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Brown takes the long road to the top

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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 22: Ben Brown of the Kangaroos lines up for a shot on goal during the round 18 AFL match between the Essendon Bombers and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at Etihad Stadium on July 22, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images/AFL Media)
Ben Brown sits equal second in the race for the Coleman Medal
You've got to be constantly improving, or there are a lot of key defenders who will work you out
Ben Brown

WERRIBEE was already flush with big men when recruiter Mark Stone convinced a giant Tasmanian with a mop of red hair to cross the Bass Strait.

What Ben Brown, the wildcard in this year's Coleman Medal race, is thankful for now is that the Tigers were not as interested in list balance as they were in investing in potential AFL talent.

It took Stone multiple trips across two years to the same Glenorchy coffee haunt, and a visit to the family home, to lure Brown to North Melbourne's VFL affiliate for the 2013 season. Twelve months later, as a 21-year-old, he was an AFL footballer.

Stone's Tasmanian contacts, namely Jaimes Wiggins, had kept him updated on Brown's progress after he knocked back Werribee's initial advances – as well as South Adelaide's – to spend a year playing senior footy for Glenorchy.

Among the Kangaroos' talent in the state league at the time were ruckmen Daniel Currie and Majak Daw, key forward Mason Wood, and medium-sized pair Ben McKinley and Ben Warren.

Brown arrived at the Tigers as an agile, 200cm ruckman who had previously only pinch-hit in attack. He was dropped to the VFL's Development League early in the 2013 season as he struggled to impact games as a forward.

"He was inconsistent in his play, and we wanted to give him some confidence in his ability, so (then coach) Scotty West sent him back," Stone told

"He wasn't strong, but he had these hands that were huge and he could take a big clunk. Below his knees, for his size, he's a freak of nature, but he was getting pushed off the ball. He went back, dominated development footy, forced his way back in, and has never looked back."

Fast-forward only four years, and the same player boasts the most-talked-about – and longest –goalkicking run-up in the AFL and is equal-second in a cluttered Coleman Medal race, three behind Sydney's Lance Franklin.

No player has kicked more goals in the past month than the big bounding Roo's 16, including a last-start haul of six to ensure North Melbourne remained competitive against Essendon.

"There weren't any spots in the ruck anymore when I got to Werribee, so I had to play somewhere else," Brown reflected this week.

"Having a lot of key forwards to learn off from North's list that were playing VFL at the time helped me learn that forward craft."

Brown's season goal tallies have increased in each of his four seasons, from 18 to 32 to 41 and now 47 in 17 matches this year. He is efficient, too, with his goalkicking accuracy of 61 per cent since his debut 2014 season ranking eighth among the top-50 players for shots on goal.

Brown didn't kick more than four majors in any of his first 60 games before a breakout six-goal performance against Gold Coast in round six. He has booted five or more three times in his last 12 matches.

"I think it is confidence, to an extent, but it's (also about) getting more comfortable playing in the team," he said.

"As a forward, you have to learn about which players have particular traits coming out of the midfield and defence that are going to be kicking the ball to you.

"It's probably taken me a couple of years to learn the craft, too, but that's not to say I'm comfortable with where I'm at, either. You've got to be constantly improving or there are a lot of key defenders out there who will work you out."

Brown has made giant strides since making his debut in round 14, 2014. Picture: AFL Photos

Brown, 25 in November, does most of his damage on the lead, where his speed off the mark and vast reach make him a match-up nightmare. His average goals (2.8) and marks inside 50 (3.1) this year rank him elite among key forwards, but it is his improved work off the ball that has endeared him to coach Brad Scott.

Brown rated "poor" for tackles and forward-half pressure early in the season, possibly as a result of two pre-season setbacks with his left knee, which was reconstructed as a teenager. He sometimes skips tackling drills at training to protect the knee, but has focused on developing the technical side of his defensive game.

"He's transformed himself from being a forward who would try to pressure and try to defend his best, to now someone who is actually an asset to the way we defend in our forward line," Scott said.

"The defensive side of his game and improvement there probably won't be noted as much as the goals he's kicking, but it's certainly noted internally."

Stone remembers the Brown he met all those years ago as a humble man and deep thinker with expansive interests well beyond football. The Werribee recruiter says nothing has changed in that regard despite his meteoric rise.

That might explain Brown's reluctance to discuss the potential of winning the 2017 Coleman Medal.

"I'm going to disappoint you a bit, because if I'm playing the kind of footy I want to be, it's not necessarily going to be me kicking the goals – it's going to be other guys getting involved as well," he said.

"If I'm trying to play the footy North wants me to and that my teammates want me to, then I will be being a good team player. But I'll hopefully kick some goals as well, which is what I've been lucky to be able to do this year so far."