MESSIAH OR PARIAH
When he was 10, James Hird's father asked him what he wanted to do with his life. The blond boy looked up at his dad and very clearly stated: "I want to captain Essendon to a premiership, marry a blonde girl and live happily ever after."
As he later explained in his autobiography: "All of that happened ... it is frightening sometimes to see how many of the dreams I had as a 10-year-old have come true." Though he might be wrestling with the happily ever after part right now due to the drugs-in-sport inquiry.
A long-awaited Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority report expected to be released within the next fortnight will decide whether Hird is remembered as a messiah or pariah. It is anticipated to reveal whether Hird knew about the substances being administered to his players, if those substances broke the rules, and whether Hird authorised it. If the club is found guilty, the consequences will be severe for club, players and coach.
Hird has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing despite the assertions of the club's former high-performance manager Dean Robinson, accusing him of being at the centre of the club's supplements program. Essendon said in a statement that Hird always insisted the 2012 supplements program had to be within World Anti-Doping Agency and competition guidelines.
They had boasted of doing "whatever it takes" to succeed. But then insisted they actually didn't know what it was they took.
Doing whatever it takes had been Hird's personal mantra. As a player, he had done whatever it took to succeed and he wanted to ensure his players and club did the same to get them back where he and they figured they rightly belonged.
There has always been an aura of destiny around James Hird. It is a destiny manifestly connected with Essendon's own and it has governed his life. Destiny that he would play there, as his father and grandfather had done. Destiny that he would lead it to a flag. And destiny that when the Bombers needed him most, he would return as coach to lead them to the promised land again.
He was the player who, as his best friend Rod Law observed, could have played in a dinner suit. A football James Bond. He played the game artfully, the grace with which he did belying the physical brutality of what he was doing. He made it easy to like the game and him. Even those whose colours demanded distaste for his club liked him - through gritted teeth perhaps, but they liked him. The greatest criticism of him was that he was too complete, too perfect.
Educated and articulate as well as athletically refined, in a world of jocks he did not indulge the locker room. His smile has a nervous, almost boyish charm about it; his golden hair flops and falls in just the right way to hang over his large ears and across the scars that hint of the dangers he has submitted his body to on the football field.
Endearingly, there always seemed to be something of the reluctant hero about him. When he played he seemed abashed by the attention. As coach he had to be drawn to the job.
"It's not always easy being Jim Hird. The hardest thing has been that he is shy and private," his former coach, Kevin Sheedy, wrote of him in Hird's biography.
Hird has always seemed to know what to say, as well as what to do. When he had the ball on the field he brought calm and reassurance. When he spoke as captain he brought the same. His manner off the field informed his behaviour on it, which is why it is difficult for many to reconcile the things that are being said about him now and what he is thought to have done or presided over. It is why, seemingly, those running the club now are as determined to save the name of James Hird as they are to save the name of the club. For, to them, there is no difference.
Thus, when Essendon was being humbled on the field, it was to Hird the club turned for help. There is little doubt the motivation to return to Essendon as coach was pure of heart. It was to do good for the club that did right by him and his family. It was also doubtless driven, his friends acknowledge, by an idea that he had little choice. That just as he must one day lead Essendon to a premiership, his boyish dream also demanded he be the man to save Essendon. And if he were to do that? Well, it would only feed the idea of the golden boy who could do no wrong. The Bombers' messiah.
But the messiah is complex. His possible vanity has been evoked in suggestions by Robinson that Hird was among the coaches at the club who took tanning and slimming drugs. These substances would be illegal for players to take but not for coaches. Nevertheless, Hird strenuously denies taking them.
Hird has now hired his own legal counsel independent of the club's, on Friday confirming that Julian Burnside, QC - the human rights lawyer who has also acted for Rose Porteous and Alan Bond - is representing him. The idea of potentially seeking to injunct the public release of the ASADA report has now been raised. That would most likely only occur if no Essendon players were found to have taken a banned substance, but it appears to raise an interesting challenge to Hird's long public request for all the facts to come out in the fullness of time to clear his name.
According to those close to him, it is understandable that Hird should assume he was the man able to help his club when it needed him. All great athletes have the unswerving belief they can alter the course of events. They are the players who demand to be the one with the ball in the moment to take the kick, shoot the basket, take the diving catch or bowl the final ball. There are those who cower and those who tower. Hird towered. His personality seemed to never entertain self-doubt.
Until Essendon came to him to join the posse riding in to save the club and he bowed to the pleadings of his friend and then chairman David Evans to help, Hird had no obvious interest in coaching. He had left football to work in media and the sports business consultancy firm he had helped found. Media work amused but did not stimulate him as playing did. Not really. Being asked your opinion is a long way from your opinion driving what happens on the field. There is little adrenalin in prognostication.
Life as a business consultant was lucrative but not exciting. The company, Gemba, he formed with his former manager, Ben Crowe, and another, Rob Mills, quickly became and remains a successful business but it did not hold the emotional allure of the game and the club that had been his family's life.
Some projects pleased him - like the idea of a tennis world cup. It was his big idea. But as grand as it was, it did not play to his emotion the way football did. Nor did coaching. But saving Essendon did.
"I was not surprised on an emotional level that he jumped in as coach," says a friend who declined to be named.
"He loved Essendon. Being an Essendon footballer was all he ever wanted to be and he thought he could help. He was well paid anyway, it was not about the money. He could not say no, he knew he could help. Is that a bad thing? There are too many people in football who are not emotionally invested in their clubs.
"And he might not have had a coaching apprenticeship, but it was not like they just threw the reins to a novice. He had Bomber Thompson next to him - and he knew a bit about coaching."
Crowe agrees. "James is driven by passion and adrenalin and I think more than anything, when he has a belief that he can help then he knows he has to act."
Hird's driven personality and ego is not a rarity in sport but it may surprise some because he presents as a modest personality, says one of several friends who did not wish to be named out of courtesy to their continuing relationship with former chairman Evans. (Strikingly, despite the hugs and protests of the enduring friendship between Hird and Evans last week, several of those close to both preferred not to be named in this article lest they be seen to have taken sides.) "And his wife drives him a lot in terms of his self-worth and vision," the friend says. "They are a very tight unit."
Being driven is not a bad thing, but given what is being alleged of Hird it teases at the idea that a desperation to succeed can became a polluting characteristic clouding better judgment. Another friend says it is not just being a successful leader that spurs him: "More important [is being] seen to be a success and a leader. He is more driven ... than anyone I have seen."
Tania Hird wrote of her husband in his book Reading the Play: "A job taken on must be done exceptionally. If it isn't, he blames only himself. James has an untouchable belief that the person who works harder and smarter than everyone else will be as good as or better than the competition."
Out of its context, that assessment might be seen as pejorative in light of the recent problems at Essendon. But it is the sort of reference on a CV that would highly recommend someone to the role of senior AFL coach. Would the same assessment not be made of Nathan Buckley, Michael Voss or Alastair Clarkson?
"He is so ruthless in being able to separate emotion in decision making," one ex-teammate says. "That is good in business and coaching, but you need a strong person there to challenge that and I am not sure that was going on at the Bombers."
John Quinn, a long-term Essendon fitness adviser who worked with Hird through repeated foot stress problems that threatened to end his playing career, wrote of Hird in Reading the Play that the Brownlow medallist's great virtue was his capacity to accept responsibility.
"Greatness is determined by one very significant distinction: the ability to take responsibility for yourself regardless of whether what is happening is good or bad, a positive or a negative," wrote the man who although working at a rival club remains a friend. "It's easy to be a champion when you are winning. It's when people are under pressure though that their true mettle, their basic character is found.
"I truly regard him as the best athlete I have ever worked with. And I do not make that claim lightly. His commitment, drive, dedication and ruthless ambition are second to none."
Who is James Hird? The final word belongs to the man himself from his autobiography.
"Most of us like to put some people on pedestals. Some people worship movie stars and expect them to be perfect. Unfortunately when worshippers meet the worshipped they are likely to be disappointed."
Hird was speaking of his first game of AFL football and how he was overawed at walking among the giants. There is, though, a resonance there for us all in his present circumstance.