If you look up the football dictionary under ‘horrific, sickening, unthinkable and how did this happen?’ you might possibly find reference to Brett Backwell’s AFL debut because it was that and more. That was even before he stepped foot onto the MCG.
It was Thursday night, 25 March 1999. Round 1 – Carlton v Essendon. A crowd of 71,501 awaited the season-opener between two of the AFL heavyweights as the Blues ran out for a pre-game warm-up.
Set to pull on the famous #10 jumper, worn previously by John James, Adrian Gallagher, Jim Francis and Paddy O’Brien, all greats of the club, the 18-year-old Queenslander from Hervey Bay was about to realise a life-time dream. The biggest night of his life. Except he wasn’t there!
Backwell was stuck in traffic several blocks away in Swanston Street, listening to fellow Queenslander Jason Dunstall on Triple M. Without the convenience of a mobile phone, he was stranded and as panic-stricken as any one young man could ever be.
“I’ve never been more stressed in my entire life,” he recalled. “I’d never been to the MCG before and I just felt like crying. I didn’t know whether to jump out and run, to call the police, to ditch my car and hail a cab or what. In the end I just waited it out.”
Finally, he rushed into the Carlton changing rooms. David Parkin, set for his 468th AFL game as an AFL coach, his 21st Round game in charge after 14 years as a player, didn’t say a word to him. “He didn’t have to. I was white as a ghost.”
Backwell was to debut with fellow Queenslander Ben Thompson as captain Craig Bradley played his 287th game and Stephen Silvagni, his Team of the Century teammate, his 249th.
It was a season in which Carlton would go on to beat Essendon by a point in the preliminary final before losing the grand final to North Melbourne, but it didn’t begin well. The Bombers kicked 9-5 to 4-5 in the final quarter to win by 39 points. Not oven 30 possessions and three votes from Bradley could save the Blues. Backwell had two kicks, one mark and two handballs.
Words can’t describe how the son of Queensland Team of the Century rover and 300-game dual Grogan Medallist Owen Backwell was feeling, but he retained his place in the side for Round 2 against Collingwood and another 70,506 at the MCG.
Ten days later after his gut-wrenching debut, on Easter Monday, he was inside the ground even before the start of the Reserves. Carlton won by 29 points and Backwell had 14 possessions, including nine contested possessions, fewer only than Brett Ratten (11) and Adam White (10). He kicked 1-4 to earn his first Brownlow Medal vote as Bradley picked up another three.
No Queenslander has polled in the Brownlow earlier in his career than Backwell, who was two games into an 18-game AFL career that feels like it should have been longer. Especially when he had 12 possessions and kicked three goals in Round 3, held his spot for the first six games, and also played Rounds 8-12-13-22 and the Gabba qualifying final against Brisbane, when Carlton lost by 73 points.
In 2000, having switched to jumper #2, his favorite number growing up and available following Greg Williams’ retirement, he had 13 possessions and kicked two goals in his first game in Round 6 – a 91-point win over Port Adelaide at Princes Park. He played Round 7 and Round 8, which was Parkin’s 500th game as a coach. Then he waited until week two of the finals for a recall. It was Brisbane again, this time a semi-final at the MCG, and the Blues atoned for their big 1999 loss with an 82-point win.
In 2001, when Wayne Brittain took over as coach, Backwell had 12 touches and kicked two goals in Round 1 and played Rounds 3-4. He never played again and exited the club in extraordinary fashion at the end of the 2001 season. Having been runner-up in the Liston Trophy in 2000, he polled 26 votes to share the VFL’s best and fairest medal in 2001 with Coburg’s ex-Richmond player Ezra Poyas.
He won the medal on the Monday night and on the Tuesday morning he was delisted at Carlton by then VFL coach, now St. Kilda AFL coach, Ross Lyon. What happened? “I don’t really know,” he answered. “I didn’t really get a reason.”
It was a shattering blow for the 21-year-old 175cm rover/small forward who was born and bred in Brisbane, idolised his father and dreamed only of playing in the AFL as he began at Wests Juniors before moving at 12 to Hervey Bay with his family.
There he often played Under 15s, Under 17s and seniors with the Hervey Bay Bombers on the same weekend and played in a senior premiership at 15. His dad was super supportive and encouraging, but drove him hard. “I could have 50 and kick 10 and on the two-hour drive home he’d say ‘you missed this kick’ or ‘you should have made that tackle’. He drove me mad at times but he also drove me to work hard and looking back I really appreciate it,” he said.
After knocking back two opportunities to finish school on scholarship in Melbourne, Backwell played at 17 in 1997 in the QAFL with West Brisbane, formed in 1991 via the merger of his father’s beloved Western Districts and neighbours Sherwood.
In 1998, after West Brisbane shut down, he played with the Northern Eagles while living “all over the place”. The family was in Hervey Bay – and still is – and when it suited to make the 275km commute he stayed there. His grandparents’ house at Bribie Island was a closer option, and occasionally he’d bunk in with teammates Ryan Smyth or Shane Morrison, or coach Craig Brittain. So committed to football was he that often he slept in the back seat of his car in the Zillmere carpark.
It didn’t affect him. He starred for Queensland at the Australian Under-19 Championships, where he was a contentious omission from the All-Australian side, and was runner-up to Morningside’s Dean Edwards in the Grogan Medal by two votes. He missed one game to play with the Lion Cubs.
He spoke with ‘most’ AFL clubs ahead of the AFL draft and had representatives from St. Kilda and Adelaide fly to Hervey Bay, where he picked them up at the airport in his rusty old four-wheel drive and take them up the beach to the family home.
He was the only Queenslander taken in the 1998 National Draft on 1 November, going to Carlton at #67 before Zillmere teammate Jeff Cooper, Broadbeach’s Trent Knobel and Morningside’s Scott Ralph were taken as rookies by Brisbane.
“To go to any club would have been amazing but to go to one of the big three was beyond belief. I was always a footy tragic, and to share a locker room with Bradley, Silvagni, Ratten, Camporeale, Sexton, McKay and the like was out of this world. I was awestruck when I first arrived,” he said.
“That it didn’t last as long as I would have liked was disappointing but I still loved every minute of it. Maybe if I’d taken up one of the school offers and gone to Melbourne earlier it might have been different but it is what it is.”
Backwell was far from finished. Deciding the SANFL was the best pathway back to the AFL, he played at West Adelaide in 2002, Glenelg from 2003-09 and after two summer seasons and two Australia Day Medals with Waratahs in Darwin, where his father had once played, he finished his career at North Adelaide in 2011-12. He played more than 150 SANFL games, plus six games for South Australia.
He won the coveted Fos Williams Medal as South Australia’s best player against Western Australia at Fremantle Oval in 2003 and in 2006 polled 26 votes to win the SANFL’s Magarey Medal. Since the birth of the Crows in 1991, only three players have polled more votes.
Staggeringly, he won the Magarey 12 months after having chosen to have his left ring finger removed by a plastic surgeon after a severe break, a reconstruction, recurring dislocations and untold injections. “It wasn’t the first option, and I initially I was joking when I said ‘can’t we just chop it off’ but eventually it was so frustrating I figured ‘why not?’ It doesn’t worry me,” he explained.
Still only 26, the nine-fingered football fanatic was and still is the only person in history to win the Liston Trophy and the Magarey Medal and that after he’d been runner-up in the Grogan Medal.
Having retired at 32 he did two study tours to the United States with the AFL Coaches Association, completed his level three coaching certificate, and was assistant-coach at South Adelaide (2012-14) and Glenelg (2015). From 2016-19 he coached Prince Alfred Old Collegians, winning a flag in their first year in division one amateurs in his first season, and after the 2020 Covid wipe-out, he has coached the Brighton Bombers in the since 2021. At 43 he even had a run with the C-Grade side this season to remind himself why he’s retired.
Brett and wife Rebecca have two daughters – Tayla (9) and Indii (8) – and a modular building company called ITB Building, the Backwell family now has a unique place in the Queensland Football Hall of Fame as the first father/son inductees.