Just a day after Ben Stratton’s last of 202 AFL games for Hawthorn, the three-time premiership star was back where it began in WA’s South West and wondering whether it all really happened.
As soon as the season was over, Stratton jetted back to his old Yallingup stamping ground last September. He has since married his wife Laura at his parents’ bush-bound property there and reacquainted himself with all the surf-side delights he so missed during his career.
“It kind of just feels like I moved to Melbourne for a bit of a work opportunity and I’ve lived away from home for 11 years,” the 31-year-old said.
“It’s home and it’s actually pretty nice to spend this much time with my family and not have to worry about going back to pre-season or keeping myself in some sort of professional nick. It’s like seeing the world through some new colours and a different perspective.”
The son of a grape-picking contractor and award-winning artist, Stratton exceeded even his own expectations to become one of the AFL’s most dependable defenders, eventually becoming Hawthorn’s first WA-born captain in his final two seasons.
But he admitted he felt quite out of place at the 2019 photo shoot with the other AFL skippers until West Coast skipper Shannon Hurn, sensing the discomfort, approached him with some timely advice to just enjoy the ride.
“It was something that stuck with me,” he said. “He took the time out to chat with me and made me feel really comfortable.”
Stratton had never dreamed of being an AFL star and did not play his first game for the Hawks until he was 21. And he has some sage advice for any youngsters looking to follow in his footsteps. “It was an unbelievable chapter of my life,” he said. “I’d say don’t put too much pressure on yourself and bloody go for it.”
Always offering an antidote to the largely robotic nature of the AFL, Stratton weaved his way through his career with an entertaining array of mullets and buzz-cuts and performed a memorable confetti angel on his back in the middle of the MCG after the Hawks beat West Coast in the 2015 grand final.
And he will also now be able to stake the uncommon claim of having an “AFL hub baby” after his Victorian-born wife, whose parents now live in Exmouth, fell pregnant while they were following the strict quarantine procedures enforced because of the pandemic. “We hadn’t seen each other for two months and we’d already been talking about it, so it was always going to happen,” he said.
Stratton said calling an end to his AFL career was an easy decision and described the entire week before his farewell match against Gold Coast on September 20 as “a bit of a fairytale”.
But it was not quite so easy explaining his decision to people like his parents or Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson, a Bruce Springsteen fan who Stratton revealed had regaled players in the hub with renditions of hits such as Born In The USA. “It was absolutely hilarious, classic,” Stratton said. “It got the boys up.”
But all the while during his long career, home was calling — and there was one big reason why. “Anything to do with the beach,” Stratton said.
The South West is rightly famed for its surfing breaks, where the legendary Ian Cairns, among countless others, could once be seen out there carving up the waves.
“You’ve got the surf coast in the morning and in the afternoon when the sou’wester comes in you’ve got Geographe Bay and the whole cape, which is complete glass, and you can take the boats and jetskis out.
“Then you’ve got the breweries and wineries … it’s living. I just hope the area doesn’t grow too big, too fast and ruins it.”
When you take in the spectacular views along the coastline at Canal Rocks it is easy to see why he returned. His mother, Mary-Lynne, who has some of her interpretive landscapes hanging in the Yallingup Galleries, said she fully understood why her son came back as the surrounds are also the inspiration for much of her work.
“There are hundreds of artists here … artists attract artists and it’s a real hub now,” she said. “Just the scenery. You’ve got bush, you’ve got ocean and you’ve got all sorts of different landscapes and you’ve got the tranquillity. Nature abounds in every sense and in the different seasons you’ve got all those colours when it goes dry and the winter greens, the flat land, the hills and the water.”
Stratton’s father Peter, who says he is a failed footballer from Victoria, said it now felt surreal to have watched his son’s 11-year career pass in such a public manner and mostly on the other side of the nation. He expressed great pride, but was not totally disappointed that that chapter had now come to an end.
“As an ex-footballer I look at it and wish I could have done a little bit of the same,” he said, revealing he travelled to watch all of his son’s 19 finals matches as well as many other games. “He put the work in and deserved what he got, but I won’t miss the nervousness of watching him or, truth be known, the flights to Melbourne.”
Stratton’s football path went from the Augusta-Margaret River Hawks to the Hawthorn Hawks and he has not yet ruled out a nostalgic return to the first club, though it seems unlikely to be this year now he has his weekends back for the first time in more than a decade.
He laughs at the serendipity of being drafted into the AFL as he was “failing miserably” at his engineering degree and hopes now to use the leadership lessons he learnt as an AFL captain in whatever he does next. He still brews Noble Boy beer with former teammate Sam Grimley and new Brisbane recruit Joe Daniher.
“I’ll just find something I’m passionate about and go again, I’m not going to rush into a job I’m not enjoying,” he said.
“It’s time to relax, take stock and start again when the time is right.”
Stratton and his wife plan to soon make their family home in Dunsborough, where he went to primary school. “Now you get the opportunity to reflect a bit,” he said. “We’ve got a little girl to come in May and it will be nice to move into our own space and start our little family there. I’ve timed everything pretty well in the end. It’s a nice transition and it all makes sense.”