THE PARADOX of Dustin Martin is that we simultaneously know everything and nothing about him. The AFL's best footballer is both iconic and reclusive, imitable and completely inimitable, in the orbit of the public on Punt Road yet truly out of reach.
The competition's greatest entertainer and most well-known player remains a private figure off the field, rarely giving interviews and forgoing the spotlight for others. And yet he already has a record even the most vague football supporters can reel off at the drop of a 'don't argue': three premierships, three Norm Smith Medals and a Brownlow Medal. And possibly more to come.
This week he will play his 250th game for Richmond when the Tigers tackle Melbourne on Saturday night. He has reached the milestone with incredible speed, leaving those close to him to believe he could join the 400 club in years to come.
"I certainly believe given some luck Dustin could play to 36 years of age," said his long-time manager Ralph Carr. "Maybe he can defy all odds as only Dustin does and play longer. He comes out of contract in 2024 at the age of 33. He could potentially [reach 400 games] if he plays as long as we hope."
WHAT MAKES DUSTY SO DURABLE?
Martin has played 249 of Richmond's 257 games since he joined the club as its No.3 pick at the 2009 NAB AFL Draft. It is a remarkable record for a player renowned for his power, explosiveness and combative approach. "For a guy who is so competitive and plays like a beast, he never seems to cop heavy or bad injuries," said former teammate Brett Deledio.
Martin's training ethic is the stuff of folklore at Richmond. Few who have been around football for long enough can recall many players training at his consistently high level for so long. Even at 29, heading into his 12th season this year after three flags in four years, he put an emphasis on improving his running, blowing away coach Damien Hardwick with his pre-season. Averaging 27 disposals and a goal so far in 2021, it has worked.
Where other players commit to the gym and lifting weights, Martin has gone off-site to engage a boxing guru away from the club in previous years to maintain his fitness.
"He's obviously a great preparer. He actually trains really hard. That's probably his strength area: on the training track he doesn't go half-paced. Everything is at full tilt so in that sense that's why he plays with the intensity that he does," former Richmond assistant Justin Leppitsch said.
"He loves training, he loves playing. It's not like he's an exceptional runner or a monster in the gym or any of that sort of stuff. He still does all that other stuff but his fascination is with the game and how good he can be. That's why he's so good."
Carr said his client had invested in ways to ensure he was making the most of his career.
"[Things like] research on how the game is changing, diet, durability, other options on off-season training, psychology and additional mindfulness resources," he said.
That much has been evident at Richmond, where even when he has suffered a niggle, he has worked and returned at his own pace. A calf strain, several years ago, didn't keep him out for a game as he backed his body to recover in time between matches.
His most recent injury of significance was in the 2018 finals series, when he carried a 'significant' corkie in his thigh that spread to his knee into the Tigers' shock preliminary final loss to Collingwood.
"He's almost his own doctor," said Deledio. "He's pretty diligent with his own body and own career. He's really invested in that."
HOW DOES HE DO IT?
Martin's brilliance is, by now, well acknowledged. His history-making effort in last year's Grand Final win over Geelong – a four-goal best-afield performance made him the first three-time winner of the Norm Smith – cemented his place in football immortality and there is one skill central to everything else: his kicking.
"It's magnificent and it has the capacity to free up his attention to do other things because he's got it mastered," said the AFL's Damian Farrow, who is the League's umpires coaching and innovation manager, and also a professor of skill acquisition.
"There's no resource of effort allocated to his kicking because he doesn't need to. He has an ability to see targets and bring players into the game as a consequence and I think that's one of his real strengths. The core strengths give him the capacity to have vision."
Like Mike Tyson's uppercut, Steph Curry's long-range jump shot or Shane Warne's wild spin, Martin's kicking is his weapon. It comes from his thighs, Farrow says, and allows him to set up the play with penetration. Think of Martin with the ball and his kicks don't linger in the air nor allow an opponent time to spoil. They pierce space like the Millennium Falcon in overdrive.
An academic study published nearly two decades ago concluded that global soccer star David Beckham was the 'Einstein of football physics', saying he had mastered carrying out a multitude of distance and speed calculations inside his head when passing the ball or shooting for goal. Martin, in his capacity to nearly flawlessly make the right call with the Sherrin in his hands, is equally as genius.
"He's not time-stressed because he already knows where he's likely to be distributing the ball when he comes out of the contest," Farrow said. "His temperament is so even and he's got a calmness and composure to him."
But, as four All-Australian jumpers and two best and fairests would prove, there's more than that to Martin. There's the stoppage prowess, the centre-square dominance, the brilliance around goal. There's the standing up in tackles, the speed and strength to break through and the one-on-one contests that see the best of combatants reduced to castaways.
"He's not aloof at all given his standing in the game. He's very down to earth. There are things he doesn't love doing that his fame brings: he doesn't tend to love speaking a lot and the adulation at times that comes with it, but he takes it in his stride," Leppitsch said.
Martin is doubtless football's biggest rock star, but carries more the mystery of Prince than the showmanship of Mick Jagger. Along the way he has popularised fend-offs in the same way Steve Jobs did computers, turning them from a luxury to an essential. Buzzcuts (see every third kid's hair at Auskick clinics) and sleeve tattoos (although maybe not neck ones) have also manifested since Martin's emergence, with Bonds, Jeep and Kennedy watches some of the lucrative commercial partners enjoying his success. Over summer an ex-AFL player was spotted watching Tigers training behind the fence on Punt Road. His kids, not Richmond fans, wanted a glimpse of Dusty.
"He is a great ambassador for the AFL code," Carr said. "Dustin is a quiet, humble person with an incredible love for his father, family, teammates and Richmond. I feel honoured to have shared the journey so far. I am so proud of Dustin."
There are no signs Martin is slowing down. His $9 million, seven-year contract with Richmond has another three years to run after this season, and with his 30th birthday in June, he remains the AFL's best player by some distance.
Martin's life cycle at the top level saw him begin as a full-time midfielder. "That's where he wanted to play and he worked his backside off to be fit," Deledio said.
A second evolution saw him become a back-half accumulator, where he played well but didn't maximise his damage on the game. The Tigers' stocktake of roles at the end of their 2016 season saw Hardwick and his coaching troupe reassign Martin to be a centre-forward dynamo. He booted 37 goals in their breakthrough 2017 campaign, and has followed it with 31, 32 and 22 in the past three seasons.
The statistics highlight his impact. Since the start of 2017, Champion Data shows an average of 80 per cent of his possessions have been won in the midfield, 2.5 per cent in defence and 17.5 per cent in the forward line. In the previous seven years nearly 15 per cent of his touches were in the backline.
The role has itself spawned imitations, as rival clubs weigh up the forward-50 time of players such as Patrick Dangerfield, Marcus Bontempelli, Jordan De Goey, Christian Petracca and Jake Stringer.
The transformation also saw him change into more of an inside player as Richmond ignored a possession game style. From 2010-16, 36.5 per cent of Martin's possessions were contested. Since the start of 2017, that rate has risen to 47 per cent. In the 2010-16 period he averaged 6.6 score involvements, but in the block since it has jumped to 7.8 – ranked second of all players in that time (behind Lance Franklin at 8.4). Martin has been involved in 31.4 per cent of Richmond's scores in the Tigers' past four-and-a-bit seasons, ranking him No.1 in the AFL.
"The current system, where he plays centre square and in the front half, is the best for him," Leppitsch said. "'Dimma' really adapted the players' strengths to the game plan itself."
With 43-year-old NFL legend Tom Brady's seventh Super Bowl victory this year providing inspiration, a fourth evolution could be on the way for Martin in the next phase of his career.
Deledio, now in player management with Mac's Sports, sees Martin playing as a deep forward more as his career goes on, citing Adelaide great Mark Ricciuto's end to his career in attack. Hawthorn champion Leigh Matthews did the same in his playing days. Leppitsch, too, believes being a "forward 50" player could extend Martin's career by two or three seasons.
Martin himself is unlikely to engage in much of the hysteria this week about his milestone, nor about future plans. But with Richmond priming itself for the first premiership three-peat in club history, and Martin aiming for his fourth premiership medallion, its hopes will again largely centre on their seminal superstar in September.
"It's not that he plays better in big games, it's just normally a lot of guys drop off in big games. And his evenness of performance, what he delivers week to week, he just does again," Farrow said. "His stats don't look very different but that's the whole secret of it. It's what you see in the Olympics. There's very few world record times set at the Olympics – it's just the athlete who performs closest to their best tends to win. He's a good example of that."