Carlton Career: 2002
Reserve Games: 10
Reserve Goals: 6
Night Series Games: 1
Night Goals: 1
Height: 183cm (6'0")
Weight: 80kg (12.8)
Guernsey No. 46 (2002).
DOB: May 14, 1982
Ezra Bray was Geelong's first round Draft pick in the 1999 National Draft at selection number 17. He had played in 3 Under 18s National Carnivals for the Northern Territory between 1997 and 1999 and played for the Calder Cannons in the 1999 season. He was picked up by Carlton in the 2002 Rookie draft in the second round at selection number 27.
In his 2002 Inside Football profile, it stated that "Bray is quick and evasive, has been dogged by shoulder injuries and a wayward off-field attitude. Needs to show something quickly to hold his place on the list".
He played in the 2002 preseason game against Richmond at the Telstra Dome and scored a goal, after playing 10 games for Carlton VFL side, he just left the club and couldn't be contacted and as a result he was subsequently delisted during the 2002 season.
He was originally recruited from St Mary's NT.
Ezra Bray – A Sad Story.
- A story from The Age newspaper in 2007.
EZRA Bray has disappeared again into the long grass somewhere outside Darwin. Plenty of people have gone looking for him in the five years since he fell out of favour with AFL football. Despite some of the best intentions, no one has truly found him.
As with Ben Cousins, Bray has had a continuing and desperate battle with substance abuse. As with the fallen West Coast champion, Bray is a political football — albeit one with a significantly lower profile — whose tragic case has continued to embarrass, perplex and sadden the AFL and its stakeholders.
As a speedy and skilled 16-year-old midfielder, Bray was selected in the Australian junior squad that toured Ireland in 1998. In February this year, his father, Russell, watched him on a television set in Alice Springs representing the St Mary’s club in Darwin.
“He just stood there like a stump,” Russell Bray recalled. “My poor son was lucky he wasn’t killed. His mind was gone. A kid, one of the Cockatoo-Collins, went through him and he was taken to hospital, of course.” Several months earlier, during a game in Alice Springs, Russell Bray had pleaded with the coach to drag his son from the ground, fearing he might break his neck.
Ezra Bray’s journey since he was drafted at pick No. 17 by the Geelong Football Club on the eve of the 2000 season has been a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that his father believes began during his two years on the Cats’ senior list.
Said AFL Players Association boss Brendon Gale, who inherited the case that also has continued to haunt him: “I haven’t learned anything from Ezra’s story I didn’t know already. If we’re going to draft them at that age, you can’t just coach them.
“Some clubs do it well and some clubs, frankly, don’t. And at those clubs, they slip through the net. We are talking about all sorts of problems ranging from illiteracy to drug abuse, and in fairness, the support mechanisms provided now are much more extensive.”
Unlike Cousins, Ezra Bray’s fall has come without fanfare or consistent united family support or the money for a sixfigure rehabilitation program on the other side of the world. Like Cousins, Bray’s story has involved plenty of quiet buckpassing and not a small amount of guilt.
In March this year, around the time that Cousins was flying business-class to the Summit Centre in Malibu, Gale sanctioned an unofficial search party of one to fly to Darwin to find the missing Bray in an attempt to bring him back to Melbourne and place him in an Aboriginal care facility specialising in drug and alcohol abuse.
The woman whose flight and hotel bills Gale’s association paid for was Lynne O’Keefe, the mother of Sydney premiership player Ryan O’Keefe and the woman who had become the 17-year-old Bray’s second mother during the year leading up to the 1999 national draft.
It was a year of cultural awakening, domestic disputes and tension, but Lynne O’Keefe has never lost touch with the boy she says changed her life and that of her family. Even after he threatened her with a knife in her kitchen earlier this year, she has refused to give up on him, but the Darwin experience was one that still haunts her.
Her flight landed late at night and the hotel the association had booked her into was locked up when she arrived.
For four days, says O’Keefe, various family members drove her around Darwin apparently searching for Bray with no success. Bray’s mother, Ingrid, and stepfather, Peter Atkinson — a former senior Northern Territory football official — appeared to have given up, and elsewhere during her search O’Keefe felt threatened and frightened.
She called Gale in tears and asked him to book her a flight home. Upon her return, she called the Geelong Football Club and told an official on the other end of the line: “Don’t you ever let this happen again. Don’t you ever neglect a player like this again.”
The unnamed official assured her: “We know that. It’s different now.” It needs to be. The AFL, ignored for years by the Federal Government, has built a multimillion-dollar relationship with Canberra on the platform of indigenous development.
The league’s expensive foray into South Africa has come on the back of its boast that while indigenous Australians make up 1% of the country’s population, they make up 12% of AFL senior lists. Regardless of which party wins next Saturday’s federal election, the AFL will receive $20 million over four years from the education department alone to fund its indigenous academies — which now total 16 — based on the West Australian Clontarf model.
This time last year, an all-time-high 16 indigenous footballers were taken by AFL clubs — almost 25% of all those taken in the national draft — and at the most recent AFL Commission meeting, the league’s game development unveiled a six-part indigenous platform furthering its boast that football alone can make a difference amid the drug-and-alcohol-devastated communities most Australians never see.
In the words of the AFL’s game development general manager, David Matthews, the AFL model is working, with the Qantas-sponsored Kickstart program providing hope for an estimated 87,000 young indigenous Australians.
All of this has come too late for Ezra Bray. According to the 1982 Norm Smith medallist Maurice Rioli, the AFL will miss a generation of talented young Aboriginal footballers because of substance abuse and inadequate football development in the NT.
Highlighting the dearth of football programs outside Darwin and Alice Springs, Rioli, a local government officer on Melville Island, told an audience at an indigenous lunch in Melbourne earlier this year: “Right now, in a lot of communities, we are at the crossroads. These kids love their footy. They walk up and down the main street holding footballs and they wear their AFL club jumpers to school . . . I am banging my head against a brick wall. Once they turn 13, they turn to marijuana.”
Even now, eight years after Bray was drafted, indigenous football pioneer Paul Briggs, president of Rumbalara in the central Victorian Murray League, believes AFL clubs still struggle with the cultural problems associated with recruiting indigenous footballers.
“I still don’t think the system is strong enough to handle cases like Ezra, and he is not the only one,” said Briggs, whose club tried to rehabilitate Bray during its troubled 2007 season. “There needs to be a far more professional approach and a stronger case management of what these boys need.
“Once they take their footy jumper off and put their street clothes on, it’s just too hard for them. We found it hard to give Ezra the help he needed. He just kept rejecting it. He refused to acknowledge he needed help and we kept finding him or the police kept finding him drinking on the streets.”
It was in 1999, on the eve of the national draft, that The Age first met the bright-eyed, affectionate teenager, a prodigiously talented Aboriginal footballer who had been flown from Darwin to Melbourne on an AFL scholarship and placed in the home of another draft hopeful, the St Kevin’s College football hero O’Keefe. While O’Keefe was no certainty to be drafted, Bray was a defi nite top-20 draft choice.
Although the teenagers had argued during their year together, usually with O’Keefe berating Bray for slacking off at training or school and Bray responding by telling his housemate to “lighten up”, they often sat up late into the night and talked about the day they might play AFL football together.
Since the 1999 draft, however, the pair have come together only fleetingly and mostly due to tragedy. Lynne O’Keefe’s second son, Aaron, 18, was killed as a passenger in a car accident in 2002 and although Bray did not attend the funeral, he turned up devastated at the O’Keefes’ Moonee Ponds home several days after his death.
Now divorced, Lynne O'Keefe lives with her two younger children, Mason, 13, and Brydie, 15, a student at Genazzano College who has applied for a school placement into an Aboriginal community next year in a bid to learn more about the indigenous culture.
While Lynne's 26-year-old son Ryan was disturbed when he learned of her failed pilgrimage to Darwin, he brought several sets of clothes to Melbourne for Bray in his latest attempt at a football comeback and organised a meeting with his Sydney teammate Adam Goodes and his former housemate in a bid to help him.
Geelong chief executive Brian Cook had been at the club for not quite a year when Bray arrived in late 1999. Cook remembers his talent and promise but allegedly did not argue when the Cats' football manager, Garry Davidson, recommended the club delist Bray because he believed his substance problems — including at the time petrol and ecstasy — already had caused too much damage.
"It's a terribly sad story — a difficult story," admitted Cook, who returned this week from a six-day trip to Groote Eylandt off the north coast of Australia, where the Cats have become the latest in a series of AFL clubs to establish a community partnership with the region — partnerships that did not exist in 2000.
"We didn't have the full-time people at the club to deal with the cultural and social issues Ezra faced, and certainly that's improved at every club over the last five years. The problem with getting a handle on him now is trying to find him in the first place."
The Age most recently met Ezra Bray three months ago, in the late winter. While Cousins was making his much-heralded comeback at Subiaco, Bray was on a last chance with Rumbalara, which had housed him at Percy Green's — a run-down Aboriginal centre for those with drug and alcohol problems.
In the words of his heartbroken father: "When Lynne couldn't find him in Darwin, I went up and got him and the (AFL) players' association flew us to Melbourne. They said they were going to put him into rehab but all that happened was Alan Thorpe and Ralph White met us and put us in some place in Northcote. Then they moved us for a few days to Fitzroy and then they dumped him on Rumbalara."
Since 2002, Bray has moved repeatedly between Melbourne, Darwin and Alice Springs, saying he remained determined to resurrect his football career, but often he finished up in jail.
Thorpe, who played a handful of games for Sydney and the Western Bulldogs, and White both play influential roles within Victoria's indigenous football community. Thorpe and Lynne O'Keefe have met and argued frequently in recent years over Bray's welfare.
Standing in cold sunshine by the side of the oval at Congupna, a small town outside Shepparton, watching the senior Rumbalara game in early August, Bray was something of a shadow of the handsome, bright-eyed 17-year-old on the eve of the national draft eight years ago.
His hair had receded and his piercing dark eyes had dulled along with his prodigious talent. Although he said he planned to put himself forward for next Saturday's national AFL draft, Bray had not managed to secure even a senior game for Rumbalara and had played earlier that day in the reserves.
Every few seconds, he reached for the cigarettes and lighter in his pocket before putting them away again. One minute, Bray would vow to complete the season with Rumbalara; the next, he would talk of plans of catching a bus to Melbourne to find his younger brother, Joseph, whom he said had taken his mobile telephone and whom Rumbalara president and pioneer Paul Briggs said he would not have back at the club again.
Bray hated where he was living. "It's more like a homeless joint, if anything," he said. "Everyone in there is crazy." Of his time at Geelong with the nucleus of what became the Cats' 2007 premiership team, he added: "When I look back on it, it was like I should have had more discipline away from the field. I still follow Ryan (O'Keefe) — almost every game if I can.
"Footy's done heaps for me personally but I've still got to learn how to use it." Flashing his still-winning smile, he said: "I just need to find a place I can call home."
When Bray was taken by Geelong with its second pick in the first national draft under the club's new coach Mark Thompson, Joel Corey was the Cats' first pick and after Bray came Paul Chapman (No. 31) and Cameron Ling (No. 38) — all three are premiership players.
Bray moved into a house with teammates Daniel Foster and Corey Enright but, while a popular member of the playing group, he never managed a single senior game. Another teammate who after one year became his manager, Liam Pickering of the International Management Group, believes continuing complications after a dislocated shoulder did not help Bray's personal or football fortunes.
"Had he been a regular member of the senior group, things might have been different," Pickering recalled. "He was a great kid and when I took him on I had no idea of what else was going on in his life. I must say clubs — every club — has done a full U-turn in how they manage these player issues now but even five years ago, it was not always the case."
Merran Edwards, a prominent member of Geelong's Aboriginal community, was something of a landlady for Bray during his time in Geelong when the young player shared a unit with Chapman. It was during that time, according to Russell Bray, that his son ran off the rails.
Edwards, who has looked after several Geelong players and used to work at Kardinia Park in hospitality, is Michael Long's cousin and co-chairs the Long Walk initiative with him.
"When you think about it, the club just wasn't experienced enough to deal with Ezra," she said. "The club has never had many indigenous players. I just felt that more could have been done but there was a lot of racism there at the time.
"I've worked hard to build that relationship with the club and the indigenous community and I must say Brian Cook has helped me. He is a good man. But maybe it was too late for Ezra. He was great when he came to the club but I saw him change."
After Geelong delisted Bray, Carlton took him on as a rookie before the 2002 season but let him go after less than three months when he continued to fail to turn up to training. Pickering said he found out too late that Bray was playing truant and eventually gave up when the footballer repeatedly failed to return his calls.
Russell Bray, a field officer in Alice Springs with the Aboriginal Legal Service, flew to Melbourne later that year and demanded a meeting with the association that also was attended by Edwards, Pickering, former AFLPA executive Peter Mann and several lawyers.
Bray wanted compensation from the AFL for Geelong's alleged neglect of his son. Edwards says: "I just went to speak up for Ezra. I wish I had been then like I am now, more confident. I just think that more could have been done for him."
Bray blames himself, his ex-wife and his son among others. But most of all, he blames the AFL and its inadequate systems that he believes failed Ezra and wasted his talent.
It is eight years this month since the Cats took Ezra Bray in the national draft and his father is continuing to fight to expose what he sees as the failings in that system. He no longer wants financial compensation.
"All I want is to open other parents' eyes and make sure they keep an eye on their children when they go into these clubs," he said.
"I could see my son was going downhill and the AFL was doing nothing about it. I called the football club and their development officer at the time and he was more interested in playing golf than helping Ezra.
"Merran (Edwards) was their landlady and caught a group of them as high as kites but the club allowed them all to stay in this house that became the party house and they were taking ecstasy and all this stuff and now my poor son's the one that is suffering and no one wants to do anything about it."
The development officer at Geelong at the time was Paul Brown, who now has left the AFL system and runs his own business in Shepparton. Ezra Bray described him several months ago as a "good bloke who was always trying to get me to do courses".
Said Brown of Bray: "There was never a problem I detected at the time. I loved him as a kid. He was a great kid and he always looked you in the eye when he talked to you but you never knew whether you were getting the truth, of course. I went to a forum about five years ago about the indigenous culture and I understand a lot more about indigenous boys now than I probably did then."
Although his AFL dreams and all that they symbolised for the indigenous game disappeared years ago, the young man himself is still only 25.
To his father, Ezra's is a cautionary tale, his son the product of an ill-equipped AFL club system that failed him. To Lynne O'Keefe, who wonders now when she will ever relocate the young man she has followed since the AFL sponsored his move from the NT into the Victorian TAC system, Bray was not only the victim of the cultural clashes he faced in moving from the Aboriginal to the AFL community.
She also blames Bray's own people, some of whom took money on his behalf but never addressed his psychological problems. "Everyone seems willing to pay his airfares and unpaid rent and I keep arguing with men from the authorities like Alan Thorpe, who probably thinks I'm a racist," she said.
"But I cannot understand why he has never been properly assessed. Ezra goes into prison then they take him straight out again but there is something terribly wrong and he needs a proper psychological assessment."
Despite the devastating impact the one-time lodger has had on the O'Keefe family — Brendon Gale from the AFL Players Association turned up on Lynne's doorstep earlier this year and delivered Bray to Melbourne Airport and paid for his flight to Alice Springs after the knife incident — she says she still cares about him and remains in contact with his father.
Rumbalara president Briggs put John Murray, a builder contractor appointed by the Victoria Police to liaise with the Aboriginal community in Shepparton, in charge of Bray when he was briefly housed at Percy Green's and later in a unit, which he and his brother left owing $1700 in rent that Rumbalara later covered.
Briggs said Murray had been devastated by Bray's case, among others, and had left Rumbalara disillusioned.
In the words of Gale, Bray is one who slipped through the net.
"There's still a lot of blaming and a lot of finger-pointing going on here," he said. "There's a lot of, 'He did this and you should have done that'. But having said that, there comes a point where an individual has to take responsibility for his own actions."
Lynne O'Keefe still lives in Moonee Ponds, not far from Keilor College, the Maribyrnong school that Bray was required to attend as part of his football scholarship. Ryan O'Keefe, who will marry his Sydney fiancee over the summer, was taken by the Swans eight years ago at No. 56, and gave up his bedroom for his Cannons' teammate along with his computer.
He took back the computer when he realised Bray had no intention of using it or of attending classes, although officialdom dictated that he received a completion-of-school certificate at the end of 1999 without having sat a single exam.
Looking back, as she often does with wonderment and regret, Lynne O'Keefe reiterates what struck her as strange at the time: the fact that so much money and time was poured into Bray and his precocious talent and yet no one from either the vastly resourced football community or indigenous welfare authorities so much as paid her a visit or offered advice about the cultural minefield she was entering.
Officials from the Cannons and the AFL had sat in her kitchen in January 1999 to investigate her family's suitability — Bray was on an AFL Academy scholarship and the AFL also subsidised his board at the O'Keefes' — but once they had left, Lynne O'Keefe realised they had overlooked what seemed to her to be obvious issues, such as who would buy her new lodger's underwear and who would attend his parent-teacher meetings.
Paul Briggs is one of many who worries for Ezra's future. "He was fragile physically and his decision-making skills could never cope with the world he was put into," he said. "It's just so sad. If he can't get it together, he will be dead before he reaches 40."