Brett ‘Birdman’ Burton remains one of the most exciting players ever to pull on the Crows jumper.
The forward thrilled fans with his high-flying marks for more than a decade, and kicked 264 goals to be the (equal) sixth greatest goalkicker in the Club’s history. We caught up with Burton, who has since returned to West Lakes in an off-field role, to reflect on his eye-catching career …
Burton was born in Whyalla, but his family relocated to Adelaide when he was 10-years-old. Gary and Karen Burton wanted to provide their kids, who displayed exceptional sporting ability from an early age, with the best opportunities without having to endure the eight-hour round trip from the east coast of the Eyre Peninsula to the City.
Like his brother, Brett played state hockey and also enjoyed football. It was around the time the family moved to Adelaide that Brett also took up athletics – a decision which would help shape the AFL player he would become 10 years on …
“Genetics always helps. My Mum and Dad both played sport. Dad was a good footballer and Mum played netball, but I also trained my endurance through athletics. I competed in the 800 metres and 1500 metres, as well as Cross Country – I won a National 3km Cross Country title when I was 12.”
But football was Burton’s passion. At the age of 13, he gave up hockey because game day clashed with footy. He played for Flinders Park and then Woodville-West Torrens, where he battled to establish himself. A scrawny forward pocket, he was twice left out of underage Grand Final teams at Eagles …
“I struggled to make the Under-17s and then the Under-19s at the Eagles. I was okay at footy, but I certainly wasn’t picked in any representative teams when I was younger. It was more athletics and hockey. I played footy for Flinders Park and even ended up playing a few A-Grade games at Seaton Ramblers with my brother because I couldn’t get a kick in the Eagles Under-19s.”
After ageing out of the Under-19s, Burton went out to train with the Eagles senior squad. It coincided with a major growth spurt, which saw him shoot up more than two inches in height over one summer …
“I won the running tests over the pre-season, so that got me an opportunity early on. Mark Mickan was the seniors coach at the time, and he gave me a go in the league team in 1998.
“I went from forward pocket in the Under-19s and not being picked for any reserves games, to starting centre half-forward in the league side the next year.
“It all happened pretty quickly.”
Burton also grew in the estimations of AFL recruiters, who had previously showed no interest in the now six-foot tall 20-year-old, who could run all day and leap over the heads of opponents.
He met with 15 of the 16 AFL clubs, and was drafted by the two-time reigning premiers, Adelaide, with pick No.16 in the 1998 National Draft …
“I was a Crows fan. I went to the ‘98 Grand Final against North Melbourne, and it was a bit of a fairytale getting drafted to the Club that you grew up supporting. I idolised Tony Modra, so I was shattered that ‘Mods’ left and went to Fremantle the same time I came into the Club.”
Burton made his AFL debut in Round One of the 1999 season. He played 21 games and kicked 25 goals, finishing runner-up to Adam Goodes in the Norwich Rising Star …
“It was a bit of a blessing in disguise that I was a late developer. Most guys get drafted at 18 and usually take a year or two to find their feet at the level. I was fortunate to be able to come in straight away and play nearly every game.
“Fortunately, Malcolm Blight took a liking to me as well and gave me an opportunity.”
It was in his debut AFL season that Burton took one of his two favourite-ever grabs, against St Kilda at Waverley. He’d only recently discovered he had the uncanny ability to springboard onto an opponent and hang onto a huge mark, which became nearly a weekly feature of his game …
“Like a lot of kids, we always used to play ‘Marks Up’ at recess and lunchtime at school. I also remember in the driveway at home, I’d kick the ball up high and mark it. Dad always used to tell me to take the ball at the highest point.
“I practised it a lot from a young age, but it wasn’t until I got put into that centre half-forward position in my first season of SANFL league football that I really started doing it in games.
“Because I was small growing up, my coaches were always telling me to crumb the packs rather than fly for my marks. My vertical leap wasn’t extraordinary when they measured it at draft camp. It was more that I had the knack of timing, I guess.
“Funnily enough, landing never concerned me. I injured myself in a lot of ways, but never coming down from a mark!”
Burton suffered a bout of the ‘second-year blues’ in 2000. He was dropped for the one and only time in his career, and sustained the first of many injuries that would plague his playing days …
“Ayresy (Coach Gary Ayres) dropped me for two games. I managed to regain my place, but I broke my collarbone at training soon a few weeks later, which was disappointing and something that should probably never have happened.
“There were two non-contact drills going on, but they were probably a bit close together in hindsight. Scott Welsh was doing ground balls and his footy went one way. I was in the other drill and my ball bounced the same way as Welshy, but I didn’t see him and ended up with a broken collarbone.
“That started a bit of a run of injuries from there – ankles, hamstrings and of course my knee … it was almost like the jinx.”
Despite niggling injuries, Burton reached a new level in 2002 when he kicked 52 goals to be Adelaide’s leading goalkicker. Injuries affected his next two seasons, but he returned in time to help Adelaide to successive finals campaigns in 2005 and 2006. Both years ended in Preliminary Final defeats to the Club’s ‘bogey’ side, West Coast …
“We were a fairly successful side during my time at the Club. I think we played finals in, maybe, nine of the 12 years. I knew it wasn’t easy to win premierships, but certainly if someone asked me at the start of my career – coming into a team that had just gone back-to-back – if I’d win an AFL premiership, I would’ve thought we would have with the side we had.
“For whatever reason, a bit of luck and our inability to get it done on the day, we never got there. It was certainly one disappointing aspect of my career looking back. In 2005-06, we were clearly the most dominant side in the competition along with West Coast.”
Against Collingwood in Round 15 of 2008, Burton produced one of his best ever first-half performances, kicking four goals to help give Adelaide a narrow lead. However, disaster struck early in the third quarter, when his left leg jarred in the ground as he attempted to change direction. His ACL had ruptured, but no one at the Club was surprised …
“That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I tried to salvage something from the year when I came back from my broken collarbone in 2000. The Crows didn’t make the finals and given that I was only a couple of years out of the SANFL, I wanted to go back to the Eagles and see if I could help their finals campaign.
“Because it was my first game in about eight weeks, I lined up in the reserves final. With about five minutes to go in the game, I went for a ball all by myself and landed with a straight leg. I hyperextended my knee and partially tore my ACL.
“In hindsight, I should’ve had it reconstructed then, but we didn’t have access to the information about the injury and the level of rehabilitation that we do now.
“I had a clean-out a couple of years before the ACL went and the surgeon said then that it was hanging on by a thread. It wasn’t really information I needed to know at the time!
“When it finally did go, the doc Andrew Potter and our physios Kevin Whitford and Mark Nagel said, ‘We’ve been waiting for that to go for years!’
“It was a pretty good effort for it to last 9-10 years.”
Diligent and professional as ever, Burton showed he’d lost none of his athleticism when he took Mark of the Year in just his sixth game back from a full knee reconstruction in 2009. Remarkably, it was the only time he received the honour despite being nominated numerous times.
The commentators called it the, ‘Mark of the Century’ …
“All the stars aligned. I got a good lift and the second elevation from the ruckmen below me. That was definitely one of my favourite marks.
“It was my sixth game back after my ACL when I took that mark. I could still jump and felt really strong. What did get me in the end was I had some chondral surface damage on the knee. I kept on having to go in for clean-outs and that’s really what did me in.”
Burton only made eight more AFL appearances after that day, calling time on his career midway through the 2010 season …
“I was frustrated by the amount of injuries I had. I just got jack of doing the rehab in the end. When I had my second knee clean-out after I did my ACL, I really was over it. Fortunately, I had other things to go onto in my life. My wife Jane and I had just had our first child and I’d completed a degree in sports science, which was something I wanted to pursue as a career post-footy.
“I certainly wasn’t one where I was just hanging on. I was probably lucky I had guys like ‘Goody’ (Simon Goodwin), ‘Macca’ (Andrew McLeod) and Tyson Edwards retiring as well.
“I looked at myself and thought, ‘I think this is my time too’.”
Burton’s 177 games rank him equal-15th of all-time at Adelaide (he will be overtaken by Richard Douglas this weekend). The fan favourite prefers to focus on the matches he played rather than those he missed through injury …
“If at the start of my career someone told me I’d play 177 AFL games I certainly would’ve taken that. I would’ve loved to have played 200, but at the end of the day it’s a number. I can walk away knowing that I gave it my all and prepared to the best of my ability. There are plenty of other guys who had more talent than I did, but were unlucky with injuries. I’m certainly very grateful.”
The former AFL Players Association President wasted no time moving into the next phase of his life, accepting the position of Physical Performance Manager at the Brisbane Lions in September, 2010 …
“I was very firm in my belief that, like coaching, it’s all about experiencing a different environment and building your philosophy and beliefs. I wasn’t going to see anything different here and there wasn’t a job for me anyway, so it was a great opportunity for me to go to Brisbane.
“I really enjoyed my time up there. The five years went pretty quick, but we’ve made some good friends up there and we enjoyed the sunshine. We had another couple of kids while we were up there, so we’ve got two Queenslanders and two South Aussies.
“The medical team and guys I had around me were really highly skilled and regarded. It was good to be able to learn from them and eventually bring that knowledge and skillset back to Adelaide.”
Burton, who has also sat on the Laws of the Game Committee for the past three years, returned to Adelaide last October to head up the Club's High Performance team. Brett, wife Jane and their four kids are enjoying being back in SA and at the Crows …
“There’s been a lot of change here at the Club in five years. I think 80 per cent of the players have changed and, maybe, 80-90 per cent of the staff. From a training environment point of view, there have been some really good innovations like the Shed floor area.
“I enjoy the management of the footy club, from CEO and Chairman to Footy Manager and also my relationship with the Senior Coach as well. It’s not often you get to work with someone you had a relationship with previously as a player.
“I’ve still got strong relationships with guys like Thommo (Scott Thompson), VB (Nathan van Berlo), Tex (Taylor Walker) and Sloaney (Rory Sloane) because I’ve played with them.
“I don’t feel like I’m giving them orders. We’ve always had a culture of working hard and training hard, so it’s more about working with them to get the most out of themselves and the team.”