously saw some potential,” Johannisen said. “That was all I needed, really, a bit of self-belief and someone in my corner. I just went along with it and look what’s happened.”
After arriving in Perth aged eight with his parents Eldrick and Sonja, Johannisen played rugby union for the Bull Creek-based Southern Lions before wandering into Willetton three years later to fill in for a game in his cousin’s team. Soon after, he came under the tutelage of coach Murray Glaskin, who played a pivotal role in developing his raw AFL talent. The young speedster fell in love with Australia’s indigenous game.
“I didn’t know what footy was when I arrived in Perth in 2000,” Johannisen said.
“(But) it’s such an exciting game and the teamwork and playing with your mates is just fun. That’s how I fell in love with it.”
With East Fremantle teammate Ryan Lester-Smith, left, after winning the 2010 colts premiership. Picture: WA Football Commission
But Glaskin, who coached Johannisen for four of his formative football years between age 14 and 17, said it took some painstaking methods at training to help the teenager fall in love with the game’s physical nature.
“The biggest thing with ‘JJ’ back then was that he was just so scared,” Glaskin said.
“He would never put his head over the ball and he would never put his head in the hole. So we’d get someone who needed kicking practice to kick the ball up to him and one of the coaches would punch the ball away from him to get him to realise that it wasn’t going to hurt.
“Finally, he started to do little courageous acts. He ended up playing in a colts grand final, every recruiter in Australia was there and the rest is history.”