Listening to Luke McPharlin enthusiastically describe the many things on his plate in 2011, it is easy to wonder where exactly football fits in for the Fremantle key defender.
Enjoying career-best form in the backline and routinely dispatching some of the competition’s premier power forwards, McPharlin appears a player who, like many, is consumed by the game. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
First and foremost, there is the 29-year-old’s family—wife Amelia and baby daughter Willow. Then comes the pharmacy degree he is completing at Perth’s Curtin University, earning him the nickname ‘Woosh’ among teammates, in reference to West Coast coach and pharmacist John Worsfold.
He finds time to hone his guitar skills with Perth bands and will be releasing a CD around the end of the season, collaborating with local rockers Stellas Kitchen.
And his commitment to the Baha’i faith has seen him become involved in various community projects over the years, including a trip to African country Lesotho to visit a school being built by the Baha’i community to enable free education.
Sitting in the boardroom at Fremantle Oval, dressed casually in thongs, jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt, the question remains, where does football fit in for the 183-game veteran?
“Obviously, football’s a big part of it, and a very significant part of my life, but I’ve always felt it’s important to keep other areas going,” says McPharlin, who is staking a claim for his first All-Australian nomination.
“Football’s a fairly transient career and you’re never sure when it’s going to finish, so to have something to fall back on or even to take your mind off football at times is important.
“It’s always been a pretty strong philosophy I’ve had on life and that is to keep everything balanced and in proportion.”
McPharlin is by no means the only footballer living a dynamic life away from the game but, interestingly, he attributes his longevity as a player to his pursuits off the field.
Recruited by Hawthorn with pick No. 10 in the 1999 National Draft, McPharlin was soon struck down by osteitis pubis and, with only 12 senior games under his belt, headed home at the end of 2001 to join Fremantle.
There were obvious positives to returning home, having grown up in Attadale in Perth’s inner south, and the idea of playing in front of friends and family excited McPharlin.
But as things turned out, the move coincided with his toughest 12 months in football as he dealt with an extreme case of osteitis pubis.
McPharlin credits Jeff Boyle, the Fremantle doctor who has been with the club since its inception, for rebuilding his body to the point where it could stand up to the demands of the AFL.
Still, without off-field distractions, McPharlin says the pressure of the game might have got to him a lot sooner.
“At that point in time, I had no idea whether I was going to make it in a sense and I hadn’t really proved myself,” he says.
“I couldn’t get my body right. I imagine that those periods would have been harder if I didn’t have something to take my mind off it.”
Music has been a major release valve for McPharlin, who is one of four siblings grounded in at least one musical instrument. He started with piano, but it is an instrument he didn’t enjoy, quickly moving to guitar when he was 10 (around the same time he gave away hockey and took up football).
“I’ve been playing guitar ever since and have played in various bands over the years,” he says. “I started acoustic and then went electric, pretty heavy for a while. I’ve mellowed out over the years, so it’s always been a pretty big passion of mine.”
McPharlin’s talents with the guitar saw him win a 2005 talent competition on The Footy Show, and it has also led to one of the more surprising links at Fremantle – a close friendship with rugged forward Kepler Bradley.
The odd couple have combined to write a series of humorous songs they perform in front of the team, with funny man Bradley providing the lyrics and McPharlin the musical direction.
“We’re pretty much total opposites when it comes to everything else,” Bradley explains, “but I like singing in the shower and he’s a bit of a musical magician.
“We made a couple of songs about pre-season and those types of things and, when the time’s right, we sing in front of the boys. I think they enjoy it.”
Music aside, Bradley is full of praise for McPharlin, who he says is one of his closer mates at the club.
“There’s nothing Woosh isn’t good at,” he says. “He’s very smart, he knows everything about music and he’s obviously very good at playing the guitar and singing.
“He’s got a lot going, but it’s not slowing down his footy. You do training drills on him and he never lets you get a kick, and the way he thinks about the game is second to none. He’s having a terrific year.”
A feature of McPharlin’s season has been his ability to control the Fremantle backline in the air, beating his opponents more often than not in one-on-one contests and dropping off to help his teammates when necessary.
He had played more minutes than any Fremantle player this season up until he suffered a minor groin injury against the Brisbane Lions in round 14, and backline coach Todd Curley says it is his reliability that makes him such an asset.
Indeed, it is hard to recall any form slump of note for McPharlin, particularly since he has become a close-to-permanent defender.
“It’s great to have a key defender who you know most weeks is going to, at worst, balance out 50-50 in the battle,” Curley says. “In Luke’s case, he’s certainly won more than he’s halved.
“Whoever the most dangerous forward is, he’s gone to him and that’s a credit to him. It makes our job as coaches a little bit easier.”
McPharlin, who once chopped and changed between key posts at either end of the ground, is enjoying his time as a permanent defender and says the past two years—aside from a seven-week knee injury last season—have seen him play the most consistent football of his career.
“It’s good to be settled in a defensive post and playing with guys like Antoni Grover, who I’ve played a fair bit of football with,” he says.
“I’ve played a variety of roles over the years and been used as a swingman a fair bit and as a permanent forward.
“It’s easier to get your head around the job you need to do each week knowing exactly where you’re going to play.”
A downside to McPharlin’s permanent move back – for supporters anyway -is the absence of the high-flying marks that had become a feature of his game, most memorably in 2005 when he took the mark of the year with a soaring grab against West Coast.
It is an aspect of the game he loves, and it hasn’t been removed completely from his repertoire, as shown by a textbook ‘speccy’ against the Lions in round 14. It’s tougher though.
“You’re coached to spoil more, but at the same time, if an opportunity arises, I’ll certainly continue to go for my marks,” he says.
“I’ve always enjoyed going for high marks and have done since I was 10. The important thing is to hang on to them.
“If you drop them, then the coaches are pretty unhappy with you, but if you hold on to them, it’s a big bonus and can lift the team. You tread a fine line.”
It’s McPharlin’s ability to stop his opponents marking, however, that’s most valuable to Fremantle, and all those spoken to for this article are quick to refer to his performance against Hawthorn star Lance Franklin in last year’s elimination final at Patersons Stadium to highlight his value.
In his most significant performance for the club, McPharlin kept Franklin to 13 possessions, six marks and two goals, with Fremantle eventually winning just its second final by 30 points.
Football manager Chris Bond returned to Fremantle at the end of 2007 with an appreciation for McPharlin’s talent, and his standing in Bond’s eyes has only grown since – particularly after that final against the Hawks.
“Even though ‘Buddy’ (Franklin) is a champion, we rate Luke very highly as well and, going into that game, we were always very confident Luke would be able to do a job for us,” Bond says.
“He plays on the best players in the competition week-in, week-out, and we also understand they’re going to have their good days as well. But I think the way Luke goes about it is a real credit to him.
“I’ve got no doubt that a lot of other teams put time and effort into Luke and his form this year would suggest that.”
McPharlin’s talent and competitiveness is matched by uncompromising discipline and a commitment to playing the game fairly that has earned him respect across the country.
Indeed, McPharlin can’t remember crossing the line and intentionally straying from the rules or playing outside the spirit of the game. To do so, he says, would be contradictory to his beliefs. (His clean record saw him get off with a reprimand for a rough conduct charge against the Sydney Swans last week.)
McPharlin, his brother Hamish and younger twin sisters Sarah and Julia were raised following the Baha’i faith, which has five million followers worldwide.
“Dad became Baha’i when he was at university and met Mum and she became Baha’i as well. They raised all four of us members of the Baha’i community,” McPharlin explains.
“Once I got to an age where I could start making my own decisions, I felt everything about the Baha’i faith really rang true with me and I wanted to continue to be involved with the community,” he says.
“The foundation of the faith is unity and obviously that’s a fairly important principle in the world. I like the focus it has on this principle.
“It is about improving yourself as an individual, but also contributing to the community in a form of service. I like that balance between self-improvement and also living in the world and participating in service projects or activities, and in some way helping the community to progress.”
This balance of self-improvement and helping others may have been evident in McPharlin’s football life with his decision in 2010 to step down from Fremantle’s leadership group following the birth of his daughter.
With home life settled, he returned to the leadership group this season and says it is a tremendous honour to be considered a leader to the team’s young players.
Discussing some of the youngsters on Fremantle’s list, including Anthony Morabito, Matt de Boer and Jay van Berlo, who are all completing tertiary studies, we are drawn back to the subject of life outside of football and finding the right balance.
It has clearly helped McPharlin’s football. But, has it ever given outsiders the impression he isn’t buying into the ultra-competitive nature of football entirely?
“I look to a lot of good players around the country, and even our captain Matthew Pavlich – he’s got more going on outside of football than anyone, and it certainly hasn’t affected his football,” McPharlin says.
“To have other elements of my life to focus on and fall back on has benefited my football. I think some of the better players around the country have figured this out.”
Born: December 1, 1981
Recruited from: East Fremantle/Hawthorn
Debut: Round five, 2000, Hawthorn v Port Adelaide
Height: 193cm Weight: 91kg
Games: 183 Goals: 113
Player honours: 3rd best and fairest 2007, 2008; All-Australian nominee 2008
Brownlow Medal: career votes 13