Buddy Franklin has just introduced himself to a stranger as Lance. Not, he later explains, because he has any misgivings about his moniker. Buddy may as well be on his birth certificate. It was the name his mother, father and four sisters used for him from the time he could talk, not because they had designs on fostering a single-name sporting icon but because there were two Lances in the house and the confusion had to end.
Yet it recently occurred to the now 22-year-old Hawthorn forward that presenting himself as Buddy could be seen as immature or even arrogant. It says much about what being one of the biggest names in Australian sport has made him consider. Even if he hasn't intellectualised it, Franklin has made a distinction: Buddy is the brand, so big now he can't fully control it, but Lance is the human being who can steer for himself.
Franklin was 17 and just two weeks out of high school when he journeyed from the west to the east of Australia to play top-level football. Young, gifted and black, his profile has rocketed ever since. He's done things on the field that have caused AFL legends and fans alike to sit open-mouthed in wonderment.
Before his 22nd birthday, Franklin became a premiership player, Coleman medallist (the first Aboriginal man to kick the most goals in a season and the first to score 100), club best and fairest, and All-Australian. He achieved all of this, and polled third in the Brownlow medal, last year - his fourth season. At a bare minimum, it is expected Franklin will do all of these things again. Possibly more. Already the question has been posed as to whether he will one day be judged the greatest player ever.
That is the good press. With it has come some bad.
Franklin admits he has a "party boy" image. The extent of his past limit-pushing varies according to who you speak to. This is partly why Hawthorn and his management have kept his media engagements to a minimum - Franklin's interview with Sport&Style is the most in-depth of his career - and precisely why the club has been so concerned, some would say paranoid, about questions that will come his way.
Now the foremost expert speaker on Lance Franklin is speaking. For himself and by himself. (Hawthorn's media manager intended to sit in but later agreed to a request for Franklin to go it alone.) The longer he speaks, the more evident it becomes how involved the business of being Buddy is "People say, 'He's got it easy,' " Franklin says. "I know what's easy, the football stuff's the easy stuff. It's the other stuff ... that's bloody hard."
Franklin's talking about his reputation: that he is a cavorting, bar-hopping philanderer. His reality, as he depicts it, is hugely different: he lives alone, is in a steady relationship of roughly nine months with model Kasia Zachwieja, and says he'd choose a quiet bar over a nightclub. In his words, his current state of being is "calm and settled".
"I'm really happy," he says. "It's the first time in a long time. The last 12 months or so I've been just really, really happy."
Franklin grew up on an isolated wheat farm in rural Western Australia and spent a large chunk of his childhood booting his footy into the wall of a tin shearing shed. He didn't lay eyes on a city until he was 15, and even then it was Perth. He arrived in Melbourne wide-eyed: "I just got over here and thought, 'Geez, what a life this is,' " he recalls.
No one, including Franklin, denies the fact that particularly in his rookie years he loved a drink and night out. A sample of ex-teammates produced these reflections: "I think Buddy became so huge, so quickly, that it was pretty overwhelming for him" (Nick Holland), "The thing about him as a 17-year-old, he's a kid from Perth and all he knows is playing footy and enjoying himself" (Ben Dixon) and "He didn't need to go by our rules, he was too good for our rules, he was Buddy Franklin" (Peter Everitt).
Only two off-field incidents have made headlines - Franklin was ejected from a club last June, and earlier in 2008 was a passenger in the car of a Collingwood footballer who breathalised over the legal blood-alcohol limit.
A more serious allegation remains archived on the website of the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, who Franklin joined in January to launch a football development initiative for kids living in the Kimberley.
"There's been some rumours about you testing positive to drugs recently," a reporter put to Franklin, according to the ministerial transcript. At which point a Hawthorn official is recorded to have said: "Excuse me guys, there'll be obviously no questions in regard to that at all."
Four months later, when the talk regarding him and illicit substances is broached, Franklin does not flinch. He says it is "saddening". There is frustration on his face and in his voice.
"I can't do anything, what am I going to do? I can't do anything. I can't. At all. It's just the way it is," he says.
To the suggestion that he could make a categorical statement on the matter, Franklin says: "I don't do drugs."
He pauses and adds: "But why would you come out and say that?"
Clearly he feels powerless.
"I've learnt to turn my back to it and just concentrate on football. The club's said that to me, they've said 'don't worry about it, just keep playing football' ... I've just got to concentrate on what's important to me, which is football, my family and my girlfriend."
Franklin isn't overly anxious to defend himself on anything else other than being young and social. "I'm no different to any other 22-year-old, it's just that I get recognised a little bit more. I'll occasionally go out with the boys, there's no doubt about that ... as long as I know I'm doing the right thing and the club knows I'm doing the right thing I'm really not too fussed.
"If the rumour mill was true the club would have suspended me by now and told me to get out I reckon."
Dixon, a 2007 retiree who now works with the club as a specialist coach, was once Franklin's designated mentor and reportedly acted as his minder when the young forward went out to pubs or clubs. Dixon says the chaperone role was
overblown by the media, and while a buddy system existed at the time it was not designed specifically for Buddy.
Still, it was Franklin, during his first few years on the list, who caused the most concern.
"It was ridiculous at one stage, it was like, 'Mate, how many times can we keep on telling you?' " says Everitt.
"We had a couple of 6am sessions because of him ... it was mainly for drinking, going out."
Franklin's early experience of the limelight appears to have hardened him. "The world's about people talking rubbish, people trying to bring people down. It's what people do, they want to bring people down that are high-profile, they want to talk ... I can't control it," he says. "That's why I don't let anyone in my life. I only let [in] people that are closest to me and my close friends and the boys from the club. I can't trust anyone with anything because people just talk absolute rubbish ... I can only let people into my life that I can trust.
"Hopefully, someone else gets put with that name as the party boy; that would be great. Hopefully, another Buddy Franklin comes along very soon." This last comment, while said with a good-natured laugh, reveals how scorching he has found the spotlight's glare.
Franklin was lucky to bump into anyone growing up in Dowerin, 160 kilometres from Perth, with his father, Lance snr, Aboriginal mother Urshula, and sisters. The family lived on what by WA standards was a hobby farm, although
the property spanned about 80 hectares. "We had horses, we had a donkey called Pancho, we had sheep and goats," he says, before espousing the virtues of country living, which he believes encourages "a free spirit".
The Franklins were far from flush. What savings they had went into the kids' sporting pursuits - netball (Bianca Franklin plays for West Coast Fever) and football.
"Money wasn't easy, so they had to work hard for it, my parents, and it was all going towards us kids - on fuel, food, boots, netball shoes. We used to get up on Saturday morning and travel to football and netball, wherever it was, 100 kilometres or 150 kilometres, whatever it was they'd take us."
From Dowerin, Franklin and his sisters, who were the only indigenous kids in town, travelled by bus each morning to nearby Ejanding, which had a school with 16 pupils. After the Franklins moved, the school closed down.
Franklin guesses he was about five when he first picked up a footy. "We had a massive big shearing shed and Dad painted these big blue goalposts on it and I used to just run around for hours. Dad and I would kick torps into the big shed and we used to have competitions," he says. "It was hours, like every day. Oh, I loved it. All I ever really wanted to do was ... be a footballer."
Franklin was a smallish kid, always shorter than his sisters who used to monitor growth spurts on a wall at home in Texta.
And it was due to his size that Franklin was initially rejected by his local junior league. It wasn't until he was 17 and a fully-fledged Melbourne supporter that he sprouted. By then the family had relocated to Perth, where Franklin was attending Wesley College, a school that has cultivated many a burgeoning AFL star.
As a teenager, Franklin played ruck more than forward and he insists he can't remember his biggest haul of goals as a junior. "I'm not too sure, but there were probably a lot of points," he says, poking fun at his goal-kicking accuracy, the only obvious flaw in his game to date.
Franklin kicked 113 goals last season, but also scored 88 behinds after registering bags of six and seven points in six matches. In a game late in 2007, he kicked two goals 11. It is an issue he is working on, but perfecting his marking is a greater priority in his mind.
According to reports, a far cockier kid turned up to the 2004 national AFL draft camp. And while Franklin denies he took phone calls during an interview with one club, he admits he was half an hour late to his meeting with Hawthorn, and that there is may be some truth in the story that when asked by one team what his weak points were he couldn't think of any.
"It's about five years ago now, so I'm not too sure; most probably. Some of those questions are pretty confronting for a kid," he says chuckling.
The fact he wasn't taken until the fifth pick despite his obvious sporting gifts suggests there were less apparent factors on which clubs marked Franklin down when considering the entire package. Even Hawthorn favoured another key forward over him - Jarryd Roughead, one of Franklin's best mates and his offsider in the forward line - while Richmond took Brett Deledio and Richard Tambling with the first and fourth picks, and the Western Bulldogs took Ryan Griffen with pick three.
"People have their different views on it," Franklin says matter-of-factly. "Some might have thought I wasn't ready for AFL at that age. I was never upset by what number I got picked up. As long as I got picked up by an AFL club and got the opportunity I was more than happy."
Franklin is now believed to be the second-highest-paid player at Hawthorn, earning an estimated $500,000 per year, which puts him narrowly ahead of captain Sam Mitchell. He is being paid considerably below his market value. Yet Hawthorn has regularly been at pains to hose down the once-in-a-lifetime-footballer tag, although Franklin clearly is.
Internally, he is considered every bit worthy of the hype. So much so that in an informal conversation last season when one of the hardest-marking senior Hawks players was arguing why his injury-hit side was still a chance to win, his reason was simply: "We've got Buddy."
Since winning a handsome AFL contract, Franklin has bought his parents a house in Donvale, in Melbourne's outer east, and he lived there with them until late last year. Since moving out he checks in once a week.
"The only reason I got here was because of them," he says. "People might think I get ahead of myself but I never forget where I come from."
A recent reconnection with his heritage has Franklin planning to start a charity. A handful of Hawthorn's indigenous players and new recruits visited the Top End last November, went bush for a night and shooting with members of the local indigenous community, took football clinics and visited the Tiwi Islands and environs by boat.
"I absolutely loved it. Just to see those kids' eyes when we rocked up," Franklin says, his own blue eyes lighting up at the memory.
"I came away from that camp thinking that I want to be involved in the indigenous community, either in Perth, where I'm from, or up in Darwin. I think the main thing for kids in the community up there is to get an education and just have a healthy lifestyle, and I want to show the kids that you can make it if you put dedication in."
Back in Franklin's cosmopolitan bayside suburb, home is increasingly a refuge. It is the one place he can guarantee he won't be asked for an autograph, not that he ever knocks a signature-hunter back.
"I love living by myself and I like to be by myself, too," he says. He watches highlights of AFL matches but would rather play video games. A perfect day off would begin with a sleep-in with Kasia, lunch out, then a movie. Calm and settled indeed.
"I've learnt a lot along the way," Franklin says. "It's gone so fast. You don't realise, 17 to 22, that five years has absolutely flown and I've grown up, I reckon.
"Since I landed at Hawthorn, Glenferrie, I reckon I've taken giant steps in becoming mature. It's taken me a while, but I suppose I'm still only 22."
The man who introduces himself as Lance might just have worked out what's best for him and Buddy.
A numbers game
Lance Franklin wears No.23 like many other famous Hawthorn players - John Peck, Don Scott and Dermott Brereton.
Here are six other athletes who chose 23 as their stamp.
The man who made 23 famous. Legend has it that he chose the number because his older brother, Larry, wore No.45 and
Michael wanted to be half the player he was. Maths obviously wasn't his strong point.
The new NBA superstar, James wore No.32 originally, but switched to 23 as Jordan was his hero.
Twenty-three red was his lucky number on the roulette wheel and he was also a big fan of Air Jordan.
Another who decided to honour Jordan. Becks wore No.7 at Man Utd, but selected 23 when he moved to Real Madrid and again at LA Galaxy.
The New York Yankees slugger chose the number because he was 23 years old and it was half of 46, which was his number as a child. He was better at maths than Jordan.
The Manchester City player who wore No.23 died while playing for Cameroon in 2006. The club has since retired
Lance got the nickname "Buddy" from his Dad. Athlete's sobriquets are usually bland, but here are five of the best.
The Newcastle Knights forward loves a bush ballad.
The Queens Park Rangers footballer can play anywhere.
This footballer hit the heights with Everton, but had a disappointing end at Hednesford Town.
You don't want to face this South African bowler on a sticky wicket.
This Dominican Republic pitcher has six digits on each hand and foot.
From Sport & Style