Inside the game: hard work, sharp skills, high foot IQ and improvement after 30 – how David Mundy found the fountain of youth

For centuries, even millennia, people have been obsessed with finding the fountain of youth. The rich mythology of the time of Alexander the Great and the legends of Greek history spoke of the quest for eternal youth.

Conquistador Juan Ponce de León is said to have sought out the legendary fountain in the 16th century when he met its untimely demise in Florida, becoming one of the earliest examples of “Florida Man”.

Perhaps Ponce de León would have done better to look in and around Seymour: that’s where David Mundy is from. Despite the endless march of the clock, Mundy seems to get better every year.

On Monday, Mundy recalled his illustrious and long career. Since 2005, Mundy has been a rock for the tribe in purple, a constant force.

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His journey is unique, aging like a portrait of Dorian Gray and following a path few, if any, players have trodden before.

Mundy blue

Mundy’s place among the competition’s top midfielders in the 2020s would have been totally inconceivable at the end of 2004. At the time, Mundy was a talented junior player plying his trade for a talented Murray Bushrangers side, as well than for Vic Country.

David Mundy started his career with the Dockers in 2005 in defense.(Getty Images: Adam Jolie)

But Mundy was not playing in the middle, but rather playing as a full-back.

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A surplus of talented midfielders for the Bushrangers led the coaches to bring in volunteers to play at the back. The selfless Mundy volunteered for the new role and he thrived there.

Mundy began his career in defence, his first season in the AFL ending in third place on the Rising Star list.

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But Mundy’s future was in the middle, a move that paid off. His years in defense improved his ability to read the flight and the rebound of the ball. Mundy is able to snatch the ball out of his opponents’ hands at will.

His teammates – like his longtime teammate Michael Walters – credit his continued ability to his footy IQ.

“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve played with. He knows the football pitch well, which obviously gives him longevity,” Walters said last year.

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On the court, Mundy presents himself as the hardest worker, often jumping and reacting before others can jump on the game. Perhaps that’s why his game has aged so well, less dependent on speed than on intelligence.

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This is not to neglect his athletic abilities. One of the reasons Mundy was a credible big defender was his size and strength. At 193cm and 93kg, Mundy was arguably one of the frontrunners in the current wave of “big-bodied midfielders”, paving the way for Patrick Cripps, Marcus Bontempelli and Christian Petracca.

A dot map of David Mundy's assignments during the 2022 AFL season, with blue dots representing kicks and orange dots representing handballs.
David Mundy’s 2022 elimination locations.(Provided: Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson)

Few can win the ball inside and then drill the perfect ball down a top striker’s throat. Mundy is capable of clearing the ball to his teammates via precise handballs or shredding opposition defenses on foot, his elimination skills honing over time.

He also has a knack for impacting the game when it counts.

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Mundy stands almost alone for the way his game has aged and improved over time. His 20 votes for the Brownlow Medal last year were the most of his career, and the most for a player over 34 since 1985.

Help the elderly

Milestones have become a regular occurrence for football fans in recent years. Of the 98 players to have played at least 300 games, 63 played in the 2000s.

Over the past three years, the 10 “oldest” teams in VFL/AFL history have all been fielded by leader Geelong.

Rules regarding player age and performance are rewritten every year, with improved fitness regimes and sports science programs contributing to this.

However, the long hangover of the Coulter Act – instituted in the 1930s VFL, capping payouts and banning signing bonuses and other inducements – and the lessons learned from it, may have ultimately dampened selection juries and recruiting departments across the league.

In the final round of the 1947 season, Melbourne spearhead Fred Fanning left the pitch in triumph after scoring 18 goals in an afternoon of football.

Although the Fuchsias missed the final by one game, Melbourne had real hope for the future, led by their 25-year-old goalscoring master.

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However, this would be Fanning’s last game in red and blue. Fanning received an offer of at least three times as much money to play and coach in his wife’s hometown of Hamilton. Fanning immediately steered his new club to a premiership and scored goals for years to come.

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Fanning was far from the only player to leave the VFL in its heyday. Peter Box is the only Bulldog to win a Brownlow medal and a Premiership and was just 25 when he played his last VFL game. Box left for more money in towns like Goreng Goreng and Narrandera, where he dominated the competition.

The Coulter Act, in effect from 1930 to 1970, limited players to a meager salary, three pounds, most of the time. Players would often build a platform in the VFL, before seeking proper professionalism in the VFA or lower leagues.

This law drove older, more successful players out of the game and gave clubs with good business contacts a huge advantage.

Many longtime stars of the era were appointed to coach players – who were exempt from the law, like Ted Whitten and Dick Reynolds – to keep them at their clubs.

The Coulter Act hangover took decades to overcome, along with the expansion of competition. Recent studies have highlighted the effectiveness of players in their thirties on the pitch, with availability and health being a bigger concern than loss of skill.

Going forward, greater retention of older players – as Geelong has experienced – could be the norm.

The Happy Mundys

When asked what he wanted to accomplish before he retired, Mundy’s answer was simple: six more wins.

It would see the men in purple hoist their first Premiership trophy aloft, doing better than their near-miss in 2013.

In this game, Mundy was perhaps Fremantle’s best, almost turning the game the Dockers way. Only three players remain from this Grand Finals squad, with Mundy, Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters still among the Dockers’ most important players when shooting.

Few players can walk away with a Premiership victory in their last game at AFL level, but Mundy’s career has followed the unbeaten path. For Freo to taste ultimate success, Mundy will likely have to dive into the fountain of youth one last time.