Stephen Kernahan is president of the Carlton Football Club, having taken his place among the football establishment after a glittering onfield career.  In 1997, however, he was a footballer on the cusp of retirement with a book to sell.  At lunchtime in the middle of the week in the middle of a Melbourne winter, Kernahan sat on a stool at the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets.  A man with a microphone accompanied him, tempting passing office workers with the promise of Kernahan’s signature on a new copy of Sticks: The Stephen Kernahan Story.

The game may have changed in the seasons since Kernahan last pulled on a Carlton jumper but the shelves of book retailers are testament to the ongoing appetite for what Garrie Hutchinson has described as “an ‘as told to’, in which life becomes art in the real deeds of the character of the book”.  The recent release of Ben Cousins’ autobiography marked the arrival of another title seeking the exposure that translates to sales.  The publisher declared it “a work of searing emotional and factual honesty”, a selling point that has a familiar ring.    When the same publishing house issued Wayne Carey’s memoirs last year, the subject was said to have gone “where no Australian sportsman has gone before — telling the whole, uncensored truth”.  It was perhaps no surprise that when the Western Bulldogs terminated the services of Jason Akermanis in July the club’s decision was linked to concerns about the contents of Akermanis’ impending tell-all memoir.  When that tome, Open Season, was released, former president of the Bulldogs Peter Gordon described it as “a tantrum in paperback”.  “It’s a grown man sitting in a giant cot and clanging his keyboard against the sides demanding attention.”

The steady stream of footballers’ memoirs can be traced back to Lou Richards’ 1963 effort, Boots and All.  Always attuned to the media possibilities that accompany a profile in the game, Richards paved the way for the essential texts of the canon such as Captain Blood (Jack Dyer), Big Nick (John Nicolls) and Hawk Manure (Doug Hawkins).  Many of the releases are formulaic: lowbrow litanies of high marks, long kicks and big hits.  They lure readers with the promise of insight into the subject but then disappoint.  Take Tony Lockett’s Plugger.  We learn that our hero’s favourite magazine is Greyhound Weekly and his meal of choice is roast lamb but even in moments of self-reflection the “true” Plugger is elusive:

“For days I wondered what could have been.  Deep down, I knew I could have kicked those goals in the first quarter.  Had I done so, it might have been a different story.”

In a crowded marketplace (a list of the subjects of this year’s releases reads like an All-Australian team for the ages: Barassi, Roos, Goodwin, Harley, McLeod, Cousins, Richardson, Akermanis), a celebrity endorsement can assist.  Robbie, the story of Robert Flower’s career, boasted a foreword penned by Derryn Hinch and in 1991 no lesser than Bob Hawke launched DiPierdomenico, Or Just Call Me Dipper.  As the subject later observed, “it was a real coup having the Prime Minister of the day involved in the promotion”.

Other texts make their mark with the downright bizarre.  After Collingwood’s 1990 premiership, club captain Tony Shaw released A Shaw Thing.  His genuine admiration for his fellow man was evident from the section headed “Well Hung”.  Shaw observed that in football “you meet some pretty big boys, so to speak”.  He reserved his most heartfelt accolades for an ex-teammate named Russell Johnston: “fair dinkum, I reckon his old fella had its own heart and lung”.

Shaw’s ruminations pale against the contents of Jacko — Dumb Like a Fox, a 1985 outing for controversial full-forward Mark Jackson co-authored with Jon Andersen.  It paid little respect to the conventions of the genre.  “No, I’m not going to name my greatest ever football team because that type of thing is for loopies.”  Instead, Jackson dedicates a chapter to “The Hit-List”.  The concept is simple:  “players from other clubs (or sometimes my own) who’ve given me reason to want to get ’em.”  Along with past stars such as Daryl Cox (“his time will come”), Rick Kennedy (“Lard head is a particularly annoying individual”) and Bill Duckworth (“I’m gonna get him because he’s an average unit”), Jackson named ex-Melbourne player Stephen Smith:

“… one of those smart ass types that thinks he’s better than everyone else … I didn’t like him when I first saw him and when the chance arrives I’ll pull off his wig.  He has still got a wig hasn’t he?  He’s gonna have a bloody sore head if he hasn’t.”

More routine biographies of retiring players have arrived this year, such as Johnno — Bulldog Through and Through for fans of the departing Western Bulldogs’ skipper and Black Crow — The Andrew McLeod Story regarding the Adelaide star.  Along with Akermanis’ polarising book (his second outing in print) are other less conventional offerings.  Browny, My Son — The Footballer is a glorified scrapbook of Nathan Brown penned by his mother.   For Richo, the retired Tigers’ great Matthew Richardson enlisted respected author Martin Flanagan.  The book’s opening lines mark its territory: “Richo didn’t want a normal footy book.  He’s not interested in them and doesn’t read them.”

If there is a developing trend in more “normal” footy books, it is the confessional memoir from big name players who lost their way on the other side of the fence.  Wayne Carey’s affair with a teammate’s wife in 2002 sent him into football exile and made him a tabloid favourite, billing that was enhanced by subsequent scrapes with law enforcement officers both at home and in the US.  Published last year, his disarming The Truth Hurts displayed a frankness that lived up to its title.  The book’s harrowing opening chapters of a childhood marked by domestic violence were followed with blow-by-blow accounts of misspent nocturnal outings (chapters titled “Cocaine” or “The Bender to End All Benders” were nowhere to be found in Lou Richards’ memoir).  Carey’s revelations — tragic and tawdry — have more in common with Andre Agassi’s heralded autobiography (described by The New York Times as “the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete”) than the footballers’ bios-by-numbers that have preceded it.

The Truth Hurts may have paved the way for former Melbourne star David Schwarz’s All Bets Are Off, a similar outing in self-scrutiny.  As with Carey’s tale, it begins in traumatic fashion as an eight-year-old Schwarz witnesses the murder of his father in a country motel room.  The destructive gambling addiction that overshadowed the Melbourne forward’s playing career is then documented in exacting detail as readers learn of the subject’s battle to escape the clutches of the punt.

Ben Cousins initially chose a different medium for the recounting of his story: a two-part documentary, Such is Life — The Troubled Times of Ben Cousins.  Peter Craven described this commercial television ratings bonanza as a “weirdly extroverted homage to the damaged glamour of an all but great footballer”. For those not satisfied with the onscreen exposition of Cousins’ addiction and its outfall, the cocktail of revelation and confession can now also be digested in print.  Ben Cousins: My Life Story offers further anatomies of the binges, more testimony of the toll they took on those close to him (his devoted family again shines as the story’s true heroes) and confirmation of the ongoing challenge presented by addiction.

Co-author Malcolm Knox, recently responsible for Bart Cummings’ autobiography, does a fine job of capturing Cousins’ double life.  The familiar challenges for elite athletes that provide fodder for books such as these are all present: injuries, fluctuating form and dogged opponents.  However, Cousins has another set of demons altogether. Unlike in Carey’s story, the drug-fuelled benders (or “twisters” in Cousins-speak) were not occurring when the subject was well past his onfield prime.  As the West Coast young gun was racking up possessions, he was increasingly focused on racking up lines of cocaine.  Knox has written previously of the “ear-popping sky-dive” of Cousins’ descent from grace.  The book suggests that the downward arc occurred over an extended period but does not spare the reader the depths: Cousins surreptitiously smoking ice at his parents’ home on Christmas morning, his sleepless nights of paranoia during rehab and his father’s mercy dashes to drag him out of the clubs of Northbridge.

It is doubtful that Richards anticipated these mea culpa missives back in 1963.  Indeed, a less forthcoming style of memoir was still in vogue when Kernahan surveyed the view from his street level pedestal 13 years ago.  It would have made little difference to the contents of Sticks.  Kernahan never seemed beholden to fashion and his career was notably bereft of scandal.  However, a lack of lurid revelations to tempt readers may now be perceived as a deficiency.  Writing last month about their partnership in print, Flanagan observed that he and Richardson “weren’t interested in cheap disclosures or manufacturing false controversies”.  Contrived or not, the revelations of Akermanis, Carey and Cousins have generated both publicity and some measure of public debate.  It appears that if there is a tale more compelling than a young sportsman’s ascent to the pinnacle of his profession it is the account of his subsequent fall.

*Damien Francis is a freelance writer and editor.  His writing has featured in a variety of publications, including Rhythms magazine, The Age, get lost! travel magazine and The Weekend Australian.