Small in stature and unassuming by nature, Brett James carved out a long and successful career at AFL, SANFL and, until this day, country level.
The Kersbrook local moved to the big smoke of Melbourne to get his first AFL opportunity before returning to South Australia and achieving the rare feat of winning two premierships in eight days.
In this edition of Where Are They Now? James explains how fortunes fell his way in 1997, and why he initially thought he was being traded to Port Adelaide!
James was born and bred in Kersbrook in the Adelaide Hills. Footy and farming were in his genes and he embraced both from an early age …
“I was only five when I started playing Under-14s for Kersbrook. I was on the oval, but I didn’t get many kicks. I did actually kick a goal in my first year, so I guess that was something!
“It’s probably changed a little bit, but back in those days our weekends were footy in the winter and cricket or tennis in the summer. At home on the farm, I grew up kicking the footy with my brothers. We didn’t have computers, or iPhones or anything like that. We were always outside.
“Dad played footy from as early as I can remember. He kept playing until he was 48 and I was actually able to play with him, which is something special that not many sons get to do.”
James first joined SANFL club Norwood when he was 11. The slightly-built utility progressed through the junior ranks, excelling at every level. He captained the club’s Under-17 premiership in 1989 and by the next season was playing League football.
His rapid rise attracted attention of AFL scouts and he was recruited by Collingwood with pick No.31 in the 1993 Pre-Season Draft …
“I think 10 AFL clubs came to speak to me, but I was just happy at Norwood. I told the clubs that I spoke to that I probably wouldn’t consider moving for a year or two if they drafted me.
“It’s different now. When you get drafted, you’re at the club a couple of days later. Back then, you didn’t have to go. I had no intention of leaving really, but Collingwood picked me up anyway.”
As he warned the AFL clubs, James remained in Adelaide after he was drafted. He was named vice-captain at Norwood, helping guide the club to the 1993 Grand Final. James also represented South Australia at State level. At the end of the ‘93’ season, he made the move to Melbourne …
“The move was actually good for me because it made me grow up a bit. Obviously, living away from home you have to learn to do a lot of things for yourself.
“Going to a big club like Collingwood, I was pretty lucky. In my second game, I think I played against Carlton in front of 80,000 people at the MCG, and my third game was another 80,000 against Essendon.
“It was a bit of a jump!”
James, who continued his love of the land by working as a curator at Victoria Park during his time at the Pies, made his AFL debut against Fitzroy in Round One, 1994. He had a mere five possessions in limited game time, but recalls one particularly memorable moment from Collingwood’s 11-point win …
“That was in the days when, if you were named on the bench you stayed on the bench! I didn’t come on until the last quarter.
“I was a Fitzroy supporter growing up and one of my favourite players was 'Doc' (Darren) Wheildon. He actually cleaned me up that day and got reported! It was a good experience in a way.”
Although he enjoyed stints in the midfield, James played the majority of his early games for the Magpies in the forward pocket. He arrived at the club underdone because of injury, and quickly stacked on the weight.
At the time, he admitted the only players he could beat in long-distance runs were power forward Sav Rocca and goliath ruckman Damian Monkhorst …
“In my first year, I basically couldn’t do any of the pre-season because I’d done all the ligaments in my foot and my fitness wasn’t fantastic.
“When I got to Collingwood, they were into lifting heavy weights because West Coast had won the flag and that’s what they did. My body suited big, heavy weights and I put on six kilograms in no time, but I couldn’t run.
"After that, I never lifted a heavy weight again.”
James played 42 games in three seasons with the Pies before seeking a return to South Australia.
He was traded to the Crows at the end of 1996 in exchange for another Norwood product, Jonathon Ross. However, a breakdown in communication led James initially to believe that he was joining younger brother Roger at Port Adelaide …
“I just wanted to get home. I’d told Collingwood I was leaving and going back to Adelaide. To be honest, I thought I was going to Port Adelaide. Port were coming into the AFL and I’d spoken to them about a trade. I’d spoken to the Crows as well, but Port were putting a whole list together and my brother (Roger) was already there.
“I was on a footy trip during the trade time and actually thought I’d gone to Port Adelaide! It wasn’t until I got a phone call later on, I think from my Mum, that I realised the trade was actually to the Crows. My state of mind probably wasn’t that good while I was on the footy trip!
“I was just happy to be back in South Australia.”
By the time the 1997 season came around James had shed nearly 13 kilograms, which enabled him to play on the ball as well as in a forward or back pocket. He made his Crows debut against Brisbane in Round One of ‘97’, racking up 33 possessions (second only to Mark Ricciuto on the ground) in a six-goal win.
In Round 19, Brett lined up against brother Roger for the first time in the second Showdown …
“It was a little bit weird. Roger and I were pretty close growing up. We did everything together.
“Once you’d done it once or twice it wasn’t such a drama, but in the initial game running out and seeing your brother with the opposition on the other side of the ground did seem a bit different.
“We never played directly on each other though.”
A week later, James suffered a soft-tissue injury that put his finals campaign in jeopardy. He missed the Club’s first three finals wins, only receiving a call up for the Grand Final against St Kilda when glamour forward Tony Modra injured his knee in the Preliminary Final …
“I got a little niggle in my quad. It was meant to be a one-week injury, but it just didn’t get better. I ended up missing two or three weeks. Norwood were top in the SANFL at that stage and had a week off to start the finals, so I couldn’t get a game anywhere. My first game back for Norwood wasn’t until the Preliminary Final.
“I didn’t think I had any chance of playing in the (Crows) Grand Final. When I thought I’d only miss a week with my quad, I thought I’d get straight back in but when it got to 2-3 weeks I knew I’d battle.
“When ‘Mods’ hurt himself in the Prelim, I knew someone would have to come in for him. ‘Reidy’ (Football Manager John Reid) spoke to a few of us on the Monday of Grand Final week about going over to Melbourne as emergencies.
"There were 3-4 of us who were around the mark. I was just lucky I got the call-up, and at the same time it was really unfortunate for Mods.”
James started on the bench in the decider, but was introduced into the game earlier than expected when Clay Sampson and then Rod Jameson sustained injuries …
“It was an unbelievable experience. On the day, going into the last quarter, in my mind, I thought we were certainties and would’ve won comfortably.
“But I’ve watched the game back since and it was actually pretty tight in both 1997 and 1998 in the last quarters. It’s funny how you remember things.”
A mere eight days later, James and Crows teammate Aaron Keating, along with Brett’s brother Roger achieved the remarkable feat of playing in another premiership, this time for the Redlegs in the SANFL …
“It was pretty easy to get myself up to play that game being a lifelong Norwood supporter. To tick two boxes in one week was a pretty big thrill.
“I pulled up stumps on the (AFL) Grand Final celebrations on Sunday night, or Monday morning and then started again the next week when I could do it properly!”
It was smoother sailing for James in 1998, who established himself in the Crows midfield. The 177cm, 76kg, onballer’s strength at the contest belied his size and his ball use, particularly by hand out of stoppage, was elite.
He played every game for the Crows from Round Four onwards in ‘98, including the finals series and Grand Final win over North Melbourne …
“For me, 1998 was massive thrill. In 1997, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, really. We’d never been to a Grand Final before and just got caught up in everything.
“In ‘98’, we knew what to expect a bit more. Beating North Melbourne, who everyone said was the team of the 1990s to a degree, we understood the achievement a bit better.”
The two-time premiership Crow played every game in 1999, but was let go by the Club after 76 matches (118 at AFL level in total) at the end of 2000. James returned to Norwood, where he won three best and fairest awards, and captained the club and his state.
After calling time on his 234-game career with Norwood in 2006, the country lad returned to his roots as playing coach of Kersbrook – a position the 43-year-old still holds today …
“I was always going to go back to Norwood after I finished in the AFL. You play footy to enjoy it, and Norwood was my club. After that, I went back to Kersbrook and I’m still there - this is my 10th year.
“I could easily stop playing, but you’d miss out on all the socialising, being in the change rooms with your mates and everything that goes with playing footy. My body is still fine and we’re a pretty good team, so I don’t have to do too much.
“We’ve won four flags in my time including last year. Roger coaches Eudunda. He’s played a couple of games with us this year still which is good fun because he’s on his last legs!”
Outside of footy, James is a fifth generation farmer. He has an orchard with apples and pears, and about a thousand sheep and lamb. He’s married to Alecia and the couple is raising two children, Archie and Lily …
“It’s a good lifestyle on the farm. My weekends still revolve around footy. I play on Saturday and my son Archie (six) has started playing too. In another couple of years, I guess Lily (four) will get into sport as well and I’ll stop playing, so I can chase the kids around.”
The Norwood and SANFL Life Member was inducted into the SA Football Hall of Fame alongside another former Crow Rodney Maynard in 2015. He still follows Adelaide and attends games with his son, who is slowly coming around to supporting his Dad’s old team …
“I love footy, so I stay up to date. I get to a few Crows games because Archie is into his footy a bit more now. He’s actually a Cats supporter – both my kids are. I think it’s because Geelong played a lot of Friday night games when he was younger, and that would be the game we sat down and watched together.
“Being honest, he likes to do the opposite to me! We went to the Norwood vs West Adelaide Grand Final (in 2012) and the whole way there he said, ‘I’m barracking for the Bloods, Dad!’
"He’s just starting to turn now and the Crows and Norwood are his second teams.”