Dane Swan on home turf at Westmeadows Football Club

Dane Swan's grandfather, Bill Swan, came from the tough Scottish city of Glasgow in the 1940s. He lived in Port Melbourne, got a job on the wharves and was a union man. His son, Billy, works on the wharves and is a union delegate. Dane, Billy's son, says if he wasn't playing AFL, he'd probably be working on the wharves. I've never been one to look too far ahead,  he says.

Dane Swan is a determined man but not, it seems, an ambitious one.  So long as I'm having a good time with people I care about, so long as I've got a smile on my face, I'm happy.  The statement is like one half of his personal mantra. The other is that he is extremely loyal  to his family and friends.  Your family and friends are the ones who are always there for you. I'm always going to be there for them.  Tattooed on his lower abdomen in large print is the Swan family motto:  Constant and Faithful.

Billy Swan grew up in a Housing Commission flat in Port Melbourne until he was 15 when the family was allocated a house in the working-class suburb of Broadmeadows. The following year, he met 14-year-old Deidre Hale at a friend's home; they've been together ever since.

Dane Swan grew up in Westmeadows, just around the corner from his grandparents, Bill and Betty Swan. Two lots of cousins on the Hale side of his family lived two streets away. His mother's mother lived down the road in Broadmeadows. Dane grew up as part of a clan with a strong Scottish flavour that included the Ramseys, a number of whom played footy for North Melbourne.

 I'm a pretty simple person, he says. I don't have many tricks. He certainly has no pretensions, but he is a more subtle character than he might appear. Teacher Pat Hearity knew Swan throughout his secondary education at St Bernard's in Essendon. He was very laid back. she says. He was alert, but a bomb could go off and it wouldn't disturb him. He was never deceptive  what you saw was what you got She says he had a keen sense of humour and a creative way with language.

Anyone who follows Dane Swan on Twitter will know what she means. He's a reader of books, one of the latest being Scar Tissue by Red Hot Chili Peppers' lead singer Anthony Kiedis. When we start talking books, he says: I don't read books for lessons. I read them because I enjoy reading them

Pat Hearity says of the young Dane Swan: He was different, he was outside the square, but he wasn't rebellious. He was never disrespectful to me or any of the other women teachers. A lot of adolescents fight the system as a way of finding their identity, but he never did. He always knew who he was.

Swan has one sibling, a sister Bonnie, aged 26. She works in Canberra, has a master's degree in international relations and is thinking about doing a PhD. While her brother has been playing in the AFL, she's been working for six months of each year and backpacking for the rest, travelling alone and with friends through Asia, Europe and America. She also has a tattoo of the Swan family motto. In fact, she got the tattoo before her brother did.

When I ask about his tattoos, he says: First there was one, then there were two, then there were a lot. I ask him which, other than the family motto, is the most significant. With characteristically understated humour, he replies: The next one.

Billy Swan, Dane's father, played under 19s and reserves at Carlton but walked out on the club while still in his teens.  It's a long storyhe says.  I was a bit of a smart arse as a kid and thought I knew more than I did.  Instead of trying his luck at another VFL club, Billy Swan returned to his roots and played with VFA powerhouse Port Melbourne, winning two Liston medals (the VFA equivalent of the Brownlow) and captaining the club.

Then, at the age of 32, he did something no one ever did   he left Port and went to one of its great rivals, Williamstown, winning the Seagulls a grand final with a goal scored from a long way out seconds before the siren. That's Dane Swan's first footy memory, his father's wobbly punt, the jubilation.

Billy Swan is a serious lover of the game. Of a weekend, if he has nothing else on, he'll go for a drive, find a game, any game, and watch. Dane says when he was a kid, Billy would take him for a kick in the paddock opposite their house. He'd want me to kick on my left. I'd crack the shits and go home. If I didn't want to do something, no one could make me. The result, he adds, is that he's not a very good kick on his left.

He never thought he'd play in the AFL. He was never among the best players in any under-age team he played in. Not that he minded. I was more interested in having fun and being a kid. I wanted to be with my mates and I hated missing out. I still do. He made the Calder Cannons as a forward pocket and was proceeding in an average manner when an injury to a teammate led to him being thrown into the midfield, where he promptly exhibited his prodigious skill for finding the footy.

At Collingwood, Billy Swan's 17-year-old son was described to president Eddie McGuire as a ball magnet with an awkward running style. Eddie liked his pedigree, but had concerns about him being able to cop the rigours of AFL football while staying true to his mates.

I'd seen it before with young blokes from his background  their mates either get in and support them, or they drag them down, he says.

Swan was at schoolies week on the Gold Coast when he was drafted. Collingwood rang him and said it would fly him back to Melbourne. He said, no, he'd visit the club when he got home from schoolies. His father thought he'd been taken before he was ready and, for the first two years, in his own words, he floated. If he was entering the AFL system now, he doesn't believe he'd make it.

Then, in 2003, along with his cousin Aaron Ramsey and Kade Carey, the nephew of Wayne Carey, Swan was convicted of affray after being involved in a fight with bouncers in Federation Square. It was the first and only time Swan has been in trouble with the law. The affray was initiated by Carey and the court accepted that Swan and Ramsey only joined in to defend their companion, but the brawl resulted in serious injuries.

Swan expected the club would sack him but, instead, coach Mick Malthouse elected to give him another chance after giving him a serious talking to. As negative as that incident is, it's when the penny dropped, says Swan. I decided playing AFL was something I wanted to do He was then 21. For the next five years, in his father's view, he improved each season.

To quote one Collingwood official: He's a born footballer. He's not someone who needs to analyse the game. He's got the gift of knowing where the ball's going before it gets there. The game was also changing Swan's way. He is particularly quick over the first 10 metres and has good recuperative powers. With the interchange bench starting to spin like a roulette wheel, he became an increasingly potent weapon, coming and going from the field before other teams could track him. Suddenly, he was creating havoc.

In 2009, for the first of four times, he was named All-Australian. In 2010, he won the praise of Malthouse for walking away from a nightclub and not retaliating after being punched in the face; that year, he also won the second of his three Copeland trophies. Then, in 2011, he won the Brownlow Medal with the highest number of votes since it has been decided on a 3 2 1 basis.

There is a sense with Dane Swan that he is a footballer from another time. Meetings are now as much a part of an AFL player's life as the office is of a public servant's. He has made no secret of the fact he could do without the meetings. I love game day, he says. I love playing. I ask him if the game is over-coached. There's certainly a hell of a lot of them, he replies. But he acknowledges that, in a game where positions no longer exist, any player who didn't know his team's defensive patterns would let his teammates down.

Last year, he was suspended by Collingwood for two games after being found drinking alcohol six days before a game. There was a time when prohibiting players drinking alcohol the night before a game was considered radical. Sometimes, I know I'm doing the wrong thing, but I think,    I`m doing this and I won't be told otherwise'. But nor does he complain about the penalties he incurs.

This year, Collingwood fined him $5000 when he did an unauthorised interview on The Footy Show. It was a cleverly manufactured piece of media. I say to him,  Basically, you had two messages  you don't have a problem with drugs and you've never used performance-enhancing drugs. He replies, They weren't messages. It was the truth.

Swan is unapologetically himself but he's an easy person to spend time with. I get on with most people, he says. Not too much annoys me. He doesn't worry about things and, if he did, he wouldn't show it. I'm a big boy. I'll cop the consequences of my actions.

In our interview, he is both candid and obliging, attempting to answer questions in full. He's under no illusions that he has a fantastic job. I'm paid really well to do what I'd be doing anyway. He's a proud Collingwood man and, predictably enough, the figure in the history of the club he identifies with is the larrikin king of the 1990 premiership team, Darren Millane. Sounds like he would've been right up my alley.

McGuire says: Swannie may not have the grace of John Greening or the poster-boy good looks of Nathan Buckley, but we love him  his achievements put him up with the greats, and he's got plenty to go.

I spend a couple of hours driving around Westmeadows and Broadmeadows with Swan. We pass the church where he attends midnight Mass each Christmas with his mother. She wants me to go with her, so I do. I've done a lot of things she hasn't wanted me to do. At Westmeadows Football Club, where he played his junior footy, he's recognised by club stalwart Gail Knight. She says Swan hasn't changed a bit. “He was never one of those 'look at me' types.

There is no footy memorabilia on display in his home. The Brownlow is stuffed away in a cupboard along with his All-Australian trophies. Do they mean much to him? Not really. He's glad he's made his family proud, but he started playing footy because his mates did and, when he finishes at Collingwood, if his body permits, he's going to play with his mates again. And have a beer after training on Thursday nights.

I ask him whether a lot of people judge him on the basis of his tattoos. No doubt. It's why he tries to give time to people, to give them a chance to see that he is a bit different from the public perception. But, if they don't see that, he doesn't lose sleep. I've got a great family and great friends. Am I happy? Absolutely.