Things were looking very different just 12 months ago.
On Grand Final day, Brian Lake was downing beers in the MCG stands as he watched Hawthorn fall victim to Sydney as the Swans raised the Premiership.
Little was he to know he was to join the losing team only a month later, winning his long-awaited Premiership in exactly one year to the day.
This is the wonderful story of Brian Lake.
Brian Harris (as he was known then) was taken at pick 71 in the 2001 national draft by the Western Bulldogs.
Scouts noted Lake as a raw but flawed fullback who was still some way from becoming a very good player.
Lake was a late developer, who failed to debut for almost two years. However, it wasn’t until the 2005 season that he really came of age, successfully nullifying some of the game’s most lethal key forwards.
Lake gained further notoriety amongst forwards in 2007 when he limited dual Coleman Medallist, Saints spearhead Fraser Gehrig to zero disposals. Performances akin to that rewarded Lake with the 2007 Western Bulldogs best-and-fairest award.
That year, Brian Harris became Brian Lake, when the Bulldogs fullback changed his name to keep his father’s family name alive.
At this point, Lake had evolved into a defensive freak, using his large physique and strength to out-muscle his opponents and nullify incoming threats. However, the best was yet to come.
The 2008 season saw Lake’s Bulldogs reach the preliminary final before succumbing to Geelong. Despite the loss, Lake was named amongst the best players in the final. And so, Lake sat in the MCG stands watching his future side, Hawthorn, take home the 2008 premiership.
The Western Bulldogs’ 2009 preliminary final appearance (once again) coincided with Lake’s career-best season, a year that saw his exhilarating form rewarded with his first All-Australian appearance.
Despite a second consecutive preliminary final defeat, Brian Lake was once again named amongst the best on the field. It seemed like another case of the team limiting the player.
Lake’s 2009 form carried over to the following season, another stunning season in defence handing Lake another place in the All-Australian team.
However, 2010 brought Brian Lake only further heartbreak, with his team reaching their third successive preliminary heartbreak as the Bulldogs once again fell to St. Kilda – the same side that had eliminated them the previous year. And for the third successive time, Lake was once again named amongst the best on the field.
The next two seasons failed to reach the heights of 2008/09/10 as Lake’s Bulldogs achieved 10th and 15th place in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
And so, we return to the beginning of our account, with our protagonist sitting, drunken, in the MCG’s historic stands as he watched Sydney reign victorious in the 2012 Grand Final, perhaps ruing his three lost chances, wondering what could have been.
Aged 30, at the tail end of a dwindling career, in one last gasp at the elusive premiership, the Bulldogs legend decided to bring his 197-game, decade-long tenure at the club to an emotional end.
In less than a month, Brian Lake took a $200 000 pay cut to trade West Melbourne for East Melbourne, joining the Hawthorn Hawks.
“It was sad to leave a club that I'd been at for so long and made so many good friends at, but every player wants to experience what I have today and now I'm a premiership player,'' Lake said.
It was a gamble for both sides. Lake risked tarnishing his status as a Western Bulldog legend, inciting backlash from his former supporters. And Hawthorn had used up draft picks 21 and 41 for an ageing 30-year-old fullback.
That move was vindicated only days ago when Brian Lake’s extraordinary performance in defence in the Grand Final rewarded Hawthorn with the 2013 AFL premiership.
Lake’s 22 disposal game (rare in defence) and 10 marks proved too much for the struggling Fremantle forward line, whose forward ventures were swiftly cut off by the towering figure of Lake.
It was a masterful display that saw Brian Lake become the first key defender to win the Norm Smith Medallist in 26 years. But of course, the ever-humble Lake played down his individual accolade, instead preferring to focus on the collective team effort.
''To win the Norm Smith Medal is a bit of cream on the top,'' he said.
One of the few archetypical fullbacks remaining in the sport, perhaps it was fitting that Lake broke his premiership duck against the man whose St. Kilda sides denied him a chance at glory in two successive years.
A Bulldogs best-and-fairest, dual All-Australian, Norm Smith Medallist and premiership player, Lake can now look back on his career with jingoistic pride, having cemented his place amongst the AFL’s defensive greats, a career of disappointment, of euphoria, of heartbreak and success.
And that is the fantastical tale of Brian Lake.
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