Jason Johannisen has spent his life adapting to change. The shy, relaxed kid thrust into the intense, uniquely Victorian spotlight of a premier AFL footballer. The 8-year-old boy shifted from his home in Johannesburg to Perth, then again to Melbourne only weeks after finishing high school. And more recently, the speedy rebound specialist who has become one of the most-scrutinised players in the AFL.
The scrutiny has been attacking Johannisen from all angles, as both opposition players and the media have resorted to increasingly heavy tactics in their coverage of the incumbent Norm Smith medallist. Despite the ever-growing target on his back though, Johannisen is still remarkably chill about everything going on around him. “Because I'm such a relaxed guy it doesn't really bother me,” he says.
Rolling out the “I just don’t pay attention to it” trope is a familiar ploy of professional athletes, but it seems genuine coming from Johannisen. On set for a fashion shoot with Complex and adidas, JJ is relaxed and confident. Between shots, he’s more comfortable talking about 21 Savage, Cardi B, or Chris Paul’s addition to the Houston Rockets than anything to do with his new-found celebrity status. "I don't know how CP3 is gonna go,” he says earnestly, before offering lighthearted takes on the upcoming Mayweather-McGregor spectacle.
It’s another in a long line of off-field commitments for the increasingly visible Bulldogs star, but Jason Johannisen wouldn’t have reached this point without hard work and a unique ability to adapt to change.
After leaving his home in South Africa for a new life in Western Australia, it was Johannisen’s dad who quickly set out to help his 8-year-old son assimilate by signing him up for junior sports. “I only knew rugby and cricket,” Johannisen says of his early days in Perth. “I joined the local rugby team, and cricket in the summer. I played for a few years, then with the culture of Australia, everyone plays Aussie rules football. I was going to school and all the kids are talking about how they went on the weekend. I thought 'well I wouldn't mind giving footy a try.’”
After signing up with a local team, the rugby convert quickly adapted his existing skill set to his new code. “I was used to having the ball in my hand, running, busting tackles,” says Johannisen. “And because I used to play #10 [fly half], I'd be the one that kicks; so kicking was easy to adapt to.”
Johannisen stuck with Australia’s native code and continued to develop his game through high school. Only weeks after his final exams, JJ was once again faced with a life-changing challenge. “I finished year 12 in early November and got drafted in late November,” he says. “It was a big move, away from family. But to get drafted by a Melbourne-based club and come to the home of football, I couldn't have been more excited.”
Removed from his family and the comforts of home, 18-year-old Jason and a fellow Bulldogs draft pick were assisted by a host family in Melbourne who “taught us how to wash our clothes and do some cooking,” before the true test of professional football took over. Despite his enthusiasm for the game, Johannisen found the step up to VFL tougher than he had expected. “It took me a couple of years to get the grasp of the whole thing,” he says. “When you're first there, you sort of feel like you don't belong. I didn't feel like I belonged and it was showing in my footy.”
As the years progressed and Johannisen adjusted to the physical demands of VFL, his game improved. By his third year, the 39th pick in the 2011 AFL Draft was called up to the big leagues, where the competition’s increased speed and skill level presented yet another test. “I'd played a couple of games then got dropped,” says Johannisen. “When you get dropped, it's like 'am I good enough for this level?’ But you have to stick with it.”
As relaxed as he is, Johannisen’s belief in self-empowerment becomes obvious as he recalls one of the toughest points in his career. “You’re there for a reason,” he says emphatically. “You just have to believe that. Use the strengths that you've been given and get that confidence.”
Where JJ had previously used his rugby skills and natural speed to adapt to a new game, he was now finding an entirely different kind of toughness necessary for success. “Half the battle is the mental side of the game,” he tells me.
That mental toughness has never been more necessary than in 2017, when expectations are high not only for the Bulldogs to advance deep into the finals, but also for JJ to continue his on-field success. With the ‘Dogs sitting on the fringes of the top eight and Johannisen’s performance being dissected by the media every week, it’s time for Jason to make necessary adjustments once again.
It’s been well-publicised that opposition teams have resorted to heavy-handed tactics in an effort to contain one of the league’s quickest and most elusive players in 2017. Speaking about the increased push and shove he’s been receiving, Johannisen shrugs, “it's a contact sport, I'm not fazed by that.”
“I’ve been given a lot of attention to try to limit my impact on the game,” he continues. “That's been an exciting challenge, because you're always looking for improvement. It shows that other teams respect your ability. It's just about finding different ways to make an impact.”
“My focus is on how I can influence the game for my teammates,” says Johannisen, again working to adapt to the change in front of him. “That might be playing a selfless role, knowing that someone's coming at me, maybe it’s going to one of the opposition players and making a two on one to free up one of my teammates.”
Jason Johannisen and his Bulldogs are facing a serious challenge ahead of them as September’s finals series draws closer, but a lifetime of experience has equipped JJ with all the tools to achieve success once again; “you just have to work hard and do what it takes to overcome it.”