No regrets: AFL champion says he can hold his head up high

The coronavirus has forced some changes on Brett Deledio's life. Pictures: Alex Miller.
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Brett Deledio's celebrated AFL career encompassed triumph and tragedy. He says he simply always did his best. Alex Miller reports

“I was just at the point where I was unhappy. I’d come home and just burst into tears in front of my wife saying this isn’t how it’s meant to be.” 

Brett Deledio was an AFL champion. As a Richmond Tiger, he won the AFL’s rising star award in his first year, then two Jack Dyer Medals as Richmond’s best and fairest and two All-Australian blazers.

But years of missing out on finals and a disappointing season took a heavy toll on him.

“Year after year of missing out on finals – it was tough on me and my wife. It was more than just a game, this was what I worked for my whole career – success,” he said. 

The result was that he changed teams, only to see the club he left behind win a grand final.

Now retired from playing at elite level, Deledio has started working in player management for a new batch of up-and-coming AFL players, there to share advice and tips from his extensive experience. Plans to play VFL and his work as a development coach at Hawthorn were ended by the impact of Covid-19.

For Deledio, the masses of accolades he earned in his career were great, but it wasn’t enough. When the 2016 AFL trade period came around after 11 years at the Tigers, he knew it was time to look elsewhere.

“The 2016 season was the tip of the iceberg. I’d put in so much and hadn’t had any reward and a lot of empty promises in terms of, ‘this is the year’,” he said.

However, he was still conflicted over his decision to leave. “I went back and forth with my manager about leaving I don’t know how many times,” he said.

“Geelong was my first preference, purely because my brother, Mum and Dad where all living in Torquay and I always liked the smaller country set up, but Geelong didn’t have the salary cap to fit me in.

“It came down to then the Dogs and GWS and I thought the Giants where closer to a flag at that stage.

“I thought I was loading the dice when I left to go to the Giants – they just finished in a prelim and looked the best team in 2016.”

But moving away from the club he had played 243 games for was tough.

I really wanted to be a one-club player, but I wondered if I was going to be like Nick Riewoldt or Bob Murphy and not get that team success. I wanted to experience a flag and (what) consistently winning was like.

Eventually a deal was struck between Richmond and the Giants, with Deledio sent on his way to Blacktown, with the Tigers receiving both a future first-round pick and future third round pick in return.

But making that transition from Melbourne to Sydney wasn’t going to be easy. “Moving my family from here to Sydney wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. The drive and thought of success was something that really inspired me, so I said I want to do this and challenge myself,” he said.

During Deledio’s time at the Giants he struggled with ongoing calf complaints, resulting in him playing only 32 of a possible 78 games over three seasons.

“It was tough and I questioned a lot of times in terms of ‘I can’t keep doing this’. I didn’t just feel the strain on me, but on my wife, it was hard.”

Life outside of football didn’t make it any easier on him. 

“My brother-in-law lost his partner to cancer, then his son five months later also to cancer. In terms of perspective I had plenty, a calf strain was nothing compared to what was happening back here, but I knew I had gone up there (GWS) to achieve something,” he said. 

Twelve months after leaving Richmond – when the club finished 13th – the Tigers won the 2017 AFL Grand Final. “[Season] 2017 was the hardest because the Tigers came from nowhere,” he said. 

Season 2019 proved to be his last year in the AFL. The Giants finished sixth and were up against a red-hot Western Bulldogs team, but that didn’t stop Deledio from giving it one last chance to put it all on the line.

The most disappointing thing (about 2019) was I knew my body was cooked and I knew the Giants were cooked going into the first final, so I was aware that might have been my last crack.

Deledio’s Giants thumped the Bulldogs in the first week, but he suffered another calf injury during the game.

As the Giants progressed through to the last day in September, there was still some hope. But he wasn’t able to return for the grand final, which ended with Richmond pummelling the Giants in lop-sided match.

“I knew 2019 was going to be the last chance I got to play in an AFL grand final … the fact my old team (Tigers) won made me so happy for them. They were the best team.”

Chris Newman, Deledio’s captain at Richmond, said he couldn’t speak highly enough of his credentials both as a player and a person.

“Brett is an outstanding individual. People don’t realise the sacrifices he has made for this family and for his football club,” he said.

“Having the relationship I do with Brett today is more than just footy. The experiences we shared on and off the field – just an outstanding bloke,” Newman said.

Since his retirement, Brett has moved into the sports media, providing expert commentary on ABC Grandstand on the weekends. 

“I love my role at the ABC Grandstand, I wish I could get into more media and talk more nonsense about footy, I just love it,” he said. 

“Looking back over my AFL career what I had achieved on and off the field, I am proud of my teams, but most importantly myself.

“I did my best game after game and I can hold my head high for that. I don’t have any regrets about my career,” he said.