If you don’t know the story of Marlion Pickett, you could be excused for believing Warner Brothers or Universal Pictures had paid Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino millions to sit down and write it. Yes, it is that Hollywood.
But if you do know the remarkable rise of Marlion Pickett, then you could argue it is the biggest fairytale in the history of Australian Rules football, perhaps even Australian sport.
In case the events of 2020 have left you clouded, let me refresh your memory.
Before Pickett became a Richmond premiership player on the same day he became the first player in 67 years to debut in an AFL Grand Final, he was the 27-year-old who had spent two and a half years in prison for aggravated burglary, who had a history of drug use, who had four children and who had been overlooked by every club so many times, until the reintroduction of the mid-season draft changed the course of his life.
Now he is a two-time premiership star after just 20 games, with a fresh two-year contract to remain at the Tigers until he is 30, and a brand new book documenting his extraordinary road to the AFL on the shelves.
And that’s what brings us here.
The general details of Pickett’s redemption story are well known, but now the specifics have emerged in Belief, which was written by award-winning novelist Dave Warner this year.
Unlike almost everyone else who has written about Pickett, Warner isn’t a sports journalist. He is an avid football fan originally from Western Australia who is an award-winning crime fiction author, musician and screenwriter.
Warner has a longstanding relationship with Pickett’s manager, Anthony Van Der Weilen, and reached out the day before the 2019 Grand Final. He told him the story should be turned into a movie and if they wanted someone to write the script, he was the man. He didn’t think much of it after that. But then Van Der Weilen called him in January and asked him if he wanted to write the book instead of the movie.
That set into motion a chaotic six months that have led to the Marlion Pickett story now being on the bedside tables of many people around the country.
And while we thought we knew most of this story, it turns out Pickett’s battles were far worse than the AFL system realised. Belief explores a challenging upbringing surrounded by drugs, alcohol and violence, themes that dominated his teenage years and early 20s.
The book also covers in-depth the string of events that led to his stint in jail, four failed suicide attempts and the dominance in the Western Australian Football League that sent recruiters scurrying across from the east to scout the talented midfielder.
But as much as this book is about an individual overcoming the odds to make it in the biggest sport in Australia, it also underlines the importance of family.
“Family is so important to Marlion. He doesn’t come out and say it explicitly but it is in everything that he says. What family means to Marlion is everything. Jess and his kids are everything to him and they have kept him on the straight in narrow,” Warner tells Man of Style via zoom from his Sydney home.
“When he was younger he was deprived of having a solid, stable family. He loves his mum and dad – his dad in particular he absolutely adores – but as a kid, he would be in bed while they were up to all hours fighting and getting drunk and having drugs on the back lawn. He swore to himself as a youngster if he had kids he wouldn’t put them through that.
“And he didn’t live up to that at the start with his first boy. That was when he was at his absolute worst. He just took stock of himself. To actually fail and then to get over that I think that’s incredible.”
Six months before Richmond finally took a punt on Pickett with the third-last live pick in the 2019 mid-season draft, the Gold Coast Suns had flown him over to Queensland and looked almost certain to take him in the 2018 draft. But they didn’t.
Then just after the AFL announced it was reviving the mid-season draft for the first time since 1993, Pickett broke his finger, not once but twice. He had never been injured before and now he was about to miss out on the chance to audition one final time. It scared Essendon off, but it didn’t worry Richmond. And we all know what happened next.
“I found the most central part of the football story was the fact that it really looked over at the end of 2018. If you were doing a film that’s the end of your second act where you’ve lost everything. You were going to get picked and then you don’t get picked. You’re going to be 27 the next year, who is going to pick up a 27-year-old?” Warner said.
“He thought he was going to the Gold Coast. He thought it was a done deal. They had flown him over there. They were having a big barbeque and then his name wasn’t picked out. Marlion is a pretty positive person but that was around the time he thought it may not ever happen for him.
“Then it looks like you’re a chance to get picked up and then everything goes wrong. You’ve never suffered an injury and now you break your finger twice. The highlight of the story is when his name got called out. the big moment isnt when he plays in the Grand Final, the big moment is when he gets drafted into the AFL. If he went out and played a shit game in the Grand Final, that wouldn’t be the fairytale but it would still be a story worth reading about redemption. The fact he is one of the best players in the Grand Final is the complete fairytale.
“He was sitting on the lounge room floor when he got drafted and he’d put it out of his mind that he was going to get picked up. And then he did. Jess was in the kitchen and threw the pot in the air. It is such a lovely story. You can imagine it in a film. After all those years the success finally happened.”
Only months after Richmond finally provided him with that chance, Pickett polled the third most votes in the Norm Smith Medal in front of more than 100,000 people in a famous debut that has been etched into football folklore.
Fast forward another 12 months and he has another premiership medallion draped around his neck, following a season that didn’t seem to faze the indigenous star.
Warner spoke to dozens of people to put together this book, from family members and friends to people inside the South Fremantle and Richmond Football Clubs. But in true 2020 fashion, he never sat down face to face with Pickett. Instead, they spent countless hours on the phone, starting during the AFL shutdown period when Pickett was back in Perth and across a unique season that went from Melbourne to into a hub on the Gold Coast.
The book was initially slated for a 2021 release, then Christmas this year, before being reeled into a September deadline.
The end product is a vivid insight into the life and times of Marlion Pickett, who is the greatest football story this century.
Belief by Marlion Pickett is published by Simon & Schuster Australia. Available in hardback, ebook and audio November 1.