Dustin Martin only needs to glance down to be reminded to "live life" to the full – the words are tattooed across his knuckles. But once you look past the tapestry of ink that weaves across his body, he's remarkably laid back.
"Fame hasn't changed me," says the 27-year-old Richmond star. "It's nice when friends who I haven't seen in ages say to me, 'Dustin, you haven't changed'. I'm still me, and I separate myself from Dustin Martin the footballer."
I had everything I wanted and everything I dreamt of, but I didn't feel fulfilled or happy.
His relatively shy nature is surprising given the amount of attention he has received since becoming the first player in history to complete the trifecta of a premiership, Brownlow Medal and Norm Smith Medal in a single season two years ago. He's wary of those who want to break into his inner circle.
"You've got people pumping your tyres up all the time and it could easily go to my head," he admits. "But I have learned to not take it too seriously. I don't listen to the negative and don't let the positive get out of control. I am just about getting on with being who I am. I'm extremely grateful to be in a position where I can have a positive influence on young kids."
After the euphoria of 2017, Martin found himself at a crucial turning point in his life – after all the glory, something felt off. "I haven't told too many people this, but I found 2018 to be really hard," he says. "I woke with a weird empty feeling inside and it was really strange. I had everything I wanted and everything I dreamt of, but I didn't feel fulfilled or happy. I didn't know what was going on." Instead of going off the rails, Martin reached out for help.
"It made me realise what's important in life," he says. "Speaking up initially gave me more anxiety and depression as I kept wondering why I was feeling this way. I came to realise that the materialistic things in life don't rate; it's the small things that matter most."
Martin says he felt enormous pressure to maintain his winning streak after the 2017 season. "I started worrying about what others would say about me if I wasn't at that level anymore. I realised it doesn't matter what people think; if I just do my best, that's all I can do. I stopped worrying and I was suddenly free. It was small guided steps, but I learned to live my best life and not take on board what others think of me.
Mental health is a huge issue not only in sport, but in society. I would encourage anyone who is struggling with something big or small to have the courage to ask for help," he says.
Martin took up daily meditation sessions and sits in on a yoga class whenever his schedule allows. Over summer, he took off on a spiritual hike through Ubud in Bali, which allowed him to devote more time to his rediscovered love of reading, something he hadn't done much of since dropping out of school at 15.
"The big thing for me is reading books," Martin says. "It's something I never thought I'd do, but have done more of in the past 24 months, which I am really enjoying. It's all about learning about real things rather than bingeing on garbage TV." He's in the middle of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now and has just finished Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements – a practical guide to personal freedom. He also loves to DJ. "I love a house party and being close with friends," he says. "That's my ideal environment away from sport."
Born in the small town of Castlemaine in country Victoria, Martin grew up with older brother, Tyson and younger brother, Bronson. From the age of five, Martin was all about football – the word is he even used to sleep with one for comfort as a toddler. Martin wasn't studious and describes himself as a "nuisance" student at Campbells Creek Primary School and Castlemaine High, where he finished in Year 9.
"I wasn't the greatest student to deal with, but some teachers saw I was a good sportsman and had lots of patience for me," he says. "I basically lived and breathed footy … I played AusKick and then footy at every recess and lunch break. You'd always find me on the school oval and then Saturdays I'd play too. From the backyard to the footy field, I didn't feel anything as passionately as I did for footy."
While much has been written about Martin's father Shane – who was deported to New Zealand right before his son played in the 2017 AFL Grand Final – it hasn't got in the way of their long-distance relationship. Martin flew over to see his dad just days after our interview. "My old man has always taught me to be real, genuine and authentic and caring towards others from family to strangers," Martin says. "He told me to be who I am and not anybody else. It has always stayed with me and I am still close to him."
Martin's mother Kathy and grandma Lois watch him play every weekend. "I was always with my maternal Nan and Pop growing up," he says. "We'd always be at their house and we've always been a close family."
Martin got his first tattoo at the age of 16 and only trusts Arn Lyons in Collingwood with a tattoo gun. "My tattoos are a reflection of me," he says. "They're cheeky, funny; they're who I am and I love the imagery," he says. From laughing clowns to DJ boxes, he points to his quad muscle showing his most recent work. "This one took two hours and I got Arn to stop 'cause it got too sore," he smiles.
For now, his focus is on footy and getting Richmond to another premiership. "It's a game; you win some and lose some," he says. "I used to work myself up and be real nervous to play, but when you think about it, you're playing a game you love and when you train your mind to see it that way, you free it up."
He is certainly in demand: a multimillion-dollar deal with Bonds has seen him stripped to his underwear in a new campaign with a live tiger. He's inked deals with vitamin brand Voost, watch group Kennedy, Jeep and Puma while signing a seven-year contract with Richmond Football Club. His career is carefully managed by showbiz and sports agent Ralph Carr, and when Martin posts a video on Instagram, he'll generate more than 80,000 views in a week, teasing his 260,000 followers into a frenzy.
"I don't really know why everyone is so intrigued by me; I just want to play footy, have fun with my friends," he says. "It's a cool feeling to be recognised when you go out, and it's something I have to get used to. I'm in a good place at the moment. I'm incredibly lucky to have such great teammates, we truly have something special at our club."
The autumn issue of 51698009 magazine is free in the Age and SMH on Friday, March 15.
Dustin's styling: Kate Gaskin
Dustin's grooming: Ashleigh Carpenter